Thursday, October 28, 2004

Union says okay to new agreement

Leaders had urged members to say yes

By John Byczkowski
Enquirer staff writer

Jeff Tidwell, a grocery clerk at Blanchester Kroger, looks over the proposed contract Wednesday before voting on whether to approve the contract offer at the Eastgate Holiday Inn.

Wages: Many workers would receive a bonus when the contract is ratified, payable as a voucher for purchases at Kroger stores. They then would receive raises in January and October 2005 and October 2006. A sacker with 36 months' work tenure, making $6.30 an hour, would receive a $115 bonus, then an increase of 10 cents an hour in January, no increase in October 2005 and another 10 cents in October 2006. A head deli clerk in a large Kroger making $16.10 an hour would receive a $350 bonus, an hourly raise of 30 cents in January, 25 cents in October 2005 and 35 cents in October 2006.
Health insurance: Workers for the first time would pay weekly premiums, starting at $5 a week for single workers and up to $15 for family coverage. Kroger is dropping HMO coverage and converting to a PPO plan. Full-time workers would pay a $500 deductible for family coverage, with an out-of-pocket maximum of $3,000.
Retiree health care: Retirees would be required to pay 15 percent to 35 percent of their monthly health-insurance premiums, based on years of service.
Buyouts: Kroger is offering an early-retirement incentive to 200 long-term employees; includes severance bonus of up to $20,000.
Union meatcutters and clerks at Kroger's 70 local stores Wednesday approved a three-year contract that grants pay raises but also requires them to shoulder more of the cost of health insurance benefits.

Results of the vote by members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099 were revealed late Wednesday night; union leaders had recommended the contract for approval. The union represents about 8,500 Kroger workers at stores in Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana.

The contract is the ninth major settlement between Kroger and the union this year, since a 141-day Southern California strike and lockout that ended Feb. 29.

Kroger has been working to hold down expenses as competition grows with Wal-Mart and other nonunion retailers.

A strike by workers here would have added to the nearly quarter-billion-dollar losses Kroger suffered as a result of labor strife this year.

Workers interviewed at meetings Wednesday in Clermont County and Fort Mitchell said they voted for the contract, though not all said it was an improvement over the old agreement.

"It's not the best," but it's better than a strike, said Vickie Matlock, a night leader at the Cherry Grove store. She said she's happy that night shift workers will get a $1-per-hour premium, up from 75 cents under the previous contract.

"I think it's a better deal than what we were looking at" two weeks ago, when union members voted to reject Kroger's contract proposal and authorize a strike, said Bridget Slawnyk, a cashier at the Erlanger store.

"I just didn't want a strike. I have young kids. I can't afford that."

Kroger and Local 1099 reached agreement on the new contract last Saturday morning.

Steve Dallas, a 33-year Kroger employee who served on the negotiating committee, said the talks climaxed Friday afternoon, with the two sides stuck on wages.

The union had previously accepted a health insurance plan in which workers would pay more of the cost, but felt the company needed to come through with bigger pay increases to help workers cover that cost. Full-time workers will pay up to $15 a week for family health coverage. Under the old contract, the company paid the premiums.

The amount of wage increase varies widely within worker classifications and includes differentials for years of service. There is no across-the-board percentage increase.

Dallas said union president Lennie Wyatt suggested the 12 members of the committee who are Kroger employees address Kroger's team directly. The employees made their case Friday afternoon.

"Everybody felt we needed a little more money up front, to make up for health care," Dallas said. "We told them how we'd given them concessions in the past, how we'd taken (wage) freezes to keep health care."

Every 5-cent increase in hourly wages costs the company $2.5 million a year, said Mike Carver, a 37-year employee who also served on the union's negotiating committee.

"We had to fight for every nickel," he said. "For some of our members, $15 a week is going to hurt them."

Kroger came back several hours later with its final contract proposal, offering workers about a dime more per hour. That may not sound like much, "but for some of our people, it is," Carver said.

The union accepted Kroger's offer early Saturday morning. "We've got the best contract in the company, which means we have the best contract in the industry," he said.

Carolyn Harvey, who's worked for Kroger for 17 years, said the wage increases could have been better, despite the company's complaints that it needed to cut costs. "I want to support our company, but our costs are going up, too," she said. "I have a lot of mixed feelings about it."


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