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Hormel, union wrestle with contract negotiations

ALSO: Mower County has lowest jobless rate since 2000; Moorhead school officials want to build more schools; Rochester Salvation Army tries to curb loitering at its benches; and more.

A can of Spam, made by Hormel Foods Corp. in Austin, Minnesota.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Here’s a sentence that might freeze the blood of longtime Minnesotans: Hormel and its workers union are having trouble negotiating a contract. The Austin Daily Herald reports that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union voted down a proposed contract with Hormel Foods Corp. last week. Although there’s no official word on negotiations, the sticking points appear to be proposed scheduling changes, higher insurance deductibles and other health-care changes, The Daily Herald reports.            Minnesotans remember the bitter strike in 1985-86 that blasted apart the usually peaceful town and the usually cozy relationship between Hormel and its employees.

Speaking of employment, the Daily Herald reports that the unemployment rate in Mower County is at 2.6 percent. It’s the lowest level since October, 2000. The Minnesota Department of Economic Development said the state’s unemployment rate was at 3.8 percent in September while the national average was 5.1 percent. Austin’s unemployment rate was 2.9 percent. Freeborn and Dodge counties were at 3.1 percent, while Albert Lea’s was 3.2 percent. Steele County’s was 2.9 percent and Owatonna’s was 3.1 percent. Rochester and Olmsted County was at 2.6 percent.

Speaking of good economic news, Moorhead school officials say the time is perfect to build more schools. The Fargo/Moorhead Forum reports that low interest rates and Moorhead’s growth in property values means the school district’s $78.28 million bond referendum on Nov. 3 will have minimal effect on homeowners. School district business manager Brandon Lunak said property valuations are more than double the level in 2003, when a $64 million construction bond added $42 per month to the property tax for the owner of a $150,000 home. This time around, the proposed bond – which will be used to build a 750-student elementary school and an addition to Horizon Middle School — will add only $9 a month to the same property tax bill, Lunak said. Sweetening the deal even more, Lunak created his figures with no growth in property valuations despite the fact that property valuations grew 7.5 percent in 2014. Moorhead school enrollment is at 6,259, or 120 more than expected and the highest since the mid-1990s.

Speaking of too many people, the Post-Bulletin reports that the Rochester Salvation Army is trying to curb loitering at its benches outside its Community Center. The Salvation Army owns the five benches and the land surrounding them, and often a crowd of the homeless and hungry gather there waiting for the organization’s free meals. However, Salvation Army Major Jim Frye said there is a subgroup of people who don’t use Salvation Army services but get involved with police with problems including public drinking, selling drugs and fighting. The Salvation Army has asked Rochester police to ask people using the benches but not there for Salvation Army business to move along. Ultimately, police could charge loiterers with trespassing, but both Frye and Police Chief Roger Peterson said that likely would not happen.

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The exodus of baby boomers from the work force is creating problems at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, reports Anne Polta of the West Central Tribune. The number of employees honored last year for longevity was at an all-time high, said human resources director Joyce Elkjer. Eight employees have been with Rice for 30 years, 14 were employed with the organization for 35 years and three had been there for 40 years. The hospital also saw 35 employee retirements last year — a record number, Elkjer said. The average is 19 to 20 retirements a year. The hospital hired 161 new employees in 2014, which dropped the average employee age to below the mid-40s for the first time in many years, she said, although among the current workforce, there are 74 people who are 62 and older and 35 who are 65 and older.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has opened a public comment period Monday on proposed changes to the state’s water quality standards for protecting wild rice, the Associated Press reports.  “A 1973 state law limits discharges of sulfates to 10 milligrams per liter into waters that produce wild rice, which plays an important cultural and spiritual role in the life of Minnesota’s Ojibwe tribes. The law drew few objections until environmentalists noticed that it largely wasn’t being enforced a few years ago. The MPCA proposed changes in March that would take a site-by-site approach based on calculations about individual water bodies. …  Strong objections have already been made by tribes and environmentalists, who argue that preserving the old standard would provide better protection. Industry groups don’t like the new proposal either, saying the science behind it is flawed.”

Speaking of a flawed partnership, some citizens are working to do what school boards could not: consolidate the Wrenshall and Carlton school districts, reports Jana Peterson of the Duluth News Tribune. The citizens are working to put the question of consolidating the two rural schools to an election. Eight months ago, the Wrenshall board voted in favor of consolidation if they could keep their school. The Carlton board nixed the plan on a 3-3 vote, with three members determined to see South Terrace Elementary School become the district’s combined K-12 school. “Better Together!” has about 100 signatures on a petition to get the issue on the November, 2016, ballot. Mike Hoheisel, a school finance consultant who had previously advised both the Carlton and Wrenshall boards, said many details could be worked out before the vote. He said the newly consolidated school board could decide the new facility configuration along with what grades are placed at a given facility.

What do you do when you’ve grown a 1,400-pound pumpkin? Drop it on a van, of course. That’s what Charlie Bernstrom did with his 1,465-pound pumpkin in Lancaster, Minnesota. People came out hours before the big pumpkin-drop to get primo seating. The town raffled off the honor of pulling the cord to drop the pumpkin for $1 each with proceeds going to the Kittson County Literacy Council. The winner was 2-year-old Emmett Peterson, who was underwhelmed by his responsibility. The pumpkin was raised 80 feet in the air and then dropped on a wreck of a van, shattering the gourd. “It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Bernstrom.

Lastly, Outdoor Nation said AnnMarie Backstroke of Faribault has tied in a contest to be named the most outdoor person in the nation, the Faribault Daily News reports. For six weeks starting Labor Day weekend, she posted five outdoor activities daily — one of five people in the U.S. who did so, Outdoor Nation said. Her activities included hiking, walking, birdwatching, geocaching, rowing, star gazing, biking, nature watching, camping, and trail maintenance. Although she tied for the honor, she was named the most outdoor person for the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University.