Grocery chain, union at impasse

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2003

While Thursday afternoon's high winds beat against her face, Ashland, Ky., resident Chloetta Johnson simply covered up her face as she walked the picket line in front of the Ashland Kroger.

"We'll stand out here if the snow flies or the rain pours," she said.

"We've worked hard for Kroger to make Kroger what it is, and they take, take, take, take, take."

Email newsletter signup

At 10 p.m. Oct. 13, employees of 44 Kroger stores in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky walked off the job, rejecting a contract offer from the company. More than 2,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 approved the strike earlier that day.

Forty-four stores were closed with only their pharmacies staying open. In Lawrence County, the Proctorville Kroger is affected by the strike. Nearby stores include Huntington, W.Va., Gallipolis, Ashland and Russell.

On Nov. 1, Kroger suspended negotiations with union workers after four lengthy bargaining sessions over five days failed to produce a full agreement. The company and union are currently at an impasse, and no future talks are scheduled, said Archie Fralin, a company spokesman in Roanoke, Va.

The only agreement the two sides were able to reach, Fralin said, was that health care costs could be reduced by switching companies.

"It narrowed our differences, but not completely," he said.

Union workers have been on the picket line since they voted down a proposed contract that included an eight-percent, or $9 million, increase in what the company pays into a health and welfare fund administered by a third party. Union representatives have said an independent actuary determined the fund needs an additional $29 million if it is to keep up with rising health costs. Without the additional money, union members say they would have to pay more for health care or suffer cuts in benefits.

"We made a very generous offer to the union," Fralin said. "We offered wage increases, lump sums … Unfortunately, the union has rejected this."

Jim Lowthers, president of the UFCW Local 400, and Nelson Graham, the union's regional coordinator, could not be reached for comment by the Ironton Tribune. However, Lowthers told the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va., Nov. 1 that Kroger officials refused to change their position even though the union proposed a new delivery system for health benefits that could save the company $10 million.

"The company has not changed its offer one bit," he said.

Four thousand grocery workers in central Indiana narrowly avoided walking the picket line. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 700 and Kroger agreed to an indefinite contract extension. A previous extension covering 58 stores was set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, and workers were prepared to walk off the job if last-minute talks did not make progress. Negotiations are expected to resume later this week, and the contract extension allows either side to rescind the agreement with 72 hours of notice.

While the strike approaches its fifth week, Willow Wood resident Linda Bartram's husband Ronald is still on the picket line at the Proctorville Kroger. Ronald Bartram is a 20-year employee.

Not only has the strike become a hardship on her family, but Linda Bartram is also upset because the company is not willing to contribute what the union said is needed to the health and welfare fund for employees like her husband who are helping the company make its profits. She said she is also tired of Kroger blaming their inability to contribute on Wal-Mart taking their business, and in her opinion, Kroger should be more flexible at the bargaining table and more willing to go to it.

Bartram also pointed out that the strike will not just hurt the striking workers and their families and the Kroger Company. Other businesses, such as those who supply merchandise, have also received a negative impact. Bartram encouraged those upset about the strike to e-mail the company through their corporate Web site.

Fralin said the Kroger company has lost a "substantial amount" of money from the strike, but said the strike is a bad situation for everyone involved.

"Everyone has lost," he said. "Kroger has lost money, employees have not had a paycheck in five weeks, local governments have lost tax revenues, our suppliers have lost money and our customers have not been able to shop where they normally shop. This is a bad situation and it needs to be resolved. We greatly regret this. We have done everything as possible to resolve this with the union, and we have made the best offer we feel that we can make."

The Associated Press contributed to this report