Kroger workers air contract dispute

Union workers rallied Friday outside a Kroger grocery store in Hot Springs to raise awareness about contract disputes with the chain.

Contract negotiations between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 2008 in Little Rock and Kroger's Delta division reached an impasse earlier this year. One sticking point remains proposed health insurance cuts for store clerks and meat cutters.

Kroger made a final proposal that offered a pay increase but also moved employees into a different health and welfare plan. A majority of workers rejected the proposal, according to union documents. The union's contract extension ended last week and in response, Kroger started implementing parts of its final offer.

Union President Steve Gelios said he is trying to coordinate with workers and other unions to pressure Kroger into more talks.

"We are not going to let them shove a terrible contract down our throats," Gelios said.

Although the Little Rock union's contract extension expired, Kroger spokesman Teresa Dickerson said in an email that the company "remains dedicated to reaching an agreement."

"We have presented the union with an excellent offer that includes significant investments in our associates' pay and maintains affordable health care coverage," she wrote. "We understand the importance of investing in our Kroger associates as they are the heart and soul of our company."

The Little Rock union has 2,000 members who work at nearly 30 Kroger stores across the state. The rally on Friday was held outside the Kroger at 3341 Central Ave., where retired and current workers asked the company to improve its contract proposal.

The contract dispute is occurring in a year when grocery clerks, nurses and other employees were celebrated for risking their lives to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

At one point, Kroger paid temporary "hero bonuses" of an extra $2 per hour, and offered benefits and protections to employees. When those benefits ended in May, union representatives and Kroger met more than 20 times in hopes of reaching a new three-year deal. According to documents, Kroger wanted to move grocery clerks from a union-backed health and welfare plan to a plan administered by the company. The union refused to budge on the issue, as did Kroger, resulting in the current impasse.

Under the new plan, Gelios said employees are forced to work more hours per week to qualify for health benefits. The meat cutters already are enrolled in a plan controlled by Kroger and are refusing to accept Kroger's final offer out of solidarity with the store clerks.

Contracts in past years have been hashed out fairly quickly, Gelios said, and he said he was unsure why this deal is so different.

Kroger reported record profits, as shoppers spent more of their dollars on groceries last year, and awarded its chief executive a $22.4 million pay package, according to regulatory filings. Meanwhile, income for Kroger's average employee fell 8% to $24,617.

Rather than tipping the scales toward improved benefits, recent events may have suggested to companies that they can take a harder line in contract negotiations, said Megan de Linde Leonard, chairwoman of the economics and business department at Hendrix College.

Companies learned some of their workers were willing to remain in their jobs "when they were putting their lives at risk and when there was great uncertainty," she said. From the company's perspective, that implies "you'll probably suck it up and be OK with us changing your health insurance benefits, or whatever, because if you had a lot of other good options, you probably would have gone and done them."

Kroger and another union in Houston reached a similar contractual stalemate earlier this year, with workers pushing for increased hazard pay, among other benefits.

In Los Angeles, Kroger said that it would close three stores in May in response to the city's hazard-pay mandate requiring large grocery and pharmacy chains to pay employees an additional $5 per hour for four months.

Kroger's final offer to the Little Rock union increased wages, but made it more difficult to qualify for full-time status and shortened the window for retroactive pay for work done during the pandemic, among other adjustments.

Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, a former Kroger employee, said all they want is for the company to come back to the table.

"I worked for Kroger for 37 years and there's always been an opportunity to reach common ground," he said. "That's what I don't understand. During this time, we can't find common ground? Come on!"

As the country continues to reopen, Arkansas and other states are seeing a spike in coronavirus cases, refueling health and safety concerns.

Union grocery workers have died as a result of the virus, Gelios said. Three were members of Local 2008.

He said they don't want to call for a strike, but are prepared to do so.

"I don't see as if we have a choice anymore."

Information for this article was contributed by Kat Stromquist of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.