This story was first published online Aug. 23.

WORTHINGTON - Union members from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 1161 and 653 have voted to merge together, creating a combined membership of more than 13,100 workers across eight different industries.

Most workers in UFCW Local 1161 are employed at JBS in Worthington, with some working manufacturing jobs in southwest Minnesota. Members of UFCW Local 653 primarily work in grocery, health care and retail in the Twin Cities.

Starting in September, the two unions will combine to become UFCW Local 663.

“We’re stronger together. I know together we’ll be able to have even more muscle at the bargaining table to build even better contracts in the future,” said Khampiane Keophimphone, a Local 1161 member at JBS in Worthington. “That’s important for my family, so we can live safer and happier lives.”

Matt Utecht, formerly president of Local 653, will become president of Local 663. He also stressed the increased bargaining power gained with more members.

“The best defense is a good offense. That’s why we’re joining together,” Utecht said. “As one larger union, we’ll have more strength at the bargaining table, in organizing, and creating stronger relationships in our communities. I am committed to fighting for our members to build better lives across the ever-growing industries that we represent all across Minnesota.”

Michael Potter, longtime president of Local 1161, will be director of packing in the new organization, focusing on meat packing plant employees in the Worthington area. Potter and his Worthington office will remain in place after the merger.

“I’m proud of the decision our members made to merge,” Potter said. “I’m honored to continue serving hard-working union members in our newly formed organization. As Frederick Douglass  said, ‘People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get’, and I know that having strong contracts and unions help us achieve that.”

After discussions between the two unions and a combined picnic earlier this month in Centennial Park, Locals 1161 and 653 voted last Thursday to make the merger. It was later made official by the UFCW International Union. Together, they will form the largest UFCW in the five-state area.