24, 2004, 12:47AM
By L.M. SIXEL
Kroger clerks and meat cutters overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike against the giant grocery chain if union negotiators can't reach a new contract agreement.
However, negotiations between Kroger and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 455 and Local 408 are expected to continue throughout the weekend, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
At issue is health insurance — its cost and availability.
The union must give Kroger 48 hours notice if it intends to strike. And that won't happen if the negotiations are moving forward, the source said.
The contracts, which cover 11,000 clerks and meat cutters at about 100 Houston-area Kroger stores, expired April 3. Both sides agreed to extend the contract until today and then day by day, as long as talks continue.
A representative of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is also participating in the negotiations.
Union members of Local 455 and 408 who voted Thursday night to authorize a strike are reportedly upset about Kroger's proposal to begin charging employees for health insurance, according to the source. Over the years, grocery employees have given up wage increases in exchange for no-cost insurance.
Kroger's proposal would also require employees to work more hours to qualify for insurance, the source said, which would mean that at least a third of clerks and meat cutters would no longer qualify.
It's an increasingly contentious issue for employees, who have been asked to shoulder more of the rising cost of health care. In Seattle, for example, union leaders for 16,000 grocery workers are in talks with Albertsons, Safeway and others over health care benefits, among other issues.
And about 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California went on strike last year over rising health insurance premiums.
The four-month standoff involving stores owned by Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway was finally settled in February and included a provision that new employees would receive lower wages and benefits.
Miles Anderson, executive assistant to the president of Local 455, said he couldn't comment because Kroger and the union agreed to a "media blackout" during negotiations.
Russell Richard, manager of consumer affairs of Kroger, also declined to comment.
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
SAN ANTONIO — The federal government's top mediator asked SBC Communications and a union to step up their efforts to negotiate a new labor contract before a weekend strike deadline.
The Communications Workers of America represents about 100,000 employees who have worked without a contract since April 3 and voted April 29 to authorize a strike.
"With so much at stake for the company and union members, I have asked the parties to do whatever is necessary to close the gap that separates them on several key issues," Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said Wednesday.
Hurtgen, who is involved in the talks, said he would consider around-the-clock negotiations to avoid a strike.
Negotiations between San Antonio-based SBC and the union resumed at the mediation service headquarters in Washington on Tuesday.
SBC dropped a proposal April 29 that would have required union retirees to pay partial health insurance premiums.
At SBC's annual meeting Friday in Columbus, Ohio, hundreds of workers marched with picket signs.
Disagreements over job security, health care and SBC's use of subcontractors have slowed negotiations.
Both sides say they want to avoid a strike. SBC, however, has warned managers that they might have to put off vacations, and it has sent letters to retired managers offering them $26 an hour to cover union-represented positions.
By JO ANN ZUÑIGA
Two unions have turned their recruitment battle into a legal one, with the head of one school union calling the president of another a "felon" for trying to steal members.
The remark sparked a defamation lawsuit by Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon against Orel Fitzsimmons, director of Service Employees International Union Local 100.
Fitzsimmons was recorded telling a recruiter for the federation that Fallon was a thief and a felon and should be arrested for trying to steal other union members.
But Fitzsimmons said this week that there was no malicious intent to his comments and that his comment about "Gal Felon" was merely a play on Fallon's name. He said that, rather than competing, the two unions need to work together to recruit more members.
"The AFL-CIO rules state that member organizations are not supposed to raid each other's members," he said.
Fitzsimmons said Fallon's lawsuit coincides with an AFL-CIO arbitration hearing in Washington, D.C., this week about the membership competition between the two unions.
According to the lawsuit, Houston Federation of Teachers recruiter W.R. Morris went to Davis High School on April 16 to talk with cafeteria workers when Fitzsimmons confronted him.
Morris recorded the conversation with Fitzsimmons' knowledge, the lawsuit says.
"You're the problem that the labor movement has in America -- scum like you trying to steal from other unions," the lawsuit quotes Fitzsimmons as saying. "You can tell Gal Felon she ought to be in jail."
The lawsuit claims the comments caused Fallon shame, embarrassment and humiliation and injured her business reputation. It seeks unspecified damages.
Fallon, the president of Houston Federation of Teachers for 22 years, said she expects to win her lawsuit against Fitzsimmons and will donate any damages she receives to the union's scholarship fund or political action committee.
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle