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Hundreds of Hormel workers will start voting whether to approve new contract

A strike may be looming in the town that was nearly torn apart by a previous one back in 1985.

AUSTIN, Minn. — Starting on Wednesday, hundreds of Hormel meatpackers at the Austin, Minnesota plant will start voting on a new contract.

It's all happening in a city that went through a similar situation in the 1980's that was largely regarded as the "strike of the decade".

"I wish every worker could just stand-up and realize that we’re the ones that make the profit," said Dale Chidester, a former employee. "They wouldn’t be able to sell anything if it wasn’t something that we make."

Founded in Austin, the more than 130-year-old meatpacking plant would become one of the biggest — at one point, processing a million hogs a year.

"Back then, that was everybody's dream was to work at Hormel because you could make money," said Chidester, who first started working at the plant in Iowa in 1977 before transferring to the Austin location two years after the last strike.

That strike started in 1985 and residents and historians will tell you it tore the community apart and made national headlines. Despite that, Chidester still thinks was worth it.

"Because that was the first time in the meatpackers that somebody said no," said Chidester. 

 Standing up against wage and benefit cuts, the UFCW Local 663 fought for nearly a year.

The National Guard was even called in to curb the violence when strikebreakers crossed the picket lines. Eventually, though, Hormel hired new workers. They were mostly immigrant men who ushered in a new era for labor. 

"So, the workforce has really changed," said Macalester College History Professor Peter Rachleff. "What hasn't changed is that the work itself is brutally physical and demanding, that the work is inadequately compensated and the company is a rigid bargainer."

Professor Rachleff studied the strike extensively and says empowered workers are striking more now than in the past two decades — and that could include the United Auto Workers that could go on strike as soon as Thursday. 

"The pandemic has taught us that we need to respect and compensate essential workers," said Rachleff.

The Hormel workers recently marched on Labor Day to highlight their demands — including higher wages and pensions after they say Hormel made record profits. The UFCW says Hormel's gross profits reached $2.052 billion over the past twelve months.

Their current contract expired on Sunday and the workers will spend Wednesday and Thursday voting on Hormel's latest offer. The UFCW says it expects results by Friday morning and that workers will decide what's next after that. 

In a statement, Hormel wrote, "While we are disappointed we have yet to reach an agreement, we remain optimistic. Hormel Foods has had strong working relationships with the UFCW for decades, including in Austin. Our representatives will continue to negotiate in good faith."

"They'll come back and they'll talk again," said Chidester. "Hormel doesn't want another strike."

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