With less than two days left before a planned strike, the union representing King Soopers employees Monday rejected the company’s proposal to involve a federal mediator in contract talks.
Union members in the Denver area, Boulder, Parker and Colorado Springs voted last week to authorize a strike. The union said the strike on claims of unfair labor practices will start at 5 a.m. Wednesday and last three weeks.
Colorado Springs employees won’t go on strike at this point because the contract for meat workers there hasn’t run out yet. The strike vote covered about 8,400 employees and 78 stores.
Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, said the union doesn’t want to involve a federal mediator because it will bog down the process. She said the union is willing to resume bargaining under the right conditions.
“We believe that where we are at this point, that adding another presence is not go to be productive.,” Cordova said. “The company should stand in front of their workers and face them and listen to their proposals and continue to negotiate until we get to an agreement.”
A federal mediator provides a third-party perspective to negotiators and can make suggestions, but doesn’t have the authority to impose a settlement or contract terms, according to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
King Soopers responded quickly Monday with a statement saying the union appears “dead set on inciting disruption and restricting the community’s ability to access fresh food and essentials.”
The company also said it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that accuses the union of unfair labor practices. The filing says the union has refused to engage in meaningful contract discussions and summarily rejected the company’s offer without review or discussion.
In December, the union filed a federal lawsuit accusing King Soopers of unfair labor practices, including using third-party staffing services to do union-covered work.
King Soopers, owned by Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, charged that the union is using employees’ livelihoods “as pawns in their political gamesmanship.”
“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,” Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market, also owned by Kroger, said in a statement.
The union rejected an offer last week that King Soopers said includes $148 million for wage increases of up to $4.50 an hour in the first year, signing bonuses over the next three years and new investment in health care benefits.
But Cordova has said the proposed increases are insufficient at a time when many employees are struggling to make ends meet and staff turnover has forced some departments in the stores to close early because there aren’t enough workers. Starting pay would be increased to $16 an hour, Cordova said that’s just 13 cents more than the current minimum wage in Denver.
The company is also advertising $18 an hour for temporary replacement workers if the strike goes forward, Cordova said.
Cordova said the union is willing to go back to the negotiating table, but it needs the company to provide critical data for proposals on health care, pensions and safety issues so it can advance its proposal. And she said the union wants its members who are part of the bargaining to be released to attend negotiations.
The UFCW Local 7 has said King Soopers and other grocery chains have reaped record profits during the pandemic, as more people stayed home and cooked, while workers risked their health by continuing to go to work every day. Employees received “hazard pay” early in the pandemic, but the extra $2 an hour ended in mid-May 2020.
U.S. grocery sales jumped by 11% in 2020, more than triple the growth of the previous two years, the U.S. Census Bureau said. Financial filings showed Kroger’s operating profit was $4 billion in 2020, up from $3 billion in 2019.
The union is negotiating separately with Albertsons, which owns Safeway and Albertsons stores in Colorado. The UFCW Local 7 and Albertsons agreed last week to extend their contracts and keep meeting.
The negotiations with the supermarket chains began in November. As the Jan. 8 contract deadline neared, the union became more vocal about what it says are unfair concessions the companies want from workers.
Proposals opposed by the union include limiting sick leave to 48 hours a year and eliminating overtime pay for working more than eight hours a day. Cordova said King Soopers dropped the overtime change but added a provision allowing gig workers.
The union said it wants to change a pay structure that starts workers hired after 2005 at lower pay and pays employees on the West Slope lower wages.
The metro-area stores that will be affected by the strike are in the following cities: Arvada, Aurora, Boulder, Broomfield, Centennial, Commerce City, Denver, Edgewater, Englewood, Evergreen, Federal Heights, Glendale, Golden, Greenwood Village, Highlands Ranch, Lakewood, Littleton, Louisville, Thornton, Westminster and Wheat Ridge.
In a strike called on unfair labor practice claims, a company can’t let go employees or permanently replace them. If the strike is called because of economic claims, employees can be replaced.
King Soopers is the largest grocery chain in Colorado. It’s unclear how many workers might be on the picket lines at any given time. Cordova said union members from the across the country plan to travel to Colorado to support the striking workers.
Contracts with other King Soopers stores and City Market, also owned by Kroger, expire later in January and in February.
The last strike by grocery workers in Colorado was in 1996. Union members at King Soopers walked off the job and Safeway and Albertsons eventually locked out union members. The strike lasted 42 days.
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