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."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar

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