Grocery workers, ski patrollers fuel a growing labor movement in the Mountain West
Honking motorists pierced an unusually quiet morning at the King Soopers in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood last week. Drivers were showing their support for picketing workers like Gigi Jones, who was walking along the perimeter of the store with a sign around her neck asking shoppers to avoid the popular grocer.
Employees like Jones overwhelmingly voted to go on strike on Jan. 3, citing unfair labor practices. They want higher wages and a safer working environment.
“I mean, I grew up in Denver, born and raised," Jones said. "I don’t want to be edged out of my community and my city so I have to make sure that I can afford the rent.”
On her days off, Jones works for DoorDash and Michael’s to make ends meet. She has worked on and off at King Soopers for the last nine years. The pandemic has made it “very difficult,” she said. Staffing shortages have her working long hours, increasing her exposure to COVID-19. In November she contracted the virus while working at the grocery store, she said, and still has no sense of taste or smell.
Nearly two-thirds of union members working at King Soopers and other Kroger subsidiaries in Colorado, Washington and California say they do not earn enough to pay for basic expenses, according to a recent survey of roughly 36,000 workers commissioned by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
“Among the workers who are unable to afford necessities, 44% say they are unable to pay for rent and 39% say they are unable to pay for groceries,” the survey found. "Fourteen percent of Kroger workers are homeless now or have been homeless during the past year."
These numbers keep Kim Cordova awake at night. She began working as a grocery clerk in 1985 and quickly became a labor organizer. Today she is the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local Chapter Seven.
“I became a strong union member and activist really to help fight for those that don't fight for themselves or can't fight for themselves,” she told the Mountain West News Bureau.
Cordova’s fight for a new contract affects roughly 8,400 King Soopers workers in Colorado and has involved months of negotiations.
Her union members are essential frontline workers — a truth made plain by the realities of the pandemic. Over the last 23 months, their work has become emotionally, physically and mentally taxing, she said, from many workers contracting the virus, to dealing with staffing shortages, irate customers and crime.
To address the latter, Cordova has been asking for trained security guards in King Soopers stores. She points to the tragedy at the King Soopers in Boulder, the location of a mass shooting in March 2021 that claimed the lives of 10 people.
“My members were those that survived,” she said.
As grocery employees continue to navigate unsafe working conditions, the pandemic has boosted the profits of King Soopers' parent company, Kroger.
Kroger has come to the table with $170 million over the next three years in additional wages and bonuses. It’s offering a $16 starting rate for checkers. Those with five years experience would see their pay rise to $21 an hour.
After a 68-minute bargaining session on January 14, Cordova was unmoved by the offer. She said in a statement that King Soopers’ latest proposal “contains numerous poison pill provisions, one of which would make wage rates worth less than the paper they are printed on. Under this proposal, workers could forfeit daily overtime pay and some are looking at wage cuts of up to $3.34 per hour.”
Workers take note
The grocery strike is emblematic of a broader labor movement sweeping the country, and parts of the Mountain West, as workers walk out for better pay and benefits or unionize to harness their collective power.
Janitors at Denver International Airport, who are members of the Service Employees International Union, voted to go on strike and walked off the job for one day last November. Hours later their employer, Flagship Facility Services, agreed to wage increases.
Meanwhile, hundreds of nurses at Logan Health in Kalispell, Mont., went on strike last June for better wages and benefits, and secured their first union contract in September.
These are notable events in a region where union activity is less robust in comparison to more industrialized parts of the nation, with the exception of Nevada’s casino and resort workers that are represented by the influential Culinary Union and Unite Here. They have provided employees with a crucial safety net during the pandemic.
“It's definitely the first time in my lifetime — a lot of Americans, and particularly young Americans, are really paying attention to the issue of unions and labor rights,” said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment at San Francisco State University.
He says skyrocketing inequality and economic uncertainty have placed a sharper focus on the power of unions and the labor movement as people consider ways to stand up to powerful companies amid worker shortages spurred by the "Great Resignation."
“They've been influenced by these outside social movements, the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement — the racial justice movement has been a huge, huge influence, and in many cases they have been influenced by the environmental justice movement, too.”John Logan, San Francisco State University
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted uneven dynamics between employers and employees whose working conditions have often placed them at risk of illness and death. Young people in particular are taking note — 77% approve of unions, according to a September 2021 Gallup poll.
“They've been influenced by these outside social movements, the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement," Logan said. "The racial justice movement has been a huge, huge influence, and in many cases they have been influenced by the environmental justice movement, too.”
Zinnia Kenny, 23, led a strike last year at a Park City, Utah, theater that is part of the Sundance Film Festival. Workers at Redstone Eight Cinemas were making $10.50 an hour — not nearly enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment that averages roughly $1,500 a monthin the glitzy ski town.
One night a colleague suggested they go on strike.
“At the moment, it was a joke,” Kenny said. “We laughed it off and dismissed it as something impossible, you know? But it did get me to thinking: Why is that a joke, why do we think that's impossible?”
Kenny and her colleagues pulled off the strike without the backing of a union, though they did end up getting help from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee. Their strike resulted in a $2 dollar pay raise.
“The environment profoundly changed,” when Kenny and her colleagues returned to work, she said. “The feeling of working there before and after was very, very different.”
Still, Kenny ultimately quit because the raise was not enough to afford rent in Park City.
Kenny and her colleagues went at it alone in a state with one of the lowest rates of union participation in the nation. But Utah just played host to a high-profile battle between Park City ski patrollers and their employer Vail Resorts. The vast majority of union members voted to strike if Vail Resorts failed to come to the table with pay raises. The negotiations began last spring and patrollers raised more than $100,000 through a GoFundMe campaign in the event of a work stoppage.
“This is about patrollers everywhere,” said Patrick Murphy, business manager for the Park City Ski Patrol Professional Association. “This is about first responders everywhere, and this is about wage employees everywhere.”
They came to an agreement with Vail Resorts on January 13, after more than 50 bargaining sessions. Details have yet to be released.
Ski patrollers at the resort were starting at $15 an hour. They say it was a meager wage given the job’s demands, which include using explosives to reduce avalanche danger. Patrollers also attend to a vast array of emergencies.
“That can be something as simple as somebody tweaking their knee on the bunny slope or something as serious as a skier running into a tree and suffering severe trauma that requires lifesaving interventions,” Murphy said.
Experience matters in this job, Murphy added, and they were losing seasoned patrollers because of the pay.
The potential to bridge divides
Back in Colorado, Josette Jaramillo is the first woman of color and first LGBTQ person to lead the Colorado chapter of the AFL-CIO. It represents 180 affiliate unions.
“We really are working on diversifying the labor movement, because it's not just a bunch of older white men sitting around the table making decisions about the work and the unions that people of color and women are involved in,” she said.
In a politically divided region like the Mountain West, that kind of solidarity gives Jaramillo hope, both for workers rights and how the labor movement could heal divides.
Kenny, for her part, saw this firsthand. She is trans and says some of her movie theater colleagues were uncomfortable “with that part of my existence.” But the strike, and the notion that they were fighting together for a livable wage, was “a unifying experience all around.”
“Even the people more loyal to the company understood that not only is the low wage hurting the people who are actually working here, it's hurting the entire community, it's hurting the viability of the business, it's in everyone's interest that the wage go up.”
In the 1950s and 60s, labor unions were at the forefront of the fight to end segregation and to pass civil rights legislation.
Today, regardless of a person's political persuasion, “the labor movement does have the ability to bring people together and in a way that most other organizations and institutions cannot, “ Logan, at San Francisco State University, said. “They can unite around all of the issues they care about in the workplace — better wages, better pensions, better health care benefits, paid sick leave, and fair treatment on the job.”
As the labor movement grows, Logan says stronger unions would make an enormous difference in terms of overcoming the divisions that have split the country. And the kinds of labor disputes in motion now are not likely to slow down anytime soon. That is because labor victories are “a contagion.”
“You have to take an unacceptably high risk, I would say, to try and form a union in the United States because of the weak legal protection and the strong employer opposition,” Logan said. But people are watching workers take that risk and they are seeing it pay off and saying, “they won. So we can do it, too.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.