A week into the planned three-week labor strikes outside 77 King Soopers stores from Boulder to Parker and there’s no new contract in sight. And now, there’s also a temporary restraining order.
King Soopers on Tuesday said that a court granted the restraining order against the union because the “union’s actions were unlawful and unsafe activities.” Those included “threatening, blocking and intimidating both associates and customers who have chosen to cross the picket line,” and blocking truck deliveries in some instances, the company said in a statement.
“To be extremely clear – we support our associates’ right to picket, we also respect our associates’ right to cross the picket line and work and our customers’ right to cross the line to shop,” the company said. “…We simply want them to follow the law when it comes to safe picketing.”
Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents the striking workers, called the claims unfounded.
“There are over 8,000 workers, as well as members of the public on our picket lines, and we continue to call on everyone involved not to allow these baseless allegations and bullying tactics to distract us from what is important,” Cordova said in a statement. “This company refuses to bargain. They want to stop our freedom of speech and curtail even more of the workers’ rights.”
According to the temporary restraining order, Denver District Court Judge Marie Avery Moses issued an injunction to allow union workers to continue picketing but with some restrictions. Those include no more than 10 picketers on a store’s premises and perimeter. Union members on strike also must not stand or block store entrances, nor block vehicles entering or leaving the facility or shout or threaten shoppers, other employees or anyone else within 20 feet.
Union workers have been on strike since Jan. 12. While talks resumed Friday and have continued every day, the sides seem to have hit a wall.
And come Saturday, more union grocery worker contracts expire, including at the two stores in Pueblo. Contracts for City Market stores in Grand Junction and Clifton expire next week. Both City Market and King Soopers are owned by the Kroger Co. Meat departments at King Soopers stores in Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont and Loveland will expire Feb. 19, according to Local 7 officials.
UFCW Local 7 hasn’t indicated if workers from stores with newly expired contracts will join the strike. Those workers would be required to vote on it first. Denver and Colorado Springs-area workers voted overwhelmingly to strike two weeks ago, though only Denver workers are participating in the walkout with 10 Colorado Springs stores set for a later unannounced date.
The union said King Soopers was violating a contract by allowing union work to be done by third-party or temporary workers and that was the cause of the strike.
King Soopers filed its own unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last week saying that Local 7 “has engaged in bad faith/surface bargaining”.
Work stoppages on the rise
While there hasn’t been a full-fledged grocery store strike and walk out in Colorado since 1996, there have been more than 260 labor actions in the past year in the U.S. including four in Colorado, according to the Labor Action Tracker developed by the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University.
The tracker has only been counting work stoppages since Jan. 1, 2021, so it’s hard to compare with prior years, the number does seem high compared to prior years, said Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. But what’s most unusual is that the strikes occurred during a pandemic.
“They’re (affecting) people who have not been able to work from home in the pandemic,” DeVault said. “All of us have counted on grocery store workers to be there to stock the shelves and to give us the food we need. They’ve put themselves in a situation of extreme risk, especially during the early, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic.”
There is a public appreciation for those workers and if you’ve been to a Safeway, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s or other non-King Soopers store in the past week in Denver, they are more crowded than usual as Coloradans avoided stores on strike.
One of the most recent grocery store strikes lasted one day last month at Fred Meyer and QFC stores in the Portland, Oregon region. Both brands are also owned by Kroger.
“The public was on our side,” said Miles Eshaia, communications coordinator for UFCW Local 555 in Oregon. “They showed that they were not going to cross the line. And Fred Meyer, QFC called us back to the bargaining table and we resolved.”
Eshaia declined to share details of the final agreement, but the union-funded newspaper reported that the grocers offered a $15 starting wage, and hourly raises between $3 and $5.05 over three years, depending on the job.
“The wage increases are substantial. We’re in the dollars territory, not cents,” Eshaia said.
He couldn’t speak to the situation in Colorado but shared the similar sentiment that it’s much riskier to be a grocery store worker these days. They face exposure to COVID and then head home to their families, who may get exposed too. But they return to work as essential workers.
“If you pay someone minimum wage or you pay someone a low wage, what you’re effectively saying as an employer or as a community, as a society, is that you understand and recognize that the job needs to be done,” Eshaia said, “but that person for whatever reason deserves to be in poverty.”
King Soopers’ “last, best and final offer” to union members, shared Jan. 11, would raise wages about $3.10 over three years for those with five years of experience. A full-time checker with five years experience, currently making $19.51 an hour, would get a $1.50 raise this year to $21.01. By 2024, the same checker’s wage would increase to $22.61. The starting hourly wage was $16, or 13 cents more than Denver’s current minimum wage of $15.87.
The union, meanwhile, also has the lowest starting wage at $16 an hour, according to its last public proposal. Most clerk positions would start at $18.56 this year and ratchet up to between $21.56 and $26.20 per hour by 2024, depending on experience.
This story was updated on Jan. 19 to include more details on the temporary restraining order.