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Throughout the mid-1990s, the IGA grocery store on the south end of Stevensville was the second-highest volume mover in the Bitterroot Valley.

It had a mom-and-pop feel, and business in the booming Bitterroot was good.

Now, four years after Cary Kutter bought the store he'd previously managed for seven years, things have turned nasty.

Business is down substantially in the wake of heavy competition, primarily from the big Super 1 Foods store at the Stevensville Wye, and that means trouble.

"We've probably seen a 50-percent decline in business over the past few years," Kutter said Friday. "Most of it came from Super 1, but the Missoula stores have an effect on us, from Albertsons buying out Buttrey's to the Wal-Mart Supercenter."

Employees at the store have worked the past two years without a contract and under a wage freeze, but with the store hemorrhaging money, Kutter had proposed cutting workers' wages and trimming some benefits.

The employees wouldn't accept those cuts, and three sessions with a federal mediator failed to bridge the impasse.

Now, most of the store's 27 employees are standing outside on a picket line. According to Nicolai Cocergine, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 4, the employees simply can't afford the proposed wage cut.

"He and his wife have taken a tremendous amount of money out of this store and he has been unwilling to give at all on salary and benefits," Cocergine said Friday while standing on the picket line.

Kutter has proposed an across-the-board, $1.30 cut per hour in wages - including for himself and his wife - but employees think that cut is too much for them and too little for the Kutters.

"The employee working for $7 has the same $1.30 cut as the boss has," Cocergine said. "There's no way that is fair. These people have had frozen wages for the past two years, and now they're supposed to have another big percentage whacked off their pay."

Kutter said his cut may not be as heavy as the employees', but they're not the ones with the investment in the store.

"My butt is the one hanging out there," he said. "I gotta do what's right for business. It's important for Main Street."

Cocergine agreed the store has been in decline since Kutter bought it in 1999, but he traces much of that trouble to Kutter himself.

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"What has been hurting this store is that he has lost a lot of his longtime employees," Cocergine said. "He's run them off and that's been a very bad business decision."

Kutter said the store had about 50 employees in 1999, but that he has cut back staff through attrition as business has waned.

"We just don't have the work for all those people now," Kutter said.

The situation has now reached a standstill. Kutter said his business is being further damaged by the strike, and he said he will eventually have to hire workers to replace those who are out on strike.

The striking workers, Cocergine said, won't be moved.4

"We will be here longer than this man," Cocergine said. "They just want a fair piece of the pie. They believe he hasn't come to the table and bargained in good faith."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 370-3330 or by

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