King Soopers

King Soopers on Cheyenne Meadows Road in Colorado Springs.

Union workers at King Soopers stores in Colorado will go on strike at 5 a.m. Wednesday to demand better pay and work conditions, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 announced Friday.

King Soopers, the Denver-based grocery chain, called the action “reckless and disruptive” and urged the union “to consider the full implications for its members and the Colorado community.”

Local 7’s strike announcement and King Soopers’ response follow increasingly acrimonious contract talks in recent weeks between the union, which represents about 17,000 grocery workers, and the chain that’s owned by supermarket giant Kroger of Cincinnati.  Around 58% of King Soopers employees are members of the union.

The union has alleged unfair labor practices on the part of King Soopers, while the grocery has said it made a significant contract offer that would substantially boost employee compensation and benefits.

The union’s current contract with King Soopers is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

A strike will have a debilitating effect on the grocery chain, Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7 in Colorado and Wyoming, predicted Friday.

Labor shortages already have hit King Soopers, which like other stores has seen some employees out of work because of COVID-19 or because they chose to quit as part of the Great Resignation that's swept the nation.

“They have a staffing problem now,” Cordova said. And with a strike, she said, "the company will not be able to continue to provide the service necessary to keep those stores running.”

The strike could affect dozens of stores in the Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Parker and Broomfield areas and is scheduled to last until Feb. 2, though it could be extended, Cordova said.

It remains to be seen, however, how the strike will play out at individual stores and what customers might experience.

Cordova said the union could pull workers from stores all at once or pick and choose from which stores to pull workers and do so incrementally.

“We know what we’re doing, our members and us know what stores we’ll be selecting, what stores go out at what time,” Cordova said. “We can pull them out at any time we want. … There’s a lot of strategy around this.”

Local 7 and King Soopers began negotiations in October, but talks became contentious last week.

The union sued the grocery in federal court, alleging it violated its contract by paying third-party contractors higher rates to stock shelves. King Soopers denied the allegations and said it was disappointed Local 7 went to court.

In separate votes Jan. 1 and Monday, union members in Denver and Colorado Springs, respectively, overwhelmingly authorized a strike.

Local 7’s leadership then rejected what King Soopers called its “comprehensive best offer” on a new labor deal, which the grocery says included wage hikes and signing bonuses totaling more than $148 million over three years.

That offer, however, is “riddled with concessions” that King Soopers wants from the union on issues such as health care, full-time jobs, seniority and safety, Cordova said.

The union, meanwhile, made its own “comprehensive offer” and is waiting for King Soopers to respond, Cordoova said.

No negotiations were scheduled with the grocery as of Friday afternoon, she said.

A statement released by the grocery Thursday, which included financial details of its offer to the union, quoted King Soopers president Joe Kelley as saying the chain’s goal is to provide “market competitive wages and benefits that we know are so important to our associates and their families.”

That offer included wage increases up to $4.50 an hour in the first year, based on job classifications and tenure, and additional increases over the life of the contract, King Soopers said. Starting pay would be increased to $16 an hour.

King Soopers also said the proposed contract would have “$0 impact to health care benefits based on current projections.” The grocery also would pay contract “ratification bonuses” of $4,000 for employees who’ve been with the company for more than 10 years and $2,000 for workers with less than 10 years of service.

In its response to the union’s strike announcement Friday, King Soopers said Local 7 should allow employees to vote on the grocery’s latest contract proposal.

“We think our associates should have a right to vote on the comprehensive best offer to settle, because ultimately it impacts their pockets, as does a strike,” Kelley said. “We know that a work stoppage creates a troubling position that often leads to financial hardships for our associates.”

Some of Local 7’s contracts, including one covering meat department workers in Colorado Springs, don’t expire until Feb. 19. Talks continued for more than two months after a previous agreement expired in 2019 and Local 7 hasn’t conducted a strike since members walked off the job at Safeway for 1½ months in 1996.

Local 7 continues to negotiate an agreement with Idaho-based Albertsons, which operates Safeway and Albertsons stores in Colorado.

A current contract with Albertsons-Safeway has been extended, Cordova said, and the union and company have made slight progress toward a new deal.