Friday, October 8, 2004

Kroger, union report 'small steps' on contract

By John Byczkowski
Enquirer staff writer

Kroger Co. and the union representing 8,500 workers at stores in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky reported "small steps" of progress Thursday as they continued negotiations on a new contract.

However, union leaders were to meet Thursday evening in Springdale with stewards and store leaders to update them on negotiations and possibly a date for a vote by members to authorize a strike.

Kroger's contract with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099 expires at midnight Saturday. Since a costly four-month strike by store workers in Southern California ended in February, Kroger has settled a half-dozen contracts nationally without a work stoppage.

"We're planning on business as usual this weekend," said Kroger spokesman Art Wulfeck.

Negotiation sessions are scheduled for today and Saturday. Primary issue in negotiations is the cost of health care. Kroger wants workers to pay some of their health insurance premiums.

Local 1099 is battling other changes proposed by the company, according to a letter to union members, including:

• Kroger wants to eliminate paying time-and-a-half for overtime in many situations. Currently, Kroger's Local 1099 workers receive overtime pay if they work more than eight hours in a day or if they work a sixth day during a week, but the company wants to eliminate much of that. Union members working a holiday would be paid $1 per hour extra, instead of time-and-a-half.

• The current contract says 55 percent of hours worked must go to full-time employees, but Kroger proposes lowering that to 42 percent. "This would effectively eliminate new full-time jobs with full-time benefits for years to come," the union said.

• Kroger wants to allow more outside vendors to stock shelves. Under the current contract, vendors in a few categories can stock shelves, but Kroger wants to broaden this provision.

• Proposed health care changes weren't explained, but the union said Kroger's proposal "would add unreasonable co-pays and cause reductions in benefits and coverage."

• Retirees would be required to pay 80 percent of their health insurance premiums, or about $650 per month at current rates.

The union said a 30-year employee who retires receives a pension of $1,500 per month.

Union spokesman John Marrone said Kroger appears to be trying to hold down the number of full-time employees who would receive benefits.

"Full-time jobs are necessary to support full-time families," he said.

The union has proposed a five-year contract - the same term as the current contract - if agreement can be reached on health care.

The proposal includes some worker contribution to health care benefits, but not until 2008.

Wulfeck declined comment on contract proposals, saying many of them are changing.


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