Employees of Colorado King Soopers and City Market stores begin voting today on their first strike authorization since 1996.
That means around 12,000 unionized butchers, cashiers and shelf-stockers might soon walk off the job.
An authorization vote doesn’t mean a strike would start right away. The vote gives workers leverage in ongoing negotiations with the grocery chain, said Evan Yeats, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7.
“Striking is a tough decision for everybody and we hope it doesn’t come to that,” Yeats said. “The vote just gives the bargaining committee the ability to call the strike when they need to.”
The union, which represents about half of all King Soopers and City Market employees in Colorado, is pushing for raises, increased health care benefits and the creation of more full-time jobs.
Negotiations between representatives of the two sides have dragged on since mid-December.
But in a statement issued late last week, UCFW Local 7 said talks ended abruptly on March 8 when King Soopers and City Market representatives “walked out of the room and didn’t return.”
“King Soopers and City Market said they didn’t want to negotiate further and left in the middle of scheduled bargaining,” the union said in their statement. “This is part of a continuing pattern of King Soopers and City Market ignoring federal law by not bargaining in good faith and attempting to intimidate UFCW members.”
In a separate statement, Dennis Gibson, president of King Soopers and City Market, encouraged employees voting on Thursday and Friday to consider the company’s current offer, which Gibson says includes some wage increases, job openings and retirement benefits.
“Despite the transformation occurring in the grocery industry, we continue to make significant investments in our associates,” Gibson said. “We have come to this offer with each of our associates in mind. I am confident when our associates read through the details of this offer they will see we are making significant investments in them.”
In preparation for the the potential strike, the company has started hiring temporary workers.
A sign posted at a King Soopers in Fort Collins advertised positions for the meat and deli departments as well as the in-store Starbucks kiosk.
“Once negotiations stopped we made preparations to ensure our stores can continue to serve our communities,” the company said.
King Soopers operates 159 stores in Colorado and is headquartered in Denver. Grocery-giant Kroger bought the chain in 1983.
Members of UCFW Local 7 will cast their votes in a series of meetings taking place Thursday and Friday in Denver.
Doug Irwin, a meat cutter at King Soopers in Greeley, has worked for King Soopers for more than two decades and makes $20.40 an hour. He said he plans to vote to authorize a strike because he isn’t happy with the opportunities for raises.
“We call them the ‘Kroger quarter’ because they’re always 25 cents,” he said. “That’s what they’ve been ever since I’ve been in the company.”
Irwin said he works another part-time job moving furniture to pay for his family’s expenses.
“It’s a struggle,” he said. “We have four kids. My son had foot surgery a few years ago and that was a tough one.”
Irwin said the decision to vote for a strike isn’t an easy one.
“I think everybody struggles with that,” he said. “Not only for us right now but for the next people that come in to work — it’s what we’re also looking at.”