Kroger workers, supporters rally

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 4, 2003

ASHLAND, Ky. - Times may be extremely tough, but Tina Hernandez is determined to give her 2-year-old daughter a merry Christmas.

For almost two months, the Catlettsburg, Ky., resident has reported to the picket line instead of her job at the Ashland Kroger. Late Wednesday morning, even more striking co-workers were on hand at the store to rally for Kentucky Kroger employees, who hope to receive unemployment benefits. Workers from other stores closed by the strike came to show their support.

On the night of Oct. 13, employees of 44 Kroger stores in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky walked off the job after rejecting an offer from the company. More than 2,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 approved the strike earlier that day. At midnight, all 44 stores were closed with only

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pharmacies remaining open. Nearby stores affected include Proctorville, Ashland, Russell, Ky., Huntington, W.Va., and Gallipolis.

Kroger's final offer was a 4-year contract that included an 8-percent increase each year in what it pays into a health and welfare fund for the employees. However, union officials have said an actuary projected that the fund would be 17 percent short of what would be needed in the first year. After four years, they said contributions would be 50 percent short of what is actually needed.

In West Virginia, a state Bureau of Employment panel ruled Nov. 20 that striking Kroger workers are entitled to unemployment benefits because the company closed stores and turned away workers before the strike was set to begin. The ruling means that the West Virginia workers are eligible for weekly checks of up to $350. Although the union did not offer to keep working past the contract expiration date, the panel ruled that such an offer would be useless because of the state of the negotiations and the employer's announcement of a shutdown. Kroger plans to appeal the ruling.

However, the next day, Ohio Kroger employees were denied unemployment benefits by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. An agency spokesman said a hearing officer determined the workers were not locked out by their employer, which would have guaranteed the benefits.

Ida Adkins, an employee of the Barboursville, W.Va., store, will receive her unemployment benefits. However, she showed up in Ashland to show her support to Ohio and Kentucky employees who are not receiving benefits.

"The only reason we're out here is for the health and welfare benefits for our families," she said. "We're dressed for the weather and we're ready to be out here, but we'd much rather be working."

Flatwoods, Ky., resident Iva Riley said the West Virginia employees receiving their benefits means that the union has been able to increase strike pay for her and other Kentucky employees. For two weeks, the workers received $100 a week, which has been increased once to $150 and again to $275.

Still, after working for the company for more than 10 years, Riley, like many other Kroger employees, has had to take another job. Her other employment is temporary Christmas help, so she will be back to living on strike pay once the holiday season is over, she said.

Finding another job has been difficult for many employees. Some businesses do not want to hire them out of fear they will soon go back to their Kroger jobs while others will not give them a job because of their association with the strike, she said.

"No one wants to hire you," Riley said. "It's been hard for all of us."

Despite the hard times, community support - as well as support from other labor unions such as the United Steelworkers of America - have kept Hernandez going. Unions have provided employees with turkeys for Thanksgiving as well as other donations, she said. Regular Kroger customers have also stopped to tell them they are missed, but they understand the reasons for the strike. Several motorists have also honked their horns in support.

"I can actually keep going with the honks," she said. "Sometimes, we're tired, and it's good that people know why we're out here. We get some negative people, but that's OK. We wave anyway."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.