Thousands of Colorado King Soopers workers go on strike for better pay, protections
UFCW Local 7 members urge grocery shoppers not to cross picket line
Workers and community members form a picket line outside a Denver King Soopers, after United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 began a strike over stalled labor negotiations on Jan. 12, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
More than 8,000 grocery workers at King Soopers stores in Colorado walked off the job Wednesday morning, striking over what they say are unfair terms being offered by the company in ongoing contract negotiations.
The strike by members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 officially began at 5 a.m., impacting more than 75 stores in and around Denver, and followed weeks of stalled talks over a new collective bargaining agreement. The previous contract between the company and the union expired on Jan. 8.
“We are fighting for our rights right now,” Gigi Jones, who has worked for King Soopers since 2013, said in an interview. “For everything — money, protection, safety, you name it.”
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Jones and her fellow grocery workers walked the picket line outside King Soopers’ Capitol Hill location at Ninth Avenue and Corona Street Wednesday morning, greeting regular customers and community members who stopped by to show their support. For the duration of the strike, which the union says could last three weeks, they’re urging members of the public not to shop at King Soopers or City Market stores.
“I love my job, I love my customers,” Jones said. “We just need more than what they’re offering us.”
UFCW Local 7 began negotiations over a new labor agreement with Kroger, King Soopers’ corporate parent, last year. The two sides remain at odds over a host of issues including wages, health benefits and key structural elements like the future of the company’s two-tier payroll system, the hiring of part-time workers and the opening of non-union stores.
As the strike date loomed earlier this week, Kroger made a “last, best and final offer” to the union, which included wage hikes and signing bonuses for current employees.
“At King Soopers, we want what is right for our associates, and that is more money in their paychecks, while continuing to receive industry-leading health care benefits,” Joe Kelley, president of the Kroger division that includes King Soopers and City Market stores, said in a statement.
UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova, however, said in a statement that the company’s last offer was “in many ways … worse than its previous offers.” In a notice to members on Tuesday, the union pointedly objected to what it called a “poisonous” provision in the new offer that would allow Kroger to adopt whatever terms the union agrees to in its separate labor negotiations with Safeway. Those talks are ongoing.
“Clearly, King Soopers/City Market will not voluntarily meet the needs of our workers, despite our repeated pleas for the Company to listen to the voices of our members,” Cordova said. “We strike because it has become clear this is the only way to get what is fair, just, and equitable for the grocery workers who have risked their lives every day just by showing up to work during the pandemic.”
Widespread economic hardships
Ahead of Wednesday’s strike, Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group, released the results of a survey of more than 10,000 unionized Kroger workers, including members of UFCW Local 7 in Colorado.
The survey showed that nearly two thirds of Kroger employees say they don’t earn enough money to cover “basic expenses” every month. Over three-quarters qualify as “food insecure” based on U.S. Department of Agriculture metrics, the report found, and more than one in eight Kroger workers even reported experiencing homelessness within the past year.
“The living and working conditions of Kroger workers have declined markedly over the past 20 years,” the report’s authors wrote. “Kroger’s current low-wage, part-time workforce strategy relies on poorly-paid, part-time workers with constantly changing schedules.”
Jones works as a front-end supervisor, a bookkeeper and a payroll specialist at the Capitol Hill King Soopers — and that’s just one of her three jobs. Such employment situations are common, she said, among Colorado grocery workers, who struggle to keep up with the high cost of rent and other living expenses.
“You’re doing your full-time job, you’re going to your part-time job, and then on your days off you’re working your third job,” Jones said. “So I’m out here because I would like to make a little bit more money, so I can afford to live in Denver comfortably.”
In an email, King Soopers spokesperson Jessica Trowbridge touted Kroger’s “continued investment of hundreds of millions annually to increase wages and rewards and provide affordable health care benefits.”
“Since 2017, we’ve invested significantly to increase our national average hourly rate of pay from $13.66 to $16.68,” Trowbridge wrote. “The average hourly rate for King Soopers and City Market associates in Colorado is more than $18 an hour.”
But Jones and another King Soopers employee, Emily Marcotte, ridiculed the “rewards” offered by the company to workers in exchange for long hours and low pay, including small employee discounts and “heartbeat cards” with which they can purchase items from a company store.
“You get a dollar off of something,” said Marcotte. “That’s our appreciation.”
In 2020, two of Jones and Marcotte’s co-workers at the Capitol Hill store — Randy Narvaez and James McKay — died from COVID-19.
Grocery workers remember the public appreciation for “essential workers” in the early days of the pandemic, and measures like the “hero pay” instituted by Kroger and other grocery chains.
Kroger ended its hero pay program after two months. Now, nearly two years later, with the pandemic surging again and living costs still on the rise, employees say they’re waiting to be treated like they deserve.
“It makes you feel not very important,” said Jones. “Because we are still essential workers. We’re still important.”
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