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As strikes begin, it’s King Soopers vs. the union vs. … the workers?

King Soopers union employees began their strike in Colorado, but some feel they aren't being heard by the grocery store or union.

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The split between King Soopers and the employee union was clear Wednesday as union workers went on strike at 77 Denver-area grocery stores. 

Less clear, however, was whether employees were being heard by those who’ve spent months at the negotiating table. 

“We’re put in the middle of two groups of people that are not looking out for us. I think both of them are looking out for their best interests,” said Charissa Jameson, a clerk at the Greenwood Village store who has worked for King Soopers for 18 years. “We can’t get hold of the union. We can’t get Joe to give us any answers.”

The Joe she was referring to is King Soopers President Joe Kelley, who showed up around noon outside the store where Jameson and two dozen of her colleagues were picketing. The meeting was unsatisfying, she said. In particular, she didn’t feel a $3.10 an hour raise over three years is a livable wage. Most of her colleagues make less than $20 an hour, she said. But she feels she can’t get answers from union leaders either, even though United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 sent a representative from the international chapter to the store.

“He’s flown in from somewhere and he can’t even answer the questions that we have about our paychecks and hours,” Jameson said. “We’re all very confused. We’re not getting the truth from either side, I promise you.”

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Thousands of workers are involved in what is expected to be a three-week strike at King Soopers, though more may be joining as other union contracts expire later this month and in February. Retail workers from 10 stores in Colorado Springs also voted to strike last week, but their meat departments are still under contract so a strike date will be announced later, union officials said.

King Soopers on Tuesday upped its offer to invest $170 million over three years in wages and bonuses, an offer that was 17% higher than two weeks ago. It would boost hourly pay for a full-time checker with five years of experience by $1.50 more this year to $21.01 an hour. The same checker’s wage would increase to $22.61 by 2024. Starting pay would be $16 per hour. The company also proposed an additional $19 million invested into employee health care. 

Joe Kelley, President of King Soopers, spoke with striking union workers on the first day of the union strike over unfair labor practices. Kelley is the person with the grey vest in the middle of this photo. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

But after no movement from the union, King Soopers prepared for the strike, and Kelley spent Wednesday visiting with striking employees. The Greenwood Village store was his fifth stop of the day. 

“We’re going to go to stores all day long, tonight, the weekend, as long as it takes,” Kelley said. “I’m hearing this, they want to know why their union president won’t come back to the table. I said you need to ask her. She’s been missing since last Thursday.”

The union did not respond Wednesday to questions from The Sun about comments made by some of its members.

In-person negotiations ended Thursday, though updated proposals were shared online. On Tuesday, Local 7 president Kim Cordova said King Soopers’ “last, best and final offer” was its worst because it didn’t do enough to address wage, health and safety concerns for union workers. 

But not all striking workers agreed. 

Sonya Light, who works in the health foods section, said she felt like Kelley was listening that morning. Knowing that King Soopers has raised its offer a few times, the 14-year employee said the company had never done that before. 

“I think they have been receptive. I think they have put their best offer forward. I just think we’re in between the company and the union,” Light said. “We just haven’t had the opportunity to vote on (the latest proposal) and that’s the frustrating part. Not that we agree or disagree with the issues. We just haven’t been able to vote on them or hear them from Kim.”

As some customers in cars drove past the grocery store’s entrance and honked in support of the workers, a sprinkling of customers went in and out of the store. 

“Many people are saying they didn’t know,” said Scott McCool, a lead manager in the fine cheese department who has been with King Soopers for three and a half years. “And they’re apologizing and saying they just need to get their prescription. That’s OK. Please, go inside. We like that you care at all.” 

The strike is about unfair labor practices, not the contract, union leaders said. Union members voted overwhelmingly last week to strike because of instances where the grocer had hired third-party contractors to help restock shelves and do union jobs, and then advertised for temporary workers at pay that’s higher than the regular starting wage.

But if you ask the workers, it is about wages.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“This is the difficult part. Help was actually welcomed by the union members at the time, because we’re so short-staffed because we can’t find anyone to work here. But that’s because we’re not being paid enough to attract (new workers),” McCool said. “If Costco is hiring at $18 and Amazon is hiring at $22 and we’re still hiring at $12, even if we bring it up to $16, that’s just the Denver minimum wage. You could drive 10 minutes in any direction and make that elsewhere.”

McCool said he also would like to buy a house someday but feels that is not doable on his salary, which is just under $21 an hour.

Scott McCool, a lead manager in the fine cheese department who has been with King Soopers for three and a half years. He wants better wages to help attract more workers and fill empty positions. The store is short employees. About two dozen workers at the Greenwood Village King Soopers were on strike the morning of Jan. 12, 2022. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Grocery workers at The Kroger Co., which owns King Soopers, make $29,655 a year for 30-hour work weeks, according to a new report funded by Kroger labor unions and conducted by the nonprofit research firm Economic Roundtable in Los Angeles. 

The researchers surveyed 10,287 employees in Colorado, Southern California and the Puget Sound region of Washington and found that 70% worked part time. Two-thirds said they couldn’t afford basic expenses and of those, 39% couldn’t afford to pay for groceries. An estimated 1,931 in Colorado said they were homeless or had been homeless in the past year.

MORE: Corporate profits and worker wages clash in grocery strike

The report recommended that Kroger make it easier for workers to get full-time hours in a job that provides a living wage of $45,760 a year, or $22 an hour. The report also recommended that Kroger double the share of workers who work full time to 60% from 30% and provide discounts of 50% for all the food in the store — not just the current 10% off Kroger brands.

“That was one of the biggest complaints from the survey is that the scheduling is so haphazard, and anti-worker and anti-family that they can’t even if they want a second job, they can’t do it,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles who worked on the report. 

There’s criticism that grocery stores, especially Kroger, did well in the pandemic because people stayed home and had to rely on local grocery stores for food instead of eating out. Kelley agreed, but said he feels the company provided a good proposal for its workers. 

Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers, spent the first day of the union strike visiting as many stores as he could to talk to workers. Around noon on Jan. 12, he was at the Greenwood Village location. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

“You’re right. Everyone did well during a pandemic,” Kelley said. “That’s why we’re putting the richest package we’ve ever put on the table in the history of King Soopers and City Markets. That’s a very fair deal. But it’s very difficult when it seems like we’re negotiating against ourselves because the union won’t show up. We’re saying get back in the room and let’s get it done for these folks. … Nobody wins in a strike, not the employees, not the union, not the communities, not the company.”

Meanwhile, King Soopers sent a message to customers Tuesday evening that it was reducing delivery fees to $1 on orders of $35 or more and offering alternate pickup locations for those picking up orders in person. That service would start the day of the strike.

On the evening before the strike, King Soopers sent a message to customers offering a discounted delivery fees on grocery orders or alternate pickup locations for those picking up on site. (Screenshot)

McCool, who said the company has been good to him and helped pay him to become a certified cheese professional, said he just wants the store to be competitive so it will attract the workers needed for the stores. Inside the store, managers and the assistant managers were working and helping customers. And Kroger flew in managers from outside the area to help out. 

“I’ve met people that are working today from Virginia, from Arizona, from California. And they’re being flown in, put up in hotels, given rental cars, given a per diem to fill in for this strike. Just pay us! It’s an investment in the company’s future as well,” McCool said. “It’s not just about us. It’s about the company, too, because we all kind of like working here. This isn’t a vengeance thing. It’s a fairness thing, an equity thing.”

This story was updated multiple times since it originally published. New comments and details were added.