By Joedy McCreary
The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After nine weeks on the picket line, striking Kroger employee Rick Robinson can't wait to return to his deli counter.
Robinson and 3,300 union members from 44 stores in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia ratified a contract Thursday to end their standoff with the Cincinnati supermarket chain over medical coverage.
"We got what we wanted," said Robinson, who works at a store in Weston, W.Va. "The way I look at it is, it's time to go back to work."
The company agreed to increase its annual contribution toward union health benefits by 10.5 percent, or $12 million, an increase of $3 million over its pre-strike offer.
For their part, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 members agreed to switch from an open insurance system where they could visit any doctor or hospital to a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan. That plan will provide discounts to keep costs down and member benefits unchanged, union leaders say.
All workers except department heads will get 20- to 25-cent raises in years one and three of the contract and lump-sum payments of $300 to $500 in years two and four. That's what Kroger proposed in October, and some employees weren't happy with it.
"I've been working there for 11 years, and I'm still part-time," Evelyn Robertson said. "I only make $8.65 an hour now, and if this passes, I'll only be making $9.05."
Local 400 president Jim Lowthers said the low pay raises were a tradeoff and that without a sufficient medical care benefit, any higher raises would have been spent by members on health care.
"The strike was worth it," Lowthers said. "The health care issue carried the day."
A Kroger official said the contract allows the company to manage costs so that it can compete with a growing number of nonunion retailers, including Wal-Mart.
After the vote, a group of workers dismantled a makeshift shelter outside a Charleston store that had been used by pickets.
Inside, managers walked the aisles checking inventory and updating prices.
Talks to settle a Southern California grocery store labor dispute that has idled workers since Oct. 11 broke off Sunday. Kroger-owned Ralphs is one of three chains involved.
Also, nearly 4,000 Indiana Kroger workers have worked without a new contract for almost a month.
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