Thursday, October 14, 2004

Kroger union vote OKs strike

97% of large membership turnout rejects contract

By John Byczkowski
Enquirer staff writer

Michael Murphy, a grocery clerk at a Kroger in Cold Spring, casts his ballot as United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099 members decided to reject a new contract.
The Enquirer / MEGGAN BOOKER

Kroger Co.'s union meat cutters and clerks in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to reject the company's latest contract proposal and to authorize the union to call a strike as early as 10 p.m. Friday.

More than 5,000 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099 cast votes - the largest turnout ever for the union. Ninety-seven percent voted to reject the contract, union spokesman John Marrone said.

What happens next is uncertain.

"We're not eager to go out on strike," Marrone said. He said the federal mediator late Wednesday asked both sides to return to negotiations today and that both sides agreed to do so. He did not know when those talks would begin.

"What we want is a settlement that gives affordable health care to our members," Marrone said.

Kroger spokesman Gary Rhodes called the vote "bad news" and repeated the company's stance that the best way to end the labor dispute is at the bargaining table, not the picket line.

• The latest: Members of Local 1099, United Food and Commercial Workers, voted to authorize a strike against Kroger's 70 stores in Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana.
• What it means: Increased pressure on negotiators for both sides if talks resume; an increased chance of a strike at the region's dominant grocery chain.
• What's next: Talks could resume today, which could result in a settlement, an agreement to continue negotiations or a strike as early as 10 p.m. Friday.

It has been more than 30 years since Local 1099 members walked out of Kroger stores locally over a labor contract.

Back then it was the Retail Clerks Union, not United Food and Commerical Workers. That strike began May 19, 1971, as some 2,000 workers walked out of Kroger's 67 stores. Issues included wage increases and benefits.

Workers approved a contract June 11, 1971, winning raises of 50 cents to $1.50 an hour.

Members of the union authorized strikes in 1986 and 1999, but contract settlements avoided walkouts.

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As they cast their votes Wednesday, union members said they had to take a stand.

"All we want is a system (contract) that won't bankrupt us," said Mike Harp, a receiving clerk at the Latonia store and a 37-year Kroger employee. "We can't live with what's offered now."

Said Becky Lanham of Amelia, a deli clerk at the Kroger in Felicity: "It's important we don't go on strike and we still have a job."

But Lanham voted to reject the contract and authorize a strike. "We don't want to go on strike, but we don't like the proposal."

Local 1099 represents 8,500 workers at about 70 Kroger stores in Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana. The labor agreement between the union and Kroger expired Saturday, but they agreed to keep talking. The talks broke down Tuesday, so members voted on Kroger's last three-year contract proposal.

For a union to gain leverage in negotiations, a strong turnout is as important as a strong majority in the vote. Local 1099 got both Wednesday.

"That's the thing (company executives) look at most, is how many people actually voted," said Paul Staudohar, an expert in labor negotiations at California State University at Hayward. "That's an indication of the solidarity of the union."

Bill Dudley, a Local 1099 official working the voting center at a Best Western motel in Fort Mitchell, said he didn't expect many people to show for an 11 a.m. meeting. "Maybe I was wrong," he said, looking at a line of 40 or so workers waiting to sign in and get their ballots.

Health plan important

A top concern of workers was Kroger's proposal to end almost-free health care. For the first time, full-time workers would pay a contribution of up to $15 a week for family coverage, and deductibles, co-insurance and prescription drug co-pays would all rise.

The health plan "is the only thing that makes it worthwhile" to work at Kroger, said Ella Barbarone, a Kroger salad bar manager who lives in Elsmere. "Compared to what we make, it's a big cut."

Carolyn Rich of Dry Ridge, who works at a store in Union, said she had a pacemaker implanted in February. "It would have cost me a whole lot more out of pocket" under the company's proposal.

Kroger says the health-care proposal is better than those available to workers at other grocery chains in the region, and "it's very similar if not identical to what UFCW members and the company have agreed to around the county this year in other contracts," Rhodes said.

Workers were also upset about the small wage increase offered, as well as work rules that might reduce hours and overtime - and cut weekly take-home pay - for many workers.

Kroger is offering a signing bonus when the contract is ratified, hourly wage increases of up to 25 cents an hour in 2005 and a lump-sum payment of up to $400 in 2006. Workers say only department heads would get the maximum. Most workers would get less, and many would get nothing, they said.

The workers "want hard wage increases in lieu of bonuses," said Lennie Wyatt, president of Local 1099. Asked if he thought Kroger was asking for more than the company needs, he said, "yes."

What upset many workers was the belief that Kroger is trying to cut down on full-time workers who receive full-time benefits.

Sim Jones washes floors at the Kroger in Wilmington. He is legally blind and has a wife and four children. Although he works 40 hours a week, he is still technically a part-time worker. That means he can only afford health care for himself.

"They don't want nobody to be full-time anymore," he said. "How's a person who's disabled going to make a living?"

Feeling underappreciated

Others say Kroger doesn't value their expertise.

"Kroger employees are masters of their trade," said Don Kordenbrock, a meat manager in Kroger's new Hebron store. "They're the best-trained people in Cincinnati. That's the foundation of (Kroger's) success. It's a slap in the face to say that's not important anymore."

"I've always had people tell me, 'You work for Kroger, that's a good place to work, they take care of people,' " Rick Eldridge of Wilmington said. "They're really hard on full-time (workers). They don't want to give you anything. I don't even make $30,000 a year, and I've been there 28 years."


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