UPDATE Thursday, Jan. 13: Some Denver-area King Soopers pharmacy customers are being told to expect limited hours. Here’s what we know. Sign up for our newsletter for updates on this and other Denver stories.
When Mark Fry, a meat cutter at the Bear Valley King Soopers, got COVID-19 last January, he spent 64 days in the hospital. Doctors put him on a ventilator for three weeks, he said. He nearly died.
But the 58-year-old recovered and went back to work. In the months after his experience, he started to notice more customers not wearing masks while shopping, he said. Some would even remove their masks to speak to him over the counter.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We’re exposed to (COVID) all day and there’s no one enforcing it. It shouldn’t be that way.”
On Wednesday, Fry walked off the job along with thousands of other King Soopers workers in one of the city’s largest labor actions since the start of the pandemic. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 called for the strike in Denver after contract negotiations with Kroger, King Soopers’ parent company, stalled earlier this month.
Employees at 14 Denver stores are striking, and workers in Aurora, Lakewood, Littleton and other suburbs also walked out (the union plans to eventually pull workers from Colorado Springs locations).
Along with better PPE and tougher safety measures at work, the union wants higher wages and better benefits for grocery clerks, baggers, checkers, stockers and many other positions inside stores. The company has presented multiple offers, all of which the union has rejected.
The union is also suing King Soopers for hiring temporary workers to fill union jobs. In the suit, the union alleges that the company also paid temporary workers higher wages than union members.
“We’re fed up,” said Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7. “The workers have stayed loyal to this company. But the company has turned its back on them when they needed them the most.”
The company denies any wrongdoing. On Tuesday, it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the union for refusing to accept the help of a federal mediator to resolve the dispute.
Picket lines fanned out in front of stores across the city Wednesday. Workers and supporters carried signs saying, “Please do not patronize.”
Resident Frank Brown stood outside the Bear Valley King Soopers alongside workers. Brown said he has shopped at local King Soopers stores for 31 years. When he heard the strike was happening, he decided to make a sign and join picketers.
“I think customers realize that the employees are valuable,” Brown said. “They’re frontline workers, essential workers. They’re the same as doctors and nurses as far as I’m concerned, so treat them fair.”
Renata Higgins, a shopper, visited her local store on West Florida Avenue and found a demonstration taking place. She also decided to join in support of their efforts.
“I think a company as big as King Soopers can pay these people what they want,” Higgins said. “These people are here putting their lives on the line and they’re doing a great job.”
Stores and essential services, such as pharmacies, remained open. King Soopers also reduced prices for its curbside delivery services before the strike began.
In a statement Wednesday, Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market, called the demonstration “reckless.” He also accused union leaders of organizing the strike for “self-serving” purposes.
“Local 7 is putting politics before people and preventing us from putting more money in our associates’ pockets,” Kelley said. “Creating more disruption for our associates, their families, and Coloradans rather than negotiating for a peaceful resolution is irresponsible and undemocratic.”
On Tuesday, the company presented the union with its “last, best and final” offer, which the union rejected. In a statement, the company said it includes a $170 million investment in wage increases, ratification bonuses and improved healthcare benefits. The company also plans to increase its starting rate of pay to $16 an hour, according to the statement.
“At King Soopers, we want what is right for our associates, and that is more money in their paychecks while continuing to receive industry-leading healthcare benefits,” said Kelley, King Soopers’ president.
Union leaders argue the plan contains a host of unfair concessions around wages, benefits and the ability to hire gig workers in-store. UFCW Local 7 said it has presented its own proposal to the company, but did not release details.
Outside the King Soopers on Sheridan Boulevard, about a dozen workers on strike waved signs and cheered as cars passed. Each time a vehicle turned into the store’s parking lot, workers moved to the edge of the sidewalk and got louder.
They chanted, “Don’t shop at Kings! Don’t shop and Kings! Don’t shop at Kings!”
Patrick Mohler, a deli chef, said he hopes to see King Soopers raise starting wages closer to $20 an hour in order to compete with other employers in the Denver metro area. He said he frequently works more than 60 hour weeks because the store’s deli counter is so understaffed.
“The only vacation we take is if we get COVID,” Mohler said. “No workplace should be like that.”
Cassie Cahill, an overnight shelf stocker, passed out hand warmers and water bottles to a crowd of strikers.
She shivered from the cold, but said workers would picket for as long as it takes to get results. Her biggest hope is to see a few more security guards in stores to help enforce mask requirements and protect staff and customers.
“We’re not asking for anything too drastic,” Cahill said. “We’re just asking basically to be respected and to have our thoughts heard.”
The strike could last up to three weeks, according to the union. Kroger requested the help of a federal mediator to resolve the dispute earlier this week, but new bargaining sessions have not been scheduled.
Here are the stores in Denver that are striking:
1331 N Speer Blvd
1355 Krameria St
5125 W Florida
3100 S Sheridan
825 S Colorado Blvd
6470 E Hampden Ave
1155 E 9th Ave
890 S Monaco Pkwy
2727 W Evans
2750 S Colorado Blvd
18605 Green Valley Ranch Blvd
2810 Quebec St
1950 Chestnut Place
10406 Martin Luther King Blvd
Kevin J. Beaty contributed to this reporting.