With just a few days left in the contracts and a handful of bargaining sessions to go, the union representing employees at Colorado’s two largest grocery chains says it will hold votes to strike against King Soopers for what it says are unfair labor practices.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 said Thursday the decision follows a series of moves it says amount to unfair labor practices by King Soopers. Kim Cordova, president of the union, on Wednesday assailed the company’s release to employees and the media of a proposal on pay and benefits that didn’t include concessions union members would have to make for the higher pay.
The strike votes are scheduled for Sunday in Denver and Monday in Colorado Springs. Workers would stay on the job until Jan. 9, the day after the union’s contracts with King Soopers and Albertsons expire.
The votes are separate from the contract being negotiated and wouldn’t apply to Albertsons, which owns Albertsons and Safeway stores in Colorado.
However, Cordova said both Albertons and Kroger, which owns King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado, are seeking concessions from workers even as workers’ lives have been upended by the pandemic and the industry has reported record profits.
“The workers have been on the front lines, just like health care workers. They’re the critical link to the food supply chain,” Cordova said. “Instead of coming in and sharing their profits, the companies have come in asking for outrageous concessions.”
The companies have proposed limits on the amount of sick leave people can accrue and take annually and they want changes to overtime pay, Cordova said. Union members are also concerned about pay, a lack of adequate staffing, the outsourcing of jobs and safety as coronavirus cases surge again, she added.
“From the point of view of the union, it’s really convenient that their contract is up now because this is a moment when labor has a lot of power in the labor market,” said Jeffrey Zax, an economics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Zax said he was surprised that companies would seek concessions from workers in the middle of labor shortages and a pandemic. “This is the least favorable time for employers to take a hard stand that I can remember in my professional life of 40-odd years,” he said.
Labor has flexed its muscles across the country as the job market has tightened and millions of people have quit their jobs or failed to return from furloughs as part of what’s been called “The Great Resignation.” Workers at Kellogg Co. plants recently ended an 11-week strike.
In Colorado and four other states, Nabisco workers ended a strike in September and approved a new four-year contract with parent company Mondelez International.
Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, grocery workers were designated as essential employees. The large companies gave employees an extra $2 an hour in “hazard pay” but ended it after a couple of months. Two union-covered employees at Safeway/Albertsons have died from COVID-19 and five employees at King Soopers have died.
Altogether, more than 2,000 employees for the two chains have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began.
In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, the UFCW Local 7 accuses King Soopers of violating the current contract by using third-party staffing services to do union-covered work. King Soopers declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The union represents about 17,000 grocery employees in Colorado and Wyoming. It is negotiating separately with Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the state and the U.S., and Albertsons Cos., which acquired Safeway in 2015.
“Negotiations with Albertsons/Safeway and UFCW Local 7 are progressing,” company spokeswoman Kris Staaf said in an email.
The company has met four times with the UFCW Local 7 and will go to the table again Jan. 6-7, Staaf said.
Kroger spokeswoman Kelli McGannon said the company is willing to work with the union as long as it takes to reach an agreement that is good for the employees.
But Kroger’s announcement Wednesday of a proposal for new spending on wages, health care and pension plans, including more than $145 million in pay over the next four years, drew a harsh response from Cordova. She said Kroger’s statement to the media and employees omitted concessions workers would have to make, such as higher health care premiums and reduced benefits.
“Because these changes would no doubt hurt our members and their families, Local 7 members have opted to turn down this offer,” Cordova said in a news release.
Kroger said its offer would have boosted more than 75% of the employees’ average hourly wage to over $18, with more than 50% making over $20 an hour on average.
Sandy Chavez, a 38-year Safeway employee, called the companies’ proposals “a gut punch.”
“I know how negotiations work. I’ve been through several of them,” Chavez said. “But after two years in a pandemic and grocery workers having sacrificed, and some having sacrificed with their lives, I’m so angry with these companies.”
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.
Grocery employees in Oregon went on strike against the Kroger-owned Fred Meyer and Quality Food Centers stores on Dec. 18. They returned to work the next day after reaching a tentative settlement, The Oregonian reported.
Cordova said Kroger is making preparations to hire temporary replacement workers in case of a strike in Colorado and showed The Denver Post a copy of a flyer advertising jobs for $18 an hour. She said the company advertised for temporary workers in Oregon.
McGannon said Kroger isn’t currently looking for replacement workers in Colorado but is taking steps, including printing signs, in case of a strike. “We do have an obligation to provide our community access to fresh produce and essentials.”
Union members at King Soopers and Safeway said the idea of paying replacement workers more than many of the current employees get is insulting.
“The businesses we used to compete with for this pool of workers, they’ve all upped their pay by multiple dollars per hour. That’s why we’re having a hard time attracting new workers into our stores,” said Matt Sturbaum, who has worked for Safeway for 18 years.
Kenny Sanchez, who has worked for King Soopers for 10 years, blamed the wages for staffing shortages.
“Hobby Lobby is paying $18.50 an hour to start. I’ve seen Target signs that are starting people at $19.50, plus a premium,” said Sanchez, who works at a Broomfield store. “The hard money is no longer at King Soopers.”
Kroger spokeswoman Jessica Trowbridge said the company has a little under 2,100 openings in King Soopers and City Market stores across Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. She said in an email that while King Soopers is not immune to the labor shortages affecting industries nationwide, it is “committed to doing all we can to recruit and train talent to support our valued associates.”
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.
Albertsons reported sales and other revenue of $16.5 billion in the second quarter of 2021, compared to $15.8 billion for the same period in 2020.
Source: Read Full Article