Thousands of workers at Kroger subsidiaries King Soopers and City Market are expected to go on strike this week in Colorado if the employees’ union and the company don’t make headway on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The walkout threat is another sign of retail and food workers demanding more from their employers as they continue to clock in amid pandemic conditions and staff shortages. The union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, represents more than 8,000 workers at 77 stores around the state.
The union set a deadline of 5 a.m. Wednesday.
“At the end of the day, all we want is a livable wage, affordable health care and a safe working environment,” Carol McMillian, a King Soopers bakery manager, said at a press conference Monday.
“We’ve been loyal to you,” McMillian said as she addressed the company. “It’s time for you to be loyal to us.”
The union has filed charges with the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board accusing Kroger of bargaining in bad faith and refusing to provide data during negotiations ― claims the company denies. Those charges would serve as the legal basis of the workers’ strike, offering them some job protections they might not have if they were strictly walking out over pay.
The company has countered with unfair labor practice charges of its own, claiming the union has bargained in bad faith and refused to negotiate in recent days. “Local 7 has given no indication of when they will reengage in the negotiation process,” the company said in a statement.
Kroger said it made a “last, best and final offer” to the union on Tuesday, proposing a larger contribution to the employees’ health care fund.
“The companies were thriving, but our workers didn’t thrive. Know what our workers got? COVID. Attacked. Beat up. Spit on. Slapped. Overworked.”
Kim Cordova, UFCW 7’s president, said Monday that workers rejected the company’s latest offer last week, prompting Kroger to recommend the two sides seek out a federal mediator before workers go on strike. Cordova said the union isn’t interested in that.
“We think King Soopers needs to face its workers,” she said.
The workers’ latest contract expired Jan. 8. The union held a strike authorization vote ahead of its expiration, and workers voted overwhelmingly to greenlight a strike if they don’t get a satisfactory deal.
Cincinnati-based Kroger, which includes Fred Meyer, Ralphs and other regional grocery chains, said its latest offer included boosting starting pay to $16 per hour, leading to wage increases of up to $4.50 for some in the first year of the contract. A checker with five years’ experience would see an immediate $1 increase, from $19.51 to $20.51, followed by 80 cent raises in the following two years, according to a limited outline of the proposal provided by the company.
The offer also included bonuses of $2,000 for most workers, and $4,000 for those with a decade or more of service, if the contract is ratified.
But Cordova noted that the new floor of $16 per hour would be only pennies above the citywide minimum wage in Denver, where several of the King Soopers stores are located.
“That’s 13 cents over minimum wage, while they’re posting for replacement scab workers at $18 an hour,” she said.
Indeed, an Associated Press photo from a Denver store last week shows the $18-per-hour offer to temporary workers:
Kroger enjoyed soaring sales during the pandemic, including a record year in 2020, and Cordova ripped the company for not sharing more of its profits with the front-line workforce that was facing COVID-19 infections and playing mask police with irate shoppers.
“The companies were thriving, but our workers didn’t thrive,” she said. “Know what our workers got? COVID. Attacked. Beat up. Spit on. Slapped. Overworked. And the company? They did great. They did absolutely great, sitting behind their desk doing their job by Zoom.”
The mention of slapping appears to be a reference to an actual incident at a King Soopers In Aurora, Colorado, last February. Video footage captured an angry and maskless female shopper smacking a worker after being asked repeatedly to wear a mask in the store.
A Boulder King Soopers was the site of a mass shooting in March 2021 in which a gunman killed 10 people, including three store employees and an Instacart shopper.
McMillian noted that Kroger offered its employees a hazard pay bonus of $2 per hour in late March of 2020, but then ended it just a month and a half later, despite the fact that coronavirus caseloads and deaths only worsened. (The company also paid out a pair of one-time bonuses, which came to $400 and $300 for full-timers.)
“I can remember back when the pandemic began. We were heroes then. We got hero pay for six weeks,” she said. “After the end of that six weeks, guess who got bonuses? King Soopers’ CEO. So much for the workers.”
Andres Becerril, a head clerk at a King Soopers in Aurora, said the exhausting working conditions from earlier in the pandemic haven’t gone away. He said they don’t have enough workers on hand to take care of basic tasks promptly, like cleaning up spills, and customers are losing their tempers and being abusive toward employees.
“We are understaffed right now, and when you’re understaffed you do not have the coverage you need to keep your store safe,” he said. “There are customers that are irate because the departments are closed and they take it out on us.”
Becerril said he has serious safety concerns and nothing seems to change at his store unless someone gets hurt.
“I don’t think that’s right. And unless they change that, I’m going to be out picketing on Wednesday at 5 a.m.,” he said.