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.Kenny Perdue, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, praised working conditions inside Kroger stores in West Virginia."Kroger employees provide customers good services. You get whatever you need in their stores. Happy employees appreciate customers who come in and help them any way they can," Perdue said.Steve White, executive director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation -- a coalition of building trades unions, recently criticized Kroger for not hiring more local workers for its local construction projects, including the ongoing major expansion at Kroger's Ashton Place outlet."We have had some discussions with Kroger aimed at trying to find ways to get more local bidders and workers on their projects," White said last month.Kroger is planning to spend $200 million a year for the next five years, White said, to improve its stores across the country."We hope to meet with Kroger again in late January for some further discussions," White said last week. "I think the next store in this area that they want to remodel is the one in Kanawha City."We hope local workers and local contractors can do the work because we are the ones who shop there."I also hope Kroger's workers get a good contract next year. We are in support of those employees. They deserve fair pay and benefits," White said. "Clearly, our members prefer shopping at Kroger because we know their workers have a union contract with benefits and fair pay," White said."Walmart has low prices, but they shift costs onto taxpayers. Instead of reasonable wage and benefits plans, Walmart employees end up with government plans," he said."It doesn't seem like a fair business model," White said. "It is a hidden form of corporate welfare."In July, Kroger spent nearly $2.5 billion to purchase 212 Harris Teeter stores, located along the Atlantic coast, from Delaware to Florida.After the deal is complete, Kroger will operate more than 2,600 food stores in 34 states and Washington, D.C."You can be good to your employees, pay them good wages, respect their dignity and still have a profitable private business," Matheney said.Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.