Business

As Strike Looms, Union Portrays Working at King Soopers as a COVID-Era Nightmare

UFCW Local 7 president Kim Cordova speaking during a January 10 press conference.
UFCW Local 7 president Kim Cordova speaking during a January 10 press conference. UFCW Local 7
Workers affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 are scheduled to launch a strike against King Soopers, Colorado's largest grocery chain, with picket lines slated to stand outside stores in metro Denver as of 5 a.m. tomorrow, January 12 — and the two sides are clearly ready for battle.

As promised, Kroger-owned King Soopers has filed a claim of unfair practices against Local 7 with the National Labor Relations Board. The document was shared during a January 10 press conference during which Kim Cordova, union president and vice president of UFCW International, made working at King Soopers during the COVID-19 pandemic seem like an endless horror.

Among other things, Cordova said that Local 7 has been making requests for armed security at stores since 2018 — long before the March 2021 attack on a Boulder King Soopers that killed ten people. "We've seen an uptick in violent crimes in our stores. ... We've had violent behaviors, with customers spitting, slapping, pushing our members, attacking them, sometimes, in the middle of this mask issue," she detailed. "They've been verbally and physically assaulted, but the company won't provide armed security."

Cordova began her address by recognizing what she called "the sacrifice that our essential workers have made. We would not be here today without them working so hard and the company failing to respect them and pay them." As a result, she added, "we are about a day and a half away from engaging in the largest grocery worker dispute we've had since 1996." That 42-day walkout also included a strike at Safeway stores, which aren't included this time around. However, Cordova hinted that "a number of other contracts around the state are starting to expire in the next couple of weeks."

According to Cordova, negotiations with King Soopers have been hampered by the company, which has used representatives from the national chain and corporate lawyers from such places as California, Cincinnati and Portland, as opposed to local leadership, to negotiate. She suggested that the reps "are not in touch with what's going on here...the high cost of living and housing. They don't understand our contract and Colorado values." Moreover, she maintains that Joe Kelly, president of King Soopers and City Market, the nameplate used by stores in many mountain and Western Slope communities, stopped by the talks for just nine minutes before exiting.

She also blasted King Soopers for eliminating so-called hazard pay for grocery workers "only weeks into the pandemic." By her estimate, more than 2,000 workers in the state have been exposed to COVID and several have died from the disease. Additionally, she linked empty store shelves and early closures of in-store delis, coffee shops and other offerings to King Soopers "systematically choosing to pay low minimum wage. The great resignation is real: Workers are rethinking their relationship with work, and that's what's happening at King Soopers." She said the latest contract offer from the company, which was rejected by Local 7's bargaining committee, set the entry-level wage for employees in Denver at just thirteen cents above minimum wage — "and that thirteen cents isn't going to improve the lives of our grocery workers."

After comments from a couple of grocery workers, including one who told of a longtime colleague who has to live in a homeless shelter because his wages are so paltry, Cordova promised that picket lines with be in place early on January 12 at metro Denver stores, where workers will encourage potential customers to shop elsewhere through the course of the labor action, which is scheduled to continue until February 2.

Here's a video of the press conference:
Meanwhile, the latest press release from King Soopers notes that the company "filed unfair labor practice charges against UFCW Local 7 for refusing to bargain in good faith."

Here are the main claims from the NLRB filing:
• The Union has refused to engage in any meaningful discussions regarding the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement. On December 29, 2021, King Soopers presented its comprehensive offer. The Union summarily rejected the offer without review or discussion. The Union did not present a counteroffer or otherwise engage in any discussion regarding King Soopers’ proposals and abruptly ended the meeting.

• King Soopers offered to meet and negotiate every day for the remainder of the week and any time. The Union refused to schedule any meetings or meet. Most recently, the Union has refused to meet and negotiate since the early morning hours of January 6, 2022, even after numerous requests by King Soopers to engage in bargaining.

• On December 30, 2021, the Union began notifying the press, the public and its bargaining unit members that they would be conducting authorization votes for a “strike” commencing at midnight on January 8, 2022. On January 7, 2022, the Union announced that the strike would commence at 5:00 a.m. on January 12, 2022.

• Since October 2021, the Union refuses to meet and negotiate at reasonable times and places and with assistance of telefeed communication to avoid disruption of the bargaining.

• The Union has made and insisted on unreasonable contract proposals that it knew would be unacceptable to King Soopers in an attempt to delay and frustrate bargaining. For example, on January 6, 2022, at 3:30 a.m., the Union transmitted an unreasonable proposal knowing it would be unacceptable to King Soopers to further frustrate bargaining and delay negotiations until the contract expires and striking could commence.

• The Union continues to insist on bargaining for units not included in these present negotiations and over illegal subjects.

• The Union refuses to use the assistance of the federal mediation process.
This last assertion was acknowledged by Cordova. She said that Local 7 doesn't want to enter into federal mediation because the process hasn't worked in the past and prevents her team from speaking directly to the company. "Our goal is not to hurt King Soopers," she insisted. "What we want is to make King Soopers a better place to work, where people can afford to live in the city in which they work."

Click to read the King Soopers unfair labor practices filing.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts