King Soopers, City Market workers in Denver, Colorado Springs authorize strike as contract deadline looms

Essential Workers King Soopers
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
King Soopers in Capitol Hill in Denver, June 24, 2020.

Denver and Colorado Springs-area King Soopers and City Market grocery workers voted overwhelmingly Monday to authorize a strike against the supermarket chain, adding pressure to ongoing contract negotiations set to wrap up this week.

More than 97 percent of Denver union members who voted Sunday approved a strike in response to alleged unfair labor practices. At least 95 percent of Colorado Springs members who voted were in favor Monday.

“It’s evident that workers are fed up,” said Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents roughly 17,000 King Soopers and City Market retail and butcher workers in the state. “They’re upset with their employer with the way they’ve handled negotiations and the lack of respect the company has for them.” 

The vote allows the union power to call a strike if bargaining members are unable to reach a deal with the company. The two sides have been in negotiations for weeks, and the current contract expires January 8. If a strike occurs, workers could walk off the job as early as January 9. 

Last week, the union turned down a proposal from the company, which included more than $145 million in pay raises and new investments in health care and pension plans. Under that version of the contract, individual workers would get an annual 50-cent-per-hour wage raise over the next four years.

Many workers are burnt out and frustrated after almost two years of the pandemic, and Cordova says they feel that work was not rewarded in the latest proposal. Union leaders say it contained a host of unfair concessions, such as a two-tier wage system that would mean less pay for workers in smaller cities. 

On top of wage increases, the union wants to see better safety and security measures at stores, such as armed security guards and additional personal protective equipment. They are also seeking more affordable health care. 

The company said its proposal brings 75 percent of hourly wages up to more than $18 an hour. 

“We will continue to do everything we can to balance investments in wages and overall well-being while keeping food affordable for our customers,” said Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market.

The union organized its strike vote after the company allegedly hired temporary workers to fill vacancies in many stores. Labor shortages and high COVID-19 case numbers have plagued grocery stores over the past several months. 

Starting in November, King Soopers began hiring “scab” workers to perform union jobs, such as shelf stocking, according to a lawsuit UFCW Local 7 filed in U.S. District Court last week.  It also paid them a higher wage than regular associates, the suit states.

King Soopers declined to comment on the litigation.

“It hinders our ability to negotiate a good and fair contract because of these violations,” union head Cordova said. 

Liz Wesley, a King Soopers florist, voted in favor of the strike in Colorado Springs Monday. She’s worked at the company’s stores for 17 years, and she called the company’s hiring of temporary workers a “slap in the face” to long-time employees. 

“It’s not anyone’s first choice to strike,” she said. “We want them to pay attention and to hold them accountable.” 

The company plans to continue bargaining regardless of the strike vote outcome, according to a statement.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the strike vote turnout.