What’s Working: King Soopers labor strike isn’t the first. Here’s why we’ll probably see more


If you haven’t heard, King Soopers employees are on strike to protest unfair labor practices. Not all of them — only those at 77 stores from Boulder to Parker.

But more may join soon as employment contracts in Pueblo, Fort Collins, Greeley and elsewhere expire this month or next. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 represents 17,000 grocery workers in Colorado and Wyoming. About 8,000 of them are now on strike. 

On Friday, King Soopers and union negotiators met to negotiate for the first time in nearly a week but talks broke down by evening with the company calling the union’s proposals “supposals” and the union said the grocer offered “no new economic gains.”

Employees and supporters gather at a King Soopers on Thursday in Glendale. Thousands of workers are expected to participate in a three-week strike at King Soopers, though more may be joining as other union contracts expire until February 2022. King Soopers on Tuesday upped its offer to invest $170 million over three years in wages and bonuses, an offer that was 17% higher than two weeks ago. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

This is a packed column today that touches on lingering pandemic unemployment cases, who’s quitting their jobs and, well, jobs. But as we’re in the middle of the first grocery store strike in decades, let’s start there.

It seems strange that there hasn’t been a grocery store strike in Colorado since 1996, when union workers hit the picket lines for 44 days. After it ended, most workers received a 2% annual raise for three years, plus better pensions and benefits, The Gazette reported at the time.

But in digging a little deeper, grocery workers were thisclose to striking a few times. In 2009, Local 7 workers authorized a strike against Safeway but national union leadership wouldn’t approve it, which also happened in 2004, according to a Denver Post story. In 2019, the union and King Soopers and City Market reached a tentative deal about 10 days after members voted to authorize a strike. 

And after all that, the final contract provided a minimum of $12.35 an hour in 2021, a wage that barely kept up with the state’s rising minimum wage. It didn’t keep up with Denver’s wage, which was $14.77 last year. 

Getting higher wages is always part of any good union negotiation, but this time, the union is putting pressure on King Soopers to improve critical health and safety benefits, since the COVID pandemic created more health concerns and, in some cases, disruptive customers that threaten workplace safety. And there are also the economic pressures that are favoring workers.

“This is an interesting moment in economic history for employers to take a really strong stand,” said Jeffrey Zax, a professor of economics and labor expert at the University of Colorado. 

“The labor market is very tight. Employers across the economy across industries are struggling to find the workers that they want,” Zax said. “As a consequence, throughout the economy, workers are getting better and better deals. In other words, this is a time when workers have more market power than they’re used to.”

King Soopers’s most recent proposal puts the starting wage at $16, or 13 cents above Denver’s current minimum of $15.87. A full-time checker with five years experience, currently making $19.51 an hour, would get a $1.50 raise this year to $21.01. By 2024, the same checker’s wage would increase to $22.61.

The union, meanwhile, also has the lowest starting wage at $16 an hour, according to its proposal. Most other clerk positions would start at $18.56 this year and ratchet up to between $21.56 to $26.20 per hour by 2024, depending on experience.

Charissa Jameson, a clerk at the Greenwood Village store who has worked for King Soopers for 18 years, wants a livable wage. She and most of her coworkers earn less than $20 an hour. She’s hoping for at least $25. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Several workers I interviewed this week said they just want a livable wage. And if you live in the Denver area, they’re going to need $5 or $6 more per hour to get them above $25. 

“I can’t even afford ground beef right now,” said Charissa Jameson, a clerk who has worked at King Soopers for 18 years. “Ground beef is supposed to be the one meat I can get to feed my family because you can’t afford steak.”

Read the updates from each side:

Pandemic labor strikes are not so rare 

While grocery store strikes haven’t been common, many strikes have happened, or nearly happened, in the past year.

In August, workers at the Nabisco plant in Aurora went on strike to protest the company’s outsourcing of union jobs to Mexico and demand better wages “at a time when the company is making record profits,” its union said. They joined other Nabisco union members on strike in Oregon. The strike ended about five weeks later with a new contract. 

On Oct. 14, Deere & Co. factory employees went on strike in Colorado, Kansas and other states. Workers in Colorado later accepted a deal a few weeks later. 

Also in the fall, Kaiser Permanente nurses and health care workers in Colorado supported their Oregon and California colleagues, who voted to strike in October. The Colorado union avoided a strike of their own in December as its union, also UFCW Local 7, negotiated raises, better medical benefits and safer working conditions. 

There were a dozen “work stoppages” in the U.S. last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those are only the big ones. The BLS only tracks strikes that involve 1,000 or more workers and last one full shift or longer.

The Labor Action Tracker tracks work stoppages or potential strikes statewide and has so far tallied up about 260 in the past year. These include 6-person walk outs at Starbucks to 2,000 at Harvard University. The year-old project, from Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said it will take a few years to figure out trends but has noticed frontline workers are demanding more. (Screenshot)

Over at the year-old Labor Action Tracker from Cornell University, there have been 260 labor actions at 375 locations nationwide since Jan. 1, 2021. It picks up all labor actions that cause a stop in work through the team’s own research and public submissions — from the six workers at the first unionized Starbucks, in Buffalo, New York, to the 2,000-member union of Harvard University student workers seeking better compensation and benefits. 

“To only look at the really big strikes doesn’t really give us a sense of what’s happening and how workers are feeling about what’s going on in their workplaces,” said Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “It’s going to take us a few years before we’re able to say, yes, this is an unusual number of strikes or not.”

But, she added, she feels the number is unusually high. The pandemic has illuminated the difference between jobs that can be done remotely versus those that cannot, like grocery store work. In the Labor Action Tracker, more than half the strikes are workers in accommodation and food services, health care, manufacturing and retail industries.

“All of us have counted on grocery store workers to be there to stock the shelves and to give us the food we need. They’ve put themselves in a situation of extreme risk, especially during the early, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic,” DeVault said “They’ve had to go to work every day where they have to deal with a lot of different people coming in, some wearing masks and some who refuse and they either have to confront people not wearing masks or they have to just let those people breathe their germs. That’s a problem and it’s got a sector of the economy much more upset about their working conditions.”

Declining union activity may be on the rise again

Cornell’s ILR school started up after World War II during the heyday of organized labor. It became a training ground for negotiators both on the union and management sides, DeVault said. 

“In the early 1950s, about a third of all private sector workers were in unions, and now it’s about — oh, that’s a big drop — now we’re down to like 10% unionized overall, including not only private sector, but also public sector workers,” she said.

Inflation in the 1980s and a push to outsource labor outside of the U.S. resulted in a lot of blue-collar workers losing their jobs, which hurt labor unions. The instability caused workers to accept lower wages.  

But there’s evidence that there’s a renewed interest in labor unions. According to the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute, workers covered by unions grew to 12.1% in 2020, up from 11.6% the prior year.

And a recent Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, “the highest Gallup has measured since 71% in 1965,” according to the company that has measured public sentiment for since the 1930s. 

“That’s clearly a lot larger than 10%,” she said. “It’s an interesting moment about what’s going to happen. … In the past, big changes have come when so many people have been on strike and the strikes have been so disruptive that the famous American public and politicians have had to stop and say, ‘My god, what are we going to do? What is going to happen here?’ I don’t think we’re quite at that moment yet. But if grocery stores start having a wave of strikes and these things that really hit home to a lot of people start happening, we might get there.”


The Great Resignation may be slowing

Official Colorado data on how many people quit their jobs in November is not yet available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics but is expected next week (and it may take another week to make it to this column)..

But I reached out to Gusto, a payroll and benefits company in Denver. Through their own analysis of their data — they serve more than 200,000 small- to medium-sized business customers — people quit less in December than during the summer months, said Luke Pardue, Gusto’s lead economist.

Gusto, a Denver-based company that provides payroll and benefits services to small businesses, is now tracking “quits” data in real time, unlike the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shares data two to three months after it happened. In December, Colorado’s rate of people quitting their jobs fell to 3.38%, which was lower than where it was over the summer but higher than a year earlier. (Provided by Gusto)

Quit rates are still high though. While Colorado’s rate of people who quit reached 5.04% in August and was higher than the nation’s 4.94%, Colorado dropped to 3.38% in December, lower than the nation’s 3.44%.

“Colorado actually seems to be a bellwether for what’s happening in this Great Resignation across the country,” Pardue said. “We’ve seen this huge surge in quits that has happened beginning in the summer, and it has started to level off a little bit, but these quit rates remain at elevated levels.”

But even with Colorado and the U.S. dropping to under 4%, that’s higher than it was in December 2020. 

“The resignation may not be accelerating, but it certainly shows no signs of letting up,” he said. “It’s come down a little bit to 3.4% (in Colorado) in December, but once again, that’s elevated compared to the 2.8% quits rate that we saw in December of last year in Colorado.”

Interestingly, in light of the ongoing grocery strike, Pardue said that the most affected industry has been food and beverage, where quit rates were at 8%, compared with 2.6% for tech workers.

“These quit rates in Colorado are largely being driven by service sector employees who are using this tight labor market to secure wage gains or better working conditions,” he said.

→ Health care for the resigned — If you’re participating in the Great Resignation, here’s a story on where to find health care coverage. >> CNBC 

→ THANKS to everyone who shared their job-quitting stories (especially since I made it hard to share — sorry! Please try again below). I’ll be getting to this in the next week or so, so if you’ve got your own story, fill out this form to help the public understand why Colorado still has a high rate of people quitting their jobs: cosun.co/job-stories

Still waiting on pandemic unemployment?

If you are still waiting to get those federal pandemic payments that ended Sept. 4, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment told me this week, “We will have pandemic-related investigations ongoing for several years.”

Those cases on hold are being looked at individually. So, if you’re calling the labor agency’s customer service and are told to keep waiting, unfortunately, that’s all I can tell you to (unless you discover a brand new and unusual issue, then email me at [email protected]). 

But here’s an update from the labor department on where they are in the process, as of Jan. 13. All quotes are from an official who did not share their name:

  • For the 24,000 folks on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance who were socked with letters of ineligibility in September and were asked to appeal if they had an overpayment:
    • 13 appeals are in “Pending Setup” status
    • 233 appeals are set up and in “Pending Scheduling” status
    • Of 1,624 cleared appeals, 1,176 were in favor of the claimant
  • There is no Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation backlog. I know someone asked me about this recently. But if you believe that’s you, your case just may be waiting on the appeal. “All applications received have been reviewed and payments have been issued where appropriate. As of the end of December 2021, there were 107 (MEUC) appeals pending,” CDLE said.
  • For those who were on State Extended Benefits more than a year ago in late 2020 and did not switch to PUA, you’ll still get paid. But there’s no way to program it into MyUI+ and must be approved manually, case by case. “The process is cumbersome, but we are continuing to work through the list.”

Other working bits

A $10,000 bonus for a minimum wage job? ‘Tis true, confirmed Russell Carlton with United Airlines.The company is looking for about 100 part-time ramp-service employees who start at $15.87 an hour (that’s Denver’s minimum wage) and work at Denver International Airport. 

This is the job where you will load and unload aircraft and place luggage on the winding belts that end up in baggage claim, according to the job description. And even though it’s part time, it includes medical and other benefits, such as free stand-by flights for the employee and family.

Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is unloaded from a United Airlines plane. (Handout)

The $10,000 is paid in $833.33 increments over 12 months. Quit before the 12 months is over and you’ll need to repay the bonus. 

“Denver is home to one of United’s fastest growing hubs. These positions are due to the current and planned growth of United in Denver, and these jobs can truly be the gateway to an enjoyable lifelong career,” Carlton said.

>> APPLY

→ Business vaccine mandate ends — Not much of a surprise, but the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the vaccine mandate for employers with 100 or more employees on Thursday. As the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association noted in a message to members, there’s no federal requirement but justices said during oral arguments that if states add an identical rule, it “may hold up in court.” >> STORY

→ Student loan relief — While not directly about work, if you have a student loan serviced by Navient, it may be in the process of getting forgiven. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser joined AGs in other states to sue Navient for deceptive loan servicing practices in a $1.85 billion settlement. Of that, 1,339 Colorado student loan borrowers will receive forgiveness for $35 million in loans, and the company is paying $260 each to 6,844 Coloradans who borrowed money. >> DETAILS


Thanks for reading another week’s worth of job news. I love to hear those personal stories and if you’re game about sharing them with What’s Working readers, send me an email or fill out our latest survey at cosun.co/job-stories. Stay safe! ~tamara



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