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A lonely picket at AppleTree ALAN POGUE Labor Day in Texas THE KROGER CO. left San Antonio in early August, leaving the town’s only major retail union unemployed heading into this Labor Day. Employees twice had turned down a company demand that they renegotiate their contract with wage concessions that company officials said were necessary to compete in the Alamo City. Approximately 1,700 people lost their jobs, including an estimated 1,200 union members, after the employees rejected a company proposal to slash the top hourly rate from $9.50 to $8 an hour, with the prospects. for further cuts in the future if that concession were approved. Kroger employees in Dallas had accepted wage concessions in return for improved health-care benefits and Houston employees had accepted wage cuts of 50 cents an hour for clerks at the top rate. But after agreeing to wage freezes in two of the past three contracts, the San Antonio employees had had enough. Cincinnati-based Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the nation, had 163 stores in Texas and entered San Antonio in 1980. Its 15 stores in the San Antonio area amounted to a 13.7-percent market share, according to Progressive Grocer magazine. This left it a weak second to locally based H-E-B Grocery Co., a nonunion chain with 43.2 percent of the San Antonio market. Company officials blamed “enormous” costs of doing business and had hoped to increase its ratio of part-time workers, who would not get health-care benefits. Lesli Hicks of the San Antonio ExpressNews noted that Kroger left Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and the Rio Grande Valley after similar disputes and in 1992 scaled back its Detroit operations after a strike there. She wrote that Kroger’s problems are not isolated. “Indeed, more often than not, management-labor disputes are expected increasingly to result in more layoffs, sales, closings and market withdrawals, instead of getting better union deals as in the days of old.” The Kroger closing is another blow for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been supporting a strike by AppleTree employees for more than a year with no prospects for a resolution. A bankruptcy judge voided AppleTree’s contract in July 1992, allowing the company to reduce wages from a top hourly rate for clerks from $9.75 to $6.25, while meatcutters’ wages dropped from a high of $12.25 to $6.25. Relatively few union members walked out and the stores managed to stay open. The Long Term Credit Bank of Japan, the company’s major creditor, assumed a majority interest in the company in September 1992 and the company emerged from bankruptcy protection the following month. Although the union still posts pickets out side AppleTree stores, Richard Elliott, president of the clerks’ local 455 in Houston, said the new Japanese owners have refused to negotiate with the union. “They went to court and got our contract rejected. That’s been their response,” he said. The strike will go 6 SEPTEMBER 3, 1993