U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke out Thursday in support of the King Soopers employees on strike in the Denver area, urging the CEO of the grocery chain’s parent company to reach a fair agreement that treats workers “with the respect and the dignity that they deserve.”
The independent senator and former presidential candidate wrote in a letter sent to Kroger Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen that he understood from conversations with workers that the company has proposed raises of as little 13 cents an hour and cutbacks to health care and overtime.
King Soopers has proposed raising the starting pay to $16 an hour, which is 13 cents above Denver’s minimum wage.
“Mr. McMullen: During the pandemic, you received a $6.4 million increase in total compensation (a 45 percent pay raise) and now make over $20 million,” Sanders said in the letter sent Thursday.
If Kroger can afford to pay the CEO more than $20 million and spend more than $1.5 billion on stock buybacks, it can afford to provide its employees “good benefits, safe working conditions and reliable work schedules,” Sanders said.
King Soopers didn’t respond to a request for comment on the senator’s letter.
More than 8,000 workers at King Soopers stores in Boulder, the Denver area and Parker walked off the job Jan. 12 after the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 rejected what the company called its best offer. The union said the strike is a response to what it says are unfair labor practices.
The stores’ contracts with King Soopers expired Jan. 8. Other contracts with King Soopers and City Market, also owned by Kroger, run out toward the end of January and in February.
In an interview with The Denver Post, Sanders said it appears there are serious negotiations going on between King Soopers and the union.
“That’s a good thing, and I certainly hope that an agreement is reached that the union feels good about,” Sanders said.
The senator said he has been involved in strikes across the country and union organizing efforts, including at Starbucks.
“I think the American people are sick and tired of the corporate greed that we are seeing in which the very wealthiest people and CEOs of large corporations are doing phenomenally well while working people are struggling,” Sanders said.
Of particular concern with the King Soopers strike is that the employees kept working in the midst of “the terrible, terrible pandemic,” Sanders said.
“They are the people who make sure folks get the groceries that they need and in a sense they are almost putting their lives on the line to make sure that that service is carried out,” Sanders said. “It is a dangerous job and those workers deserve respect and decent wages, decent working conditions and safety on the job.”
Employees at King Soopers and other grocery stores received an extra $2 an hour as hazard pay early in the coronavirus pandemic. The pay ended a couple of months later, in May 2020.
The two sides resumed bargaining Friday after stopping talks Jan. 6. While negotiations have continued, the two sides have accused each other of little or no movement on the issues. King Soopers was granted a temporary restraining order Tuesday that limits the number of picketers to 10 on the stores’ premises.
King Soopers filed a complaint in Denver District Court that claims striking workers have blocked customers’ access and deliveries to stores, intimidated and threatened customers, vendors and employees; and damaged property.
Kim Cordova, union president, called the allegations baseless and an attempt to silence workers’ voices.
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