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Negotiators Try To Head Off Strike at 19 Kroger Stores

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Working without a contract since July 20, union workers at 19 Kroger stores have authorized a strike, but a spokesman for Kroger said the food chain is still seeking to settle the contract dispute.

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 204 voted by 96.5 percent to authorize a strike this week, said union spokesperson Jill Cashen.

"The latest proposal is on the table, and Kroger is not moving from it," Cashen told WRAL.com. "Our members want our voices heard."

However, John Lambert, a spokesman for Kroger Mid-Atlantic in Roanoke VA., said talk about a strike is "premature".

"The important thing we want people to know is that a strike authorization vote does not mean there is going to be a strike," Lambert told WRAL.com on Thursday. "Kroger has not made its final offer, so it's premature to have a strike authorization vote.

"Kroger wants to reach a settlement," he added. "That's the important point."

The affected stores are located in Raleigh, Durham and Greenville.

Kroger and the Union are divided in part by Kroger's negotiating stance calling for employees to pay part of the cost of their health insurance.

That stipulation, Cashen said, would "have a fairly devastating effect on the employees' health benefits and their standard of living."

The Union said Kroger's requirement would cost workers $1.4 million.

Lambert did not dispute that figure but pointed out the cost would be spread over four years.

In a statement, the Union cited two other reasons for the stalemated negotiations:

"(Members) would have to choose between health care and things like rent, food, and other basic necessities.

"Any wage increases workers would get under the new contract would be eaten up by the proposed increased health care costs."

The Union said 1,000 workers are affected by the negotiations. Lambert put the unionized worker total at around 700, or one-third of the 1,917 employees among the 19 stores.

The workers are clerks and department heads.

Under the previous contract, employees were not required to pay any part of healthcare costs for themselves or their families, Lambert said. "It is a very generous benefit," he said.

In a statement, Kroger said the workers "should join other Kroger employees - including management, clerical, pharmacy technicians, wine stewards, etc. - who contribute to the cost of their healthcare. The benefit will be employees who are more concerned about a healthy lifestyle and more efficient consumption of healthcare services, as well as more funds Kroger can invest in raising wages for employees."

Kroger's benefit plan includes medical, dental, prescription, vision and life insurance. Only "baggers" and students do not receive benefits, the company said.

The next bargaining session is not scheduled until later this month.

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