The grocery chain, in turn, rejected a union plan that included a $6-per-hour wage increase and new security requirements — protocols sought in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a King Soopers store in Boulder last year.
The walkout is the latest pushback by workers who have toiled through pandemic conditions, staff shortages and supply chain tie-ups while their companies have recorded soaring profits. In the past year, scores of strikes have been authorized, including by Kellogg’s, Nabisco and John Deere workers, as part of a new wave of labor activism.
In a statement, Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local chapter in Denver, accused the company of enriching its bottom line on the backs of store workers who have risked their lives during the pandemic.
“King Soopers is enjoying record profits while leaving its workers to struggle with low wages,” Cordova said. “Grocery workers ensure that our communities have access to food, but they cannot even afford to feed their own families. This is grossly unfair.”
But Kroger contends the union is “reckless and self-serving,” accusing union officials of acting “without regard for the implications to associates and Coloradans,” in a news release Wednesday.
King Soopers president Joe Kelley accused Cordova of denying workers the right to vote on the company’s most recent contract offer. “Local 7 is putting politics before people and preventing us from putting more money in our associates’ pockets,” Kelley said in a statement.
In Denver, workers began lining up to picket before daybreak Wednesday. In interviews, they said they joined the walkout over concerns about wages, security and more.
Liz Wesley, a floral manager at a King Soopers in Colorado Springs who joined picketers in Denver, said she’s had a hard time retaining workers because entry-level wages have risen quickly at nearby fast-food restaurants.
The 17-year employee says her King Soopers job made it possible for her to buy the home where she raised two children. But newer hires are having trouble meeting the cost of living, and the company’s raises haven’t kept up. She says she is aware of colleagues who are homeless or live in their cars.
Wesley says she started at about $16 per hour in 2005 and makes about $20.50 today. Her pay has edged up 35 cents an hour each of the past three years, she says.
“We can’t afford to live in the communities that we serve anymore,” Wesley said.
The company contends that it has invested significantly in wages for front-line workers, increasing its national average from $13.66 to $16.68 an hour since 2017, according to financial data provided by a company spokesperson.
Wesley also expressed concerns about security, recalling an incident last year in which a man ran through the store with a machete. Another King Soopers, in nearby Boulder, was the site of a mass shooting in March 2021 that left 10 people dead, including three store employees.
The union, in a Jan. 6 proposal, sought a slate of guarantees meant to protect workers and customers from a mass-casualty event. It sought regular trainings on how to recognize a potential emergency and de-escalate when possible, along with detailed evacuation plans for a worst-case scenario.
The proposal included language saying workers don’t bear any responsibility for protecting merchandise during an emergency. It also would have required the company to have an armed guard present at every store when employees are on duty. And the company would be obliged to pay for trauma counseling following any event labeled a “dangerous emergency,” defined as an incident that could or does result in mass injuries or deaths.
Steve Ponzio, a produce clerk at a King Soopers in south Denver, said his store didn’t have armed security until after the union authorized a strike on Jan. 7.
“There’s security now; all the stores have security now, as of about a week ago,” Ponzio said. “There were no security guards in the stores before that.”
A Kroger spokesperson did not speak directly to the state of the company’s security efforts, other than to promise to support workers when they feel unsafe.
“We care about our associates, and we have always supported associates when a tragedy or an emergency situation has occurred, and we always will,” a Kroger spokesperson said. “As an organization, we remain committed to creating a safe shopping environment and supporting our associates with on-demand access to mental health resources as well as personal safety training.”
The spokesperson urged the union to allow workers to vote on one of its offers: “We respect our associates’ right to choose and the [union] should do the same."
The company intends to keep its 77 Colorado stores open during the strike. “We have contingency plans in place, and team members from across the country have traveled in to support efforts coupled with the hiring of temporary workers,” a Kroger spokesperson said in an email.
Kroger is one of the nation’s largest retailers, with $132 billion in annual sales. It operates roughly 2,750 grocery stores under 25 brands, including Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, Ralphs and Food 4 Less.