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King Soopers in Greenwood Village on Dec. 30, 2021. It's one of 87 grocery stores that are negotiating new contracts with employees. The contract expires Jan. 8, 2022. (Dale Taylor, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Union members in Denver and Colorado Springs have authorized a strike at 87 King Soopers stores along the Front Range over what they call unfair labor practices. Union officials said a strike at the grocery chain could come as soon as Sunday.

The growing tension between workers and management continued to escalate as the existing contract nears its end on Saturday. Last week, the union sued King Soopers in U.S. District Court in Denver for violating the collective bargaining contract and hiring non-union temporary workers. 

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 have been asked to report to work as scheduled until advised by the union.

On Tuesday, King Soopers spokeswoman Jessica Trowbridge said the company was in the process of filing unfair labor practice charges against the UFCW Local 7 and its union president “for its bad faith bargaining and tactics as well as pursuing other legal action for unlawful conduct.”

“Let’s be clear,” Trowbridge said in an email. “Local 7 issued a strike authorization vote related to alleged unfair labor practices. These allegations are just that, allegations, as King Soopers/City Market has followed the law and has not received any notice of wrongdoing from the National Labor Relations Board.”

While UFCW Local 7 represents about 17,000 workers in Colorado and Wyoming, not all union members — or all Front Range King Soopers stores — were part of the strike vote. Stores in Lafayette and Erie, for example, employ non-union workers. Other Local 7 union members are part of other contract negotiations, including City Market employees who are not part of the strike because their contract isn’t up until Jan. 29.

About 8,400 Colorado workers would be potentially impacted by the strike, according to the union. King Soopers said 58% of its employees are union members and there are non-union stores in its chain. 

Union officials said last week that they scheduled the strike vote because they felt they had no choice. 

“Workers in Colorado Springs have joined their brothers and sisters in metropolitan Denver in voting overwhelmingly to strike against King Soopers’ unfair labor practices,” said Kim Cordova, vice president of UFCW International and president of UFCW Local 7, said in an email. “The company must cease these practices and get serious about a contract proposal that respects, protects and pays these grocery workers.”

Meat department workers in Colorado Springs on Monday voted 97% in favor of striking, with 95% of the area’s retail workers in agreement. Denver workers voted on Sunday with 98% of the retail workers and 97% of meat workers voting to strike. 

Wages, benefits and worker safety

Trowbridge said King Soopers, which is owned by The Kroger Co, offered to pay $145 million in new wages to workers over the next four years, or 50 cents more per hour for a checker with five years of experience. Dollarwise, the checker’s hourly wage would increase to $20.01 in the new contract, compared with the existing $19.51 an hour. The rate would increase 50 cents a year until 2025, when it reaches $21.51 an hour.

But union officials said the pay raise was accompanied by too many concessions, such as reducing opportunities for overtime, increasing health care premiums and giving non-union gig workers more seniority in scheduling. They said the grocer has reduced pandemic benefits available to essential workers by limiting emergency leave and help with a worker’s COVID expenses. Hazard pay ended two months into the pandemic. 

Trowbridge said the grocer is committed to keeping stores clean and sanitized to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the company did provide frontline employees with financial incentives during the early part of the pandemic — an additional $1,200 to part-time and $1,760 to full-time workers — it now pays a one-time $100 bonus to employees who are fully vaccinated. 

King Soopers said that what was characterized as an increase in health care costs is a $50 surcharge on unvaccinated workers enrolled in company health plans. Hourly associates covered by the company’s health plan or those covered by the collective bargaining agreement are excluded from the surcharge.  

Unvaccinated employees also will not be eligible for paid leave if they get COVID. 

“The special leave will remain available to fully vaccinated associates who may have breakthrough cases,” she said.

King Soopers in Greenwood Village on Dec. 30, 2021. It’s one of 87 grocery stores that are negotiating new contracts with employees. The contract expires Jan. 8, 2022. (Dale Taylor, Special to The Colorado Sun)

However, all Colorado employees regardless of vaccination status are eligible for emergency leave, which provides up to 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-related illness. This is part of the state’s mandate requiring all employers to offer up to 80 hours of COVID-related sick leave as long as the disaster emergency order continues. 

“We remain committed to bargaining in good faith and to settling a contract that is good for our associates while keeping groceries affordable for our customers,” Trowbridge said.

The push to strike, however, is to protest the grocery chain’s hiring of non-union labor, Cordova said.

“The strike is over the unfair labor practices the company has committed during negotiations, not about their proposals,” Cordova said. “Negotiations are scheduled with King Soopers Jan. 4 and 5, and whether or not negotiations continue depends on whether or not King Soopers will cease its unfair labor practices and stop silencing the voice of the workers.”

The union posted on social media its “strike benefits,” which will pay full-time picketing members $160 a day with a maximum of $800 per week. For those who don’t work the picket line, but also don’t cross it, there is $100 per week in honor pay available.

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...