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Gary Southall, representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, speaks to Kroger workers during a protest in front of the Kanawha City, W.Va., store in September. Talks between the grocery chain and the union have been ongoing since the summer. Among the ongoing points of contention are alterations to health care benefits for associates, as well as the reduction or elimination of other perks for employees with seniority.

CHARLESTON — The union representing thousands of Kroger employees has yet to draw a firm line in the sand regarding a possible work stoppage, but the national grocery chain is already preparing to bolster its workforce in the event of a strike.

Kroger has placed ads stating it’s “accepting applications for replacement workers as a precautionary measure due to a potential dispute with UFCW Local 400.” The ad advises potential applicants to speak with a hiring manager and/or apply on the company’s website via “replacement clerk” job postings.

The ad is in response to last week’s rejection by United Food and Commercial Workers 400 of the Kroger Mid-Atlantic Division’s latest contract proposal. That contract offer was definitively refused in a vote of the union membership, which also overwhelmingly approved a motion to strike if it doesn’t receive a better offer. Talks continue between the two sides, though a possible deadline for that next offer has yet to be determined. Likewise for a timetable regarding a possible strike as union leaders said they continue to explore all options and scenarios.

Still, Kroger officials said that even though “it’s business as usual” for the meantime, it has to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

“The union has received strike authorization. However, that doesn’t mean a strike will happen,” said Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger. “At this point, the union has not called for a strike and it’s business as usual at Kroger.

“However, the company is taking the precautionary measure of accepting applications for replacement workers in the event the union chooses to strike. We remain committed to reaching an agreement with the union and are holding negotiation sessions this week to try to resolve any outstanding issues. Our focus remains on our associates and recognizing and rewarding them for all of their hard work.”

Kroger’s Mid-Atlantic Division operates more than 100 stores in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, with roughly 18,000 associates. A large chunk of those employees are members of Local 400, which represents more than 35,000 people in retail food and department stores, health care, food processing services and other industries across the Mid-Atlantic states. Kroger has 40 stores totaling more than 4,200 employees in West Virginia.

Talks between the two sides have been ongoing since the summer. Among the ongoing points of contention are alterations to health care benefits for associates, as well as the reduction or elimination of other perks for employees with seniority.

The original contract, ratified in 2017, expired Aug. 29. A four-week extension elapsed at the end of September, and a day-to-day extension was activated while negotiations continued. The extension would have to be canceled with 72 hours’ notice from either side before a work stoppage can happen.

There have been two work stoppages at Kroger stores in West Virginia, most recently a two-month strike late in 2003. Employees also went on strike for three weeks in 1974.

Reach Scott Hamilton at shamilton@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4886.

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