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King Soopers union rejects request for mediator, will strike in Denver starting Wednesday

UFCW Local 7 says strike will begin in Denver, Boulder, Broomfield and Parker, with Colorado Springs possible at a later date.

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)
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A three-week labor strike at Denver-area King Soopers stores is slated to begin Wednesday after union officials rejected a request by the grocer to ask for federal mediators to intervene. 

“At this point, King Soopers needs to face its workers,” Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, said Monday during a news conference. “I mean, we’ve had to deal already with corporate lawyers from out of state. We don’t want to add another entity into the discussions. We want local leadership, decision-makers, stakeholders to be at the bargaining table.”

The labor contract for 87 stores in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas expired Saturday. However, since meat workers in Colorado Springs still have a contract through Feb. 22, the union will start the strike in Denver, Boulder, Broomfield and Parker. The 10 Colorado Springs stores could strike on another date, Cordova said. 

Both sides have charged one another with unfair labor practices. The UFCW Local 7 filed a lawsuit against The Kroger Co.-owned grocery chain late last month for violating the collective bargaining contract and hiring non-union temporary workers. King Soopers on Monday said it filed an unfair labor practices claim, alleging Local 7 refused to return to the table after negotiations ended on Jan. 6 and is “refusing to bargain in good faith.”  

“If Local 7 does not want to negotiate then they should at least have the decency to allow our associates to vote on the current proposal,” King Soopers/City Market President Joe Kelley said in a statement. “Our associates should be treated fairly and transparently and should have the opportunity to decide what is best for them and their families. Right now, Local 7 is using our associates’ livelihoods as pawns in their political gamesmanship.”

About 8,400 Colorado union workers voted to strike last week. Not all King Soopers locations are unionized, including those in Lafayette and Erie. And union contracts at other stores, such as the City Market locations, expire later this month or in February, so those stores are not part of the strike.

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Labor strikes aren’t common in Colorado, with the last King Soopers strike occurring in 1996. That’s for good reason, said Jeffrey Zax, a professor of economics and labor expert at the University of Colorado. 

“Strikes hurt,” Zax said. “They’re going to be painful for both the workers and the employers.”

It’s also an interesting economic time for employers to be taking a strong stand when the labor market is tight and employers are having a hard time finding enough help, he said.

“As a consequence, throughout the economy, workers are getting better and better deals. In other words, this is a time when workers have more market power than they’re used to,” he said. 

The fundamental nature of a grocery job has changed. Such essential workers are among strangers every day and risk exposure to COVID, he said. 

“Three and four years ago, work in a grocery store may have been physically demanding. It may have been at times uninteresting. But it wasn’t dangerous,” Zax said. “Now, it’s not just a question of paying workers enough to get them to come consistently and conscientiously to stock the shelves or unload the trucks or run the cash registers. Now, it’s a question of paying them enough to compensate them for the health risks they’re running into.”

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He added, “And if I were on the negotiating side for the grocery stores, I would be concerned that these considerations put me at a disadvantage and that I need to respond to that disadvantage by acknowledging it and doing what’s necessary to ensure that I have a workforce that is committed to serving our customers that we jointly serve.” 

King Soopers said it improved its offer to union members in the past week to invest $148 million in new wages and signing bonuses over the next three years. It would boost pay for a full-time checker with five years of experience $1 this year to $20.51 an hour and rise to $22.11 in 2024. Additional investments in health care “would result in zero impact to associates current health care premiums,” the company said. 

Cordova said the only policy left on the table is the union’s.

“Our committee rejected the company’s offer last weekend,” Cordova said. “They’ve been telling members, telling the community or telling the media that they want workers to vote on an offer that’s already been rejected.”

Cordova said the union has asked for higher wages, which she called below market. She said the grocer’s entry-level wage is $16 an hour, which is only 13 cents more than Denver’s minimum wage. There’s also a push for improved health benefits in the ongoing pandemic. King Soopers’ proposal adds a health plan surcharge for covered workers who are unvaccinated, but changes like that needs to be negotiated first, she said. 

The union has requested a faster track to full-time status to help workers get enough hours so they can cover rent and expenses. And there’s a growing need for armed guards in stores and panic buttons for worker safety because of an uptick in store violence. Some customers are verbally and physically abusive over face mask issues. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board, Local 7 has filed five complaints against King Soopers for bargaining in bad faith, refusal to furnish information and coercive actions that include surveillance.

“I can confirm that NLRB Region 27 (in Colorado) has received unfair labor practice charges against the employer and the region is currently investigating them,” said Kayla Blado, a spokeswoman for the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs at the National Labor Relations Board.

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.