Can a mild-mannered bakery clerk solve the grocery workers' labor strife?
From the other side of the counter, the top of Kim Cordova's head is barely visible above stacks of bright-red boxes of holiday cookies that decorate the bakery department at the Safeway at Sixth Avenue and Corona Street. When the dark-haired clerk emerges from behind it, she's clutching the tops of four long bags of Kaiser rolls, bound for a bread display that needs to be replenished. But she doesn't get far.
"Where's the French bread?" asks a petite elderly woman, dressed in her Sunday best and slowly pushing a nearly empty two-tiered grocery cart.
"Oh, the French breads are right here," Cordova says cheerfully, grabbing one of a stack of bagged loaves behind her. "Do you want this sliced?"
The woman nods, and Cordova leads her back to the counter, where she hands off the loaf to another bakery clerk and, still holding the bags of Kaiser rolls, continues on her original mission. At the display, the apron-clad Cordova sticks price tags on the bags – six rolls for $3.49 – with her pink-tipped manicured fingernails.
It's hour two of an eight-hour shift.
Cordova, a 42-year-old mother of one daughter and two stepchildren, is back where she started 24 years ago, working part-time at Safeway, molding fifty-pound batches of dough into breads, cookies and pies in the basement bakery, wrapping and labeling them, and prepping the next day's ingredients before washing dishes and scrubbing the floor at the end of the night. But her position is temporary.
On January 1, she'll take over as head of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. One of the largest unions in Colorado, Local 7 represents 23,000 grocery-store employees, meatpackers and health-care workers.
She knows the organization well; after working at Safeway for nine years as a union member, Cordova took a full-time position with Local 7 in 1993 as an organizer and gradually worked her way up through the ranks of the union.
But shortly after a clash with Local 7 president Ernest Duran Jr. earlier this year involving the spending habits of Duran's son, union director Ernest Duran III, Cordova was fired. Her termination, and the subsequent filing of a slander lawsuit by Duran and his children against Cordova and two other union members, convinced her to make a play for the union's top job.
After a campaign the Durans called "dirty," Cordova shocked the establishment when she and her slate of nineteen candidates, called "Time for Change," swept the election in September. She'll become the first woman to head Local 7.
"I think it was a very tight election, if you quantify the votes," said Ric Urrutia, a former Local 7 representative at a Greeley meatpacking plant. "However, if you look at it another way, that entire slate won against a bureaucracy that's been in place for twenty years. I respect that someone out of the rank and file managed to topple the bureaucracy."
But the union Cordova will inherit won't be very unified. Some say the bitter campaigning divided the membership. Others are so tired of the infighting and union politics that they ignored the election altogether. But everyone agrees that the strife comes at a bad time: The union is mired in tough contract negotiations with Safeway and King Soopers that threaten to eat away at workers' pensions and health benefits and could even result in a strike in the middle of the busy holiday shopping season.
As union members vote on the grocery chains' "last, best and final" offer, one question is on many people's minds: Will the Bakery Clerk, as Cordova's enemies refer to her, be able to stand the heat of leading Local 7?
Cordova grew up in southwest Denver, the oldest of two children raised by a single mother. She started working after-school jobs when she was fourteen and became a clerk at a now-closed Safeway near Washington Park when she was seventeen. The store was very pro-union, but Cordova says she didn't pay much attention until she was robbed at gunpoint during a shift in the late 1980s.
"I was checking on the first register, and this guy comes through my line, and he had written on a piece of paper bag, 'Don't be alarmed but give me all the money in the register or I'll blow your effin' brains out,'" Cordova says. She did what he asked and then walked through the frozen-food aisle to the back room and stayed there until he left, as he'd requested.
In the aftermath, she says, Safeway wanted to put her on leave while the company — and the cops — investigated. But Cordova didn't trust her employer and called the union, which sent a representative to meet with her boss.
"That's when I really put it together that hey, thank gosh I had a union. Otherwise, I would have gotten blamed for being the victim here," she says. "It was personal to me after I got robbed. I wanted to be active in the union."
Cordova began attending monthly union meetings and joined the bargaining committee during the 1990 contract negotiations. It was time-consuming, but she loved it. "I remember having all-night negotiating sessions," she says. "You can do round-the-clock, 24-hour, 48-hour bargaining sessions. It's a scary time for the workers, but it's a good time, because, at least as a worker, you get a say in your work rules."
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.)
On April 6, shortly after Lopez was fired, U.S. Department of Labor investigators showed up at the Local 7 headquarters in Wheat Ridge and began an extensive audit of the union's 2008 finances. Union secretary-treasurer Stan Kania says the federal officials told him that someone had filed a complaint about the organization's spending.
The audit lasted two months and ended with no findings of misuse of money or any other questionable dealings, Kania says. Instead, the department made a few minor bookkeeping suggestions. "Their parting words to me were, 'This is a big union, the biggest union we've ever audited. You're doing a bang-up job,'" Kania adds.
The U.S. Department of Labor wouldn't confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, let alone its length or findings.
With Lopez gone, Duran turned to his own secretary, Irene Goodell, to help E3 find and log his missing receipts. But he didn't like the way she handled the situation either, Goodell says. Duran fired Goodell in April, after Cordova had represented her as well. Goodell also plans to sue for wrongful termination.
"They are true union members," Goodell says of Cordova and incoming secretary-treasurer Cindy Lucero, a former union rep who declined to be interviewed for this story. "They take their jobs to heart. They wouldn't be afraid they would be next on the firing line — which is exactly what happened."
Cordova says Duran suspended her the same day he fired Goodell. She eventually came back to work, but on May 28, union director Randy Rawlings fired her, too, Cordova says. Five days later, she was back at Safeway as a bakery clerk — something she hadn't done in sixteen years — working for $7.79 an hour, a fraction of the $81,443 she made in 2008 as a union representative. "I needed a job," she says. "I have a house payment."
Crisanta Duran, acting as a spokeswoman for the family, says Local 7 can't comment on the firings – or the meetings that preceded them – without releases from the former employees. So far, none have signed. "All I can say is that every single allegation that I've heard them make about the terminations is absolutely false," she adds.
Around the same time, someone made a flier titled "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH" and began circulating it around grocery-store parking lots and tacking it to break-room bulletin boards. The flier attacked E3 for having "close to $7,000 of charges to the Union card that were not documented," including "personal charges for alcohol, Starbucks drinks, Denver Bronco tickets, hotel rooms at $300 a night."
It also alleged that Crisanta went to Disneyland and Mexico on the union's dime and that her father paid for a Puerto Rican vacation for his wife and grandson with Local 7's money — accusations the Durans have since denied.
"Remember this is your Union, not the Duran's," the flier said. It encouraged members to complain to international UFCW union heads.
Cordova says she had nothing to do with the flier – or with an anonymously authored website called www.VoteErnieOut.com, which posted copies of some of E3's receipts. But in mid-July, the Durans sued Cordova and two other union members — a King Soopers checker and a Safeway meat-cutter — for slander and libel.
"The defendants, acting individually and jointly, have published, or have caused the publication of, false and defamatory statements concerning the conduct of Ernest Duran, Jr., Crisanta Duran and Ernest Duran III as officers and representatives of Local 7," the lawsuit reads. It gives examples from the flier and accuses Cordova and the others of making "defamatory oral statements," including that Duran used his Local 7 credit card for personal expenses and embezzled money from the union's strike fund.
The lawsuit was paid for with union money, a move approved by Local 7's executive board and then seconded by union members, who voted at their monthly meetings to okay the board's meeting minutes — and therefore their actions. But approved or not, Cordova thought it was sneaky and wrong.
(The lawsuit has since been dropped. Crisanta Duran says union leaders decided to drop it in a bid to bury the hatchet and "keep people united.")
"At that point, I said, 'I'm running for president,'" Cordova says. She and her slate of nineteen candidates ran a hard-edged campaign. They made nepotism a major issue, pointing out that Duran and his kids each made six-figure salaries. She also talked about E3's receipts, highlighting a $216 Red Lobster dinner for four, $200 Broncos tickets and a $192 bar tab for rojotinis and other drinks at the restaurant Cuba Cuba.
"We took on this family," Cordova says, "and said, 'This is wrong.'"
The Durans fought back, saying Cordova didn't have the education or experience to run the union. (Duran graduated from law school; Cordova never attended college.) Duran was running for a sixth and final three-year term as president (he claimed in campaign literature that he wouldn't run again in 2012), while Crisanta was running for secretary-treasurer.
Kania, who plans to retire as secretary-treasurer this month, endorsed the Durans. In campaign literature, he's quoted as saying, "Although Ernie may never retire, (Crisanta) is the only person that will be able to take Ernie's place in the long run."
The election was conducted by mail-in ballot and took place in mid-September. But in the midst of the campaigning, Channel 7 aired a story that detailed the concerns about nepotism, high salaries and questionable spending. The Durans said that Cordova's team pushed for the story and that it had a major effect on the election.
Either way, Cordova and her slate of officers won every seat they ran for.
The two months between Halloween and New Year's Eve are probably the busiest time of the year for the grocery industry. Shoppers stock up for the winter and head for the stores repeatedly for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and other big family meals.
A strike or lockout during the holidays can be devastating for grocery employees, who would lose the majority of their paychecks during the course of the labor action. And if shoppers honor picket lines, as they did in California during a particularly difficult strike in 2003 and 2004, the grocery chains can also suffer.
That's why it's important to have strong leadership during delicate contract negotiations. "Anytime you're divided, that diffuses the power," says University of Denver management professor Cindi Fukami. "That's the whole point of a union."
And right now, Local 7 isn't scaring anyone. "My sense is that if they were powerful, they would have struck by now," Fukami says. "It kind of suggests to me that there's a pretty balanced power situation. Neither the stores nor the union can trump the other, so they're just kind of treading water."
After more than six months of negotiations, Safeway and King Soopers submitted their "last, best and final" contract offer to Local 7 on November 16. (The contract would affect nearly all 17,000 grocery workers. The only ones not included are Local 7's 500 Albertson's members; Albertson's has decided not to participate in this round of negotiations, says Local 7 spokeswoman Laura Chapin.)
The offer includes wage increases for some workers, the maintenance of current health-care benefits and what the companies are spinning as a compromise on pension cut-backs.
Rank-and-file members will vote on whether to accept the offer by mail-in ballot, a method that UFCW International has mandated for this round. The ballots were mailed November 27 and will be counted in mid-December.
Duran and Local 7's bargaining committee haven't given a public opinion on the offer. "After six months of negotiations, workers pretty well know what the issues are, and it's up to them. It's their life, their contracts," Chapin says.
Cordova hasn't spoken publicly, either. "I'm just getting up to speed on it," she says of the contract. "I'm not saying I'm not going to make a recommendation. I just barely got the offer. "
If the members reject the contract and bargaining stretches into next year, Cordova will become the chief negotiator, something the grocery chains may like.
"[Safeway and King Soopers] are probably thinking, they got a new president and she comes at a time when we can beat the snot out of her," says Colorado State University management professor Raymond Hogler, who worked for the Mountain States Employers Council decades ago and has known Duran for years. "Ernie was plenty tough. He got battle scars by going on strike. The problem is that if the grocers don't think you mean that, you're not going to get anything from them.
"Maybe she'll demonstrate that she's just as tough as Ernie," he adds, but today's economic realities make negotiating a no-loss contract nearly impossible, even for the most seasoned bargainers. "The circumstances would not be good if you were Henry Kissinger. So she's got a difficult task."
Will Joseph, a Safeway meat-cutter, would rather see Duran in that role. "The companies fear him," Joseph says. "I don't think a bakery clerk scares them whatsoever."
But Cordova is more than a bakery clerk. As one of the union's leaders, she's also become a tough-as-nails bargainer. "I don't need to be an attorney," Cordova says. "I understand. I'm very knowledgeable in the contracts. I know how to negotiate. I've negotiated every day of the year [as a union rep] for sixteen and a half years."
However, Crisanta Duran believes Cordova may have sacrificed the negotiations – and the image of unions as whole – because of her "personal vendetta" against Duran.
"I think [Safeway and King Soopers] sit back and laugh," she says. "If I'm the company negotiator and I have certain goals I want to achieve, like cutting pensions up to 70 percent...and then all of a sudden, at a really crucial time frame, I see on Channel 7 this sort of division in the union and see the fliers in the stores, absolutely, I would sit back and laugh and think, 'Geez, this is fantastic, all of this division.'"
King Soopers spokeswoman Diane Mulligan insists that's not the case.
"The reality is that it has absolutely nothing to do with negotiations," she says. "It doesn't impact it one way or the other. It's internal union business, and we don't have anything to do with internal union business."
A Safeway representative didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
As for the workers, some are frustrated with negotiations, says a Grand Junction City Market employee who runs a blog at http://randomthoughts-gjwriter.blogspot.com/, in which she talks about Local 7's goings-on. "It's been a flippin' nightmare," says the worker, who didn't want to use her name for fear of retaliation by the union. "As long as things are going along okay and we have a contract, nobody is paying attention. They're busy, they're living their lives.
"The last, best and final is a good offer. For people not wanting to accept it, fine, you people go on strike and we're going to do our jobs," she adds.
A longtime checker on a recent smoke break at the King Soopers at Ninth Avenue and Corona Street says she feels the union has grown weaker over the last decade. Part of what's diluted it has been a series of watered-down contracts, says the checker, who didn't want to give her name, either.
She says she voted for Cordova because she wanted a change.
The Durans aren't going away quietly.
The family has challenged the election results with the UFCW International, which has rules governing local elections but which also allows each local to conduct elections how it sees fit. Evan Yeats, a spokesman for the international, wouldn't discuss the vote, saying only: "To preserve the integrity of an ongoing investigation, we can't comment any further or talk about the details of a specific case."
Crisanta Duran says she doesn't expect the international to have made a decision by January 1, when Cordova and her officers are scheduled to take over. If that's the case, her father has said he'll step down as president and retire.
But the Durans won't drop their appeal. If the election isn't overturned, Crisanta says they'll appeal the results to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some of the Durans' complaints include low voter turnout — only 13 percent of the members voted, they say — and a close outcome; the union never released an exact vote count, but www.VoteErnieOut.com had the race for president at 1,580-1,268.
They also tried painting the "Time for Change" folks as criminals, writing that "there are allegations that several members of the TFC slate have been prosecuted and received penalties for violations of Colorado law."
There's more, too. "It doesn't appear to be a coincidence that prior to the election, union offices were broken into and documents were stolen," they wrote in their UFCW appeal. Indeed, police reports show that two laptops were stolen from the union's Greeley office in May and that someone slashed the tires on Crisanta Duran's Ford Escape in mid-October.
The election challenge also lists the anonymous website, the flier, the Channel 7 report and the fact that by their count, 2,000 Local 7 members never even received ballots – and if they did, they were only printed in English and Spanish, which many meatpacking employees don't speak.
The Durans are also disputing the allegations of nepotism and misspent funds.
"The people on the incoming slate lied to members and the media as to how and why union funds were being spent," Crisanta says. "There were allegations we stole money and were using union funds for personal use and gallivanting on the union dime.
"All of that is just a lie. If any of those accusations were true...we'd have criminal charges against us."
The $216 Red Lobster dinner, at which four diners ordered a total of seven $6.99 margaritas, was attended by E3 and three other organizers from the anti-Amendment 47 campaign. It took place a week before the November 2008 election — when they were working sixty- to eighty-hour weeks, E3 says. "We blew off a little bit of steam and talked about strategy for the upcoming week. It's not something we did all the time."
The $192 Cuba Cuba dinner included E3, Crisanta, and a reporter for the Spanish-language television station Azteca America (which is affiliated with Channel 7) and her boyfriend. The goal was to discuss media strategy for the anti-Amendment 47 campaign and to thank the reporter for suggesting a pro-union report at work, E3 says.
"If someone gets you thousands of dollars in free media, you should be able to take them out to dinner," E3 says. Cordova and her slate, he says, "made it sound like I was taking my friends to dinner. It wasn't my friends."
As for the $211 Broncos tickets, the Durans say the union gave them to Rick Bettcher, who owns a business called A+ Lighting in Thornton. Bettcher owned a billboard close to the American Furniture Warehouse in Thornton, whose owner, Jake Jabs, was pro-47 — and very vocal about it. Bettcher allowed the Durans to post an anti-47 ad on his billboard — a sort of jab at Jabs, and a prime location to trumpet their cause.
"That's how organizing happens. You go out and talk. You go out and spend money. This was the fight of our life," Kania says, referring to the anti-Amendment 47 campaign. "We're not going to worry about $200. [Cordova] took the normal business of the local union and turned it around and made it look bad."
E3 admits that he was late in turning in his 2008 receipts, but Kania says the union cut him some slack because he was working so hard. He eventually turned the receipts in, the Durans say, and they were approved by the executive board.
And Disneyland? Crisanta says it was for a union-related conference; she also insists that the Puerto Rican vacation was accidentally charged to her father's union card. When he noticed it, he paid the union back, she says.
Come January 1, Cordova says she will clean up Local 7.
The first thing she plans to do is bring in an independent company to thoroughly audit the union's books "so the members know how their money was being spent, and we'll make sure we're on a clean slate going forward." She also plans to invite the Department of Labor to talk to the new executive board to make sure its members understand what they can and cannot question. "I don't want a rubber stamp," Cordova says. "I want people to say, 'What are you doing, and why are you doing that?'"
She wants to reinforce spending policies, institute a new rule against nepotism and prohibit the union from suing members with money collected from their own dues, which range from $40 to $65 per month. "We're definitely going to make change," she says. "I campaigned with the promise of change, and change is coming January 1."
Cordova says she and Duran haven't spoken since the day she told him she planned to challenge him. "He has not acknowledged that I won the election; he hasn't called me to congratulate me. He told the members, 'If anybody runs against me and they win, I'll shake their hand,' and he has yet to do that."
Cordova says she knows it will take time for "the membership to heal," but the Bakery Clerk says she's the right woman for the job.
"This shows the workers that you really are the union," she says, "when you can be a rank-and-file member and stand up and say, 'This is my union and we know what we want. We know what's important to us.'"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.