Friday, October 22, 2004

Kroger deal down to wages

Focus on pay after agreement on health, pensions

By Mike Boyer
Enquirer staff writer

Negotiators for Kroger Co. and its food workers return to the bargaining table today attempting to overcome the last hurdles to a new three-year contract.

A spokesman for the union representing 8,500 Kroger meat cutters and clerks in Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana said the sides have reached agreement on health care, pensions and most contract language but remain apart over pay.

"Our side remains frustrated by Kroger's stonewalling on wages," said John Marrone, spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099.

Gary Rhodes, Kroger spokesman, confirmed that wages are the focus of the talks. He said the supermarket chain is "cautiously optimistic" an agreement can be reached.

Negotiators broke for rest and to review proposals Thursday morning at 8 a.m. after 20 hours of talks. They planned to resume this morning.

Union stewards and activists from Kroger's 70 area stores met at the union headquarters in Monroe Thursday night to review the progress made so far and assess members' attitudes, Marrone said.

Marrone said the union has agreed to changes in health-care funding that would involve employees paying a portion of the cost, but workers need an increase in wages to help absorb those costs.

On wage issues, he said, "We're closer than we were before, but not where we need to be."

Previously, the company offered a bonus to workers when a new contract was signed, a bump in hourly wage rates in 2005 and another lump-sum payment in 2006.

Local 1099 President Lennie Wyatt said last week that workers "want hard wage increases in lieu of bonuses."

The sides took a break from bargaining last weekend and returned Monday.

A five-year agreement expired Oct. 9, but talks continue under a contract extension worked out at the urging of federal mediator Earl Leonhardt.

Both sides agreed to the extension, which can be revoked with 72 hours' notice,after 97 percent of 5,000 union members voting rejected the company's previous contract offer and authorized a strike.

Kroger's shares closed Thursday at $14.94, down 6 cents.


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