Over 8,000 workers at King Soopers and City Markets grocery stores across Colorado are entering their sixth day of an unfair labor practice strike against industry giant Kroger. On January 3rd, the workers, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7, voted nearly unanimously to strike amid contract negotiations. Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, has come under fire for low pay and poor working conditions.
UFCW filed an unfair labor practice strike in response to actions such as King Soopers’ attempts to hire non-union workers to perform union jobs, circumvent the union, negotiating directly with workers rather than through the union, and prohibiting union activity. According to US labor law, workers striking due to unfair labor practices cannot be replaced; despite this, Kroger has still attempted to hire “scab” workers.
The strike has come about as workers fight for a contract that provides a raise of at least $6 per hour, better health and retirement benefits, and “a safe place for employees to work and customers to shop”.
Kroger workers face the bitter irony of working shifts surrounded by food, while not being able to make enough to feed their families. A survey conducted by the Economic Roundtable and UFCW found staggering rates of poverty among Kroger workers. Workers at Kroger stores reportedly face a rate of food insecurity that is seven times the US average. The same report found that of these grocery store workers, 39% are unable to pay for groceries.
Jeanne, who has worked at a Kroger supermarket for three years, told Buzzfeed News that she relies on her neighbor to supplement her groceries: “If she didn’t leave me eggs and bread, my son and I would starve,” she said.
Workers also face high rates of homelessness. 44% of Kroger workers are unable to make rent, and 14% are currently or have been homeless in the past year. For workers ages 21 to 29 years, the majority (53%) report that they cannot make rent. “There are workers living in their cars because they can’t afford to live in the city in which they work or their wages don’t allow them to afford rent in Denver, or in Colorado at all,” Kim Cordova, president of Local 7, told Jacobin.
Workers experience these hardships all while risking their lives to provide an essential service during a pandemic. As one striking worker reported, “I got COVID twice…[my daughter] has had [COVID] twice. Every time I get it, she gets it.”
To compensate for the risk of working in a grocery store during the pandemic, Kroger briefly instated its “hero pay” raise of two dollars per hour at the outset of the pandemic, a program which lasted just one and a half months before being cut. Kroger even went as far as closing stores in cities mandating hazard pay. “It becomes impossible to operate these three stores,” Kroger said in a statement after announcing it would close stores in Los Angeles following a $5 per hour hazard pay mandate.
However, in light of the record profit accumulated by Kroger during the pandemic, it becomes difficult to believe that the multi-billion dollar company cannot afford hazard pay for its workers. CEO Rodney McMullen raked in a staggering $22.4 million during the first and worst year of the pandemic, the same year that so-called “hero pay” was cut after one and a half months. This was in fact the most he’s ever earned since becoming Kroger’s CEO. Kroger itself raked in $132.5 billion in sales during 2020. As a result of the strike, Kroger is offering scab workers $18 per hour, two dollars more than union workers are paid, proving that they in fact can afford to raise wages for their staff.
I stand in solidarity with the 8,400 striking workers at Kroger in Colorado. If Kroger can afford to pay its CEO over $20 million and spend $1 billion on stock buybacks, you know what? It can afford to pay its workers better wages and benefits with safe working conditions.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 12, 2022
UFCW released a statement on Friday alleging that King Soopers’ latest offer is worse than any previous ones, as it proposes to cut previously offered $4,000 bonuses, overtime pay, and calls for wage cuts for some workers. As a result, workers are continuing to strike, drawing support from politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and other unions such as the Teamsters. Despite attacks by the company, such as claiming that the strike is “undemocratic” or that workers have been “manipulated” despite a near-unanimous vote, King Soopers workers show no signs of backing down from their fight.