KROGER WORKERS VOTE TO STRIKE

CINCINNATI -- Negotiations between Kroger here and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099, also based here, heated up last week as union members voted to authorize a strike.The two sides had previously agreed to a contract extension, but the union exercised its right to terminate the extension last week and urged its members to vote for a strike after the company failed to produce an adequate

CINCINNATI -- Negotiations between Kroger here and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1099, also based here, heated up last week as union members voted to authorize a strike.

The two sides had previously agreed to a contract extension, but the union exercised its right to terminate the extension last week and urged its members to vote for a strike after the company failed to produce an adequate contract, a spokesman for the union told SN. The vote, by about 5,000 members, was 97% opposed to the new contract, the union said in a posting on its Web site.

"The wage proposal by the company was poor," said John Marrone, the union spokesman. "Health care is still very much of a sticking point, and pensions are an issue as well."

He declined to discuss details of the company's proposals, although information on the union's Web site indicates that Kroger is seeking weekly contributions of between $5 and $15 from employees to support the costs of their health-insurance coverage.

"They want to be a Wal-Mart and we don't," Marrone said, referring to Wal-Mart's reputation for proving benefits at a level below what supermarkets historically have provided.

According to local reports, Kroger has offered signing bonuses of up to $500 and pay increases of up to 25 cents per hour, plus lump-sum payments of $400. The company reportedly pays Cincinnati-area workers an average of $11.05 an hour, the reports said, plus an additional $5.76 for benefits.

At the request of a federal mediator, the two sides agreed to meet late last week to attempt to resolve their issues before last Friday night's strike deadline.

"We're committed to the negotiations process," Gary Rhodes, a Kroger spokesman, told SN. "No one wins in a strike. But we also have a responsibility to protect our business and continue serving our customers in the event of a work stoppage."

He said Kroger has begun hiring and training temporary replacement workers, and has arranged for managers from other Kroger locations to help staff the stores in case of a strike.

In Denver, meanwhile, members of UFCW Local 7 unanimously rejected updated contracts proposed by Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger's King Soopers chain, a spokesman for the union told SN.

Workers had unanimously rejected the previous contrat offers earlier last week.

An extension of the contract, which covers about 17,500 workers in Colorado, was scheduled to expire Saturday. Workers had previously voted to authorize a strike.

In Sacramento, Calif., and in the San Francisco Bay Area, negotiations were proceeding slowly last week, with little likelihood of a quick settlement, according to local sources.

The contract with19,000 members of UFCW Local 588 in Sacramento expired July 7; the contract covering 30,000 employees at eight UFCW locals expired Sept. 11. Both agreements have been extended indefinitely while talks go on.

Jack Loveall, president of Local 588, said negotiations were moving "agonizingly slow."

In a prerecorded statement on the union's hotline, Loveall said his union would not accept "a gutting of health and welfare or pension benefits, nor will we agree to a two-tier wage system."

"Many bad proposals have been ratified around the country," he said, "proposals that are unacceptable. We will not bring a proposal to you until we believe it is the very best we can achieve or until it is the employers' final offer, which, if unacceptable, will trigger a labor-management confrontation.

"Anyone can negotiate a strike, but we're committed to negotiating a fair settlement."

Talks in the Bay Area resumed last week after a two-week respite, with a total of nine sessions scheduled through the end of the month, Ron Lind, a union spokesman, said on a UFCW hotline.

According to Lind, talks during September got hung up on "unnecessary procedural demands" concerning the makeup of the bargaining units, with the eight locals bargaining as a single entity and Albertsons, Kroger and Safeway deciding to bargain separately with each union local as 24 separate entities.

A rally was scheduled last Friday outside a Safeway store in San Francisco. Billed as a "Customer Support Day of Action," the rally was sponsored by the Central Labor Council of San Francisco and was scheduled to have Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's mayor, in attendance.

The union said it is also continuing to ask customers to sign pledge cards promising to boycott companies that try to take benefits away from workers.

"We know [the pledge-card effort] is working," a union Web site indicated, "because the companies continue to complain about it and request that we cease our activities. We have respectfully denied their requests."