CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ten years ago this month, thousands of union workers at Kroger grocery stores across the state returned to work after being on strike for two months.
On Oct. 13, 2003, 3,300 striking workers at 44 Kroger stores, almost all in West Virginia, began picketing those stores. They agreed to a contract on Dec. 11 of that year, and most of the stores reopened on Dec. 15.
The primary unresolved issues in the 2003 strike involved health-care costs, which had increased by double digits during each of the previous four years, according to union officials. The strike was resolved only after federal mediators helped the parties agree on health-care benefits.
Since then, union leaders say, labor relations with Kroger have been mostly peaceable.
"Kroger is a good example of how to structure your business and how to respect and reward efforts of employees without demonizing their right to join together and bargain collectively," Larry Matheney, retired secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said this week.
"Over time, Kroger had steadfastly held its market share and been price-competitive with companies like Walmart, which has spent millions, if not billions, of dollars to keep their employees union free," Matheney said.
The next set of labor contract negotiations with Kroger will beg early next summer, said Chuck Miller, vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400.
The current contract ends on Oct. 15, 2014.
UFCW Local 400 represents most Kroger workers in West Virginia at 41 different stores. It was workers at those stores that went on strike in 2003. One Kroger store in Gauley Bridge, and two in Ohio, did not reopen after the strike.
Kroger officials, including Keith Dailey, Kroger's director of media relations and corporate communications in Cincinnati, could not be reached for comment last week.
Miller, also a West Virginia AFL-CIO vice president, said most recent contract negotiations with grocery chains have focused on health care and pensions.
"Companies are going after employees' spouses and the retirees. We were recently successful in protecting those rights in negotiations with Safeway in Maryland and Virginia," Miller said on Friday.
Joshua Sword, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said all employees in Kroger stores, with the exception of management, are union members.
Miller said West Virginia's Kroger workers "are one of the strongest groups we have.
Besides the 2003 strike, union workers at Kroger stores in West Virginia also went on strike for a few weeks in 1974. Nearly 2,000 union workers stayed off their jobs for three weeks until a wage dispute was resolved.
Another set of contract negotiations was resolved without a strike on Nov. 3, 2007, when Kroger and UFCW Local 400 reached an agreement covering the 41 stores in the area.