Kroger workers to to vote on contract today

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 11, 2003

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - Thousands of striking Kroger Co. workers were expected in Charleston Thursday for a vote that could end their two-month standoff with the Cincinnati-based supermarket chain.

Neal Walters stood Wednesday with fellow strikers bundled in parkas and goosedown in front of the closed Kroger store in Beckley Crossing, expressing hope that it would be his last day on the picket line.

''It looks optimistic,'' said Walters, a 30-year-employee. ''I've heard they have trucks ready to roll. I've heard if everything goes OK, we'll be ready to (open) Tuesday morning.''

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United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 officials said they expect up to 2,800 of 3,300 members to fill the Charleston Civic Center at 11 a.m. Thursday to hear contract details. The tentative agreement was negotiated earlier this week by union and Kroger officials under federal mediation.

Members will vote on the proposal after the briefing, and a simple majority would ratify the contract.

Union and company officials have declined to release any agreement details, saying they want the membership to hear the proposal simultaneously to avoid misunderstandings and rumors.

Workers at 44 West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky stores have been off the job since Oct. 13.

Health care costs have been the main obstacle to a contract. Kroger's final offer before the strike was to increase its contribution to a health and welfare fund by 8 percent a year. Actuarial studies showed that the proposal would have bankrupted the fund unless it reduced the level of benefits it covered.

UFCW Local 400 President Jim Lowthers said health care concerns are addressed in the new contract.

Kroger spokesman Archie Fralin has said if the new contract is ratified it would take up to 10 days for the stores to open.

If all goes as expected, Walters said, ''We'll be back to work in time for Christmas.''