With Fridays deal, King Soopers labor dispute now in workers hands

Soon after King Soopers and the union announced a tentative agreement Friday in a 10-day labor dispute, the picket lines were gone and parking lots at the grocery stores around the Denver area were once again filling up.

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 will decide Monday if the agreement struck between union and company negotiators will be permanent. The strike that began Jan. 12 covered more than 8,000 King Soopers employees at 78 stores in Boulder, Parker and across the metro area.

The strike was the first among Colorado grocery store employees since 1996 when union members walked off the job at King Soopers. Safeway and Albertsons eventually locked out workers. That strike lasted 42 days.

This time, workers’ complaints that the company hasn’t adequately supported or protected them during the coronavirus pandemic fueled anger over other issues, including wages, the outsourcing of jobs and workplace safety in the face of rising crime.

Labor shortages plaguing industries nationwide in an economy still recovering from the pandemic were seen as giving workers some leverage. Before the strike, Cindi Fukami, a professor of management in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, said she wondered where King Soopers would find replacement workers.

“I was very surprised when it did go to a strike because of that,” Fukami added.

She said she was also surprised by the amount of support the community showed the striking workers. “People really did honor the picket lines, and I think that was part of the speed with which things were settled.”

In a statement announcing the tentative agreement, UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova thanked the union’s allies and the people who supported the workers by not crossing the picket line.

Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market, also owned by Kroger, said in a separate statement that the company looks forward to welcoming back its employees and customers.

The company and union didn’t release details of the agreement Friday. Cordova said the final terms of the three-year contract would be made public following the vote.

“We’re pretty hopeful. It sounds like a good deal from what we understand, but we don’t know the fine details right now,” said Kenny Sanchez, a 10-year King Soopers employee who runs a wellness center at a Broomfield store.

Sanchez said he was on the picket lines every day of the strike, putting in 18 hours one day last week. “It was a knock-out, drag-out just every day.”

However, support from the community was strong, Sanchez said. People brought workers food and drinks and many customers didn’t patronize the store.

Marcey Goldis, a 29-year King Soopers employee, said Friday that she was happy to be off the picket line but was frustrated by not knowing more about the agreement.

“I’m hearing little bits of pieces about the agreement, but they’re not going to tell anybody what it is until five minutes before we go there on Monday (to vote). I don’t like that,” Goldis said.

It will be important for union members, especially the young ones, to sit down and read carefully through the agreement, Goldis said. She thinks people didn’t pay close enough attention to a contract in 2005 that created a two-tier structure that starts people hired after then at lower pay.

“I’m really hoping for the best,” Goldis said.

Shortly before the 10-day strike, the union filed a lawsuit against King Soopers that accused the company of unfair labor practices by using third-party staffing agencies to do union-covered work. The company filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that accused the union of unfair labor practices.

On Tuesday, a Denver District Court approved part of King Soopers’ request for a temporary restraining order. The company said some of the striking workers had blocked customers’ access to stores, obstructed deliveries and threatened and intimidated customers, employees and vendors.

The UFCW Local 7 said the accusations were baseless.

Talks broke off Jan. 6 after the union bargaining committee rejected King Soopers’ contract offer. They resumed Jan. 14 with some sessions going through the night.

Wages, health care benefits, security in the stores, restoration of hazard pay for working during a pandemic and ending the two-tier pay structure for employees were among the major issues in the talks.

During the negotiations, King Soopers proposed a $170 million package, which it called the largest proposed pay increase in company history. The offer included raising starting pay to at least $16 an hour – 13 cents above Denver’s minimum wage. A spokeswoman for the chain said King Soopers’ average hourly wage is $18.29.

The union proposed starting pay of $18.56 an hour and providing a faster pathway for part-time employees to become full-time. A majority of the King Soopers employees are part-time.

A study commissioned by four units of the UFCW and released just before the strike said that 78% of the employees surveyed at Kroger-owned stores in Colorado and two other states reported not having enough food. The report, “Hungry at the Table,” co-written by the Economic Roundtable and a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said 14% of the part-time employees and 9% of the full-time employees were homeless or had been in the past year.

A report commissioned by Kroger and released around the same time said an analysis of its operations in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington showed that it pays its employees more than its peers pay their employees.

Michael Jones was among the shoppers loading bags into their vehicles at a King Soopers store in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood Friday. He said he didn’t shop at King Soopers while workers were on the picket line.

“I don’t know how much they pay these people but I figure they should at least make 20 or 25 bucks an hour, especially if they have a child and a home,” Jones said. “If the people get what they want then I’m happy. The cost of living is going up, groceries are going up. Everything is going up except the working wage.”

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