Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Benefits top issue in 3-state Kroger strike

Workers say they can't afford health insurance proposal

By Joedy McCreary
The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Kroger employee Susan Clark says she can't afford to take her two children to the doctor.

Under the company's contract proposal, the part-time delicatessen worker at a Charleston store said she would pay almost 42 percent of her weekly salary of $276.90 for health insurance for her family.

Walking a picket line Tuesday on the first full day of a strike at 44 Kroger supermarkets in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, Clark said the company's offer doesn't go far enough.

The strike is "going to hurt us all," Clark said. "But we either hurt now, or hurt later. ... I'm not saying I want to be rich, but I at least want to be able to support my kids."

Union members say they would have had to pay more for health care or suffer cuts in benefits under Cincinnati-based Kroger's proposal. More than 3,300 members of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 walked off the job Monday night.

The stores, except for pharmacies, are closed during the strike, and Pete Williams, president of Kroger's mid-Atlantic region, wrote a letter to employees saying that some stores may not reopen if there was a strike.

The Ohio stores are in Belpre, Gallipolis, Marietta, Pomeroy and Proctorville.

Kroger proposed an 8 percent, or $9 million, increase in what it pays into a health and welfare fund administered by a third party on behalf of the company and union. An independent actuary determined the fund needs an additional $29 million, union officials say.

Most workers would pay up to $100 more per week to keep their coverage, employee Terry Barker said.

Tom Roach, head deli clerk at the Gallipolis store, said workers should share in bonuses paid to managers.

"We're the ones that are in the stores working, putting the product on the shelves so that they can make the money," Roach, of Point Pleasant, told the Gallipolis Daily Tribune. "We just want to make a living so that we can take care of our own, just like they're doing."

Striking workers cheered wildly Tuesday as steady streams of motorists honked their horns in support in store parking lots throughout the region.

"This is a very strong, blue-collar area," Brad Stowers, a dairy clerk in Huntington, said. "People know what it's like to work and try to support a family."

No talks have been planned between the company and the union. Union President Jim Lowthers said Kroger must make the first move.

Kroger already had made "a last, best and final offer to the union," said Archie Fralin, a spokesman for Kroger's mid-Atlantic region in Roanoke, Va.

The company's offer also included hourly pay raises of 20-25 cents per hour this year and in 2005, along with lump-sum payments of $300-$500 in 2004 and 2006.

Workers in West Virginia are paying close attention to a strike in Southern California, where thousands of UFCW members are striking three supermarket chains: Kroger Co.'s Ralphs, Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Albertsons Inc.

"What's going on (in California) is the barometer ... It will dictate what happens everywhere," Barker said.

The Southern California chains are relying on store managers and replacement workers to keep nearly 900 stores open. Kroger managers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio had no similar plans.

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