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Cordova also volunteered to become a steward — union members who meet with store management as the first line of defense when it comes to resolving workers' complaints about pay, discipline and time off. Stewards, she says, have to be aggressive, a trait she had in spades. "If there's a fight, you stand in the front," she explains. "A lot of people will watch it from the background. But I won't just stand to the side of you; I'll stand in front of you. That's the kind of person I've always been."
As Local 7 headed into another round of contract negotiations with Safeway in 1993, Cordova was tapped to be a deputy secretary for the union. It was her job to go into the stores and keep workers updated on the latest contract offers. When the contract was eventually ratified, she says, Duran, who had been elected president two years earlier, asked her to stay on as a full-time union representative. She was 26.
Duran, meanwhile, was the 37-year-old union boss, known for his rough-and-tumble ways. The son of a steelworker from Pueblo, he earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1981 and began working for Local 7 as its first-ever in-house counsel in 1984. He was elected president in 1991. By that time, he had a reputation as a macho boxing fan who decorated his office with a heavy punching bag and wasn't afraid to mix it up, old-school labor-union style ("An Unholy Union," May 15, 1997).
Duran didn't respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Local 7 had a reputation, too. In 1989, a former organizer who backed the losing candidate for president was fired and successfully sued the union to get her job back. (She was eventually fired again in 1993 for allegedly leaking internal union documents.) In 1995, another former organizer pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a young female co-worker in a hotel. The woman alleged in a lawsuit against Local 7 that Duran was partly at fault because he knew about the organizer's history of "sexual misconduct" and did nothing. Duran denied that claim, and Local 7 settled the case for $200,000 in 1998 ("Union Busted," February 5, 1998).
Still, Duran got results when it came to official union business, his supporters say, holding the line against the supermarkets' attempts to lower salaries and benefits, and standing strong in negotiations. Duran also negotiated better safety provisions for meatpackers and helped defeat Amendment 47, a 2008 ballot initiative that would have allowed workers to choose whether to join a union — a law that Duran said would have shrunk Local 7's ranks by half.
"Ernie's a solid, strong type," says Bill Easton, a seventeen-year Safeway checker who became a union deputy secretary in April. "He's been a good president."
For years, Cordova thought so, too.
"Ernie and I have always had a good relationship," she says. "We've always had the kind of relationship where if I disagreed with him, I told him." But things changed when Duran hired his 29-year-old daughter, Crisanta, as his personal counsel in 2005 and his 33-year-old son, Ernest III, a former Qwest worker, as a director in 2006.
Together, the three Durans — each of whom made more than $130,000 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — occupied some of the top spots in the organization.
"This is what I believe happens when there's nepotism," Cordova says. "Because we were filing a grievance against his son, instead of business it became personal.... He said, 'Kim, you broke our relationship.'"
In 2008, Cordova was elected president of the United Local Seven Staff Union, or ULSSU, which represents the dozens of union staff members. In that position, she intervened when staffers butted heads with their bosses. One of the people she represented was Valencia Lopez, 37, who was hired as Ernest III's secretary in the fall of 2008. About a month after she was hired, Lopez found out she was pregnant with her second child. Soon after, she began having "miscommunications" with Ernest III, known as E3.
"It was rather difficult to work for the Durans," Lopez says now. "They're not the easiest individuals to get along with."
She turned to Cordova, who called E3 to set up a meeting to address the problem. The elder Duran accompanied his son to the meeting — something he didn't do for other union directors, Cordova says. When Cordova tried to explain that Lopez felt E3 was being hostile toward her because of her pregnancy, Duran became angry. "We were in there to say, 'Hey, your son's messing with her and you need to back off and treat her right,'" Cordova says. "Then all of a sudden, they bring out these receipts."
The receipts would prove to be part of the Duran family's downfall.
Duran accused Lopez of not keeping track of E3's receipts for his union Visa card, which he'd used to wine and dine political allies and media members during the anti-Amendment 47 campaign. Many were missing back to March 2008, six months before Lopez was hired. Before then, Cordova says she personally didn't know there were any missing receipts – but she learned of the specifics that day.
Duran screamed at Cordova during that meeting, she and Lopez say, and at one point, jumped across the table to yell in her face. "At that meeting, he made it clear that you don't mess with the family," Cordova says. Duran fired Lopez in March. (She is currently preparing a wrongful-termination lawsuit.)