‘We’re not backing down’: US grocery workers take on Kroger with strike vote

<span>People rally in support of Food 4 Less workers on 16 May.</span><span>Photograph: UFCW 770/Courtesy of UFCW Local 770</span>
People rally in support of Food 4 Less workers on 16 May.Photograph: UFCW 770/Courtesy of UFCW Local 770

About 6,000 grocery store workers are set to vote on strike action after the expiration of their union contract with the Kroger-owned Food 4 Less chain.

The contract with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) expired on Saturday. Members are voting on whether to authorize a strike if a new deal is not reached, and results expected late on Friday.

Food 4 Less is already advertising for strike replacement workers in anticipation of a work stoppage.

Wage increases are among the biggest issues under dispute, with workers claiming their wages and benefits have lagged behind other grocery stores in the area.

Clara Vega has worked at Food 4 Less in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, where she is currently a warehouse clerk and a member of the bargaining committee.

She said workers are fighting for fair wages comparable to other grocery stores in the area, and improvements to safety and staffing. She said she had been frustrated by how Food 4 Less has treated workers during the bargaining process.

“We work our butts off and they come back at us with nothing that can help us. We’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck. My daughter is going to college soon and I’m trying to figure out how to pay for that. I can barely pay my mortgage. It’s really hard, and we just want what’s fair,” said Vega.

“We need a better contract. I am so frustrated with this company. They keep undermining [us] and doing these sneaky tactics at the bargaining table. We’re tired. We worked through the Covid-19 pandemic and they didn’t even want to give us hazard pay.”

Several union members had family members die from Covid-19 as grocery store workers were hailed as essential workers and branded as “heroes”, even as grocery chains saw surges in profits, she said.

Susan Hernandez has worked at Food 4 Less in Los Angeles for 30 years. Before that, she worked at Viva, a grocery chain acquired by Kroger in the 1990s where she was laid off and then recalled, losing her seniority pay.

“They cut my pay from $18.11 an hour to $11.35 an hour,” said Hernandez. “Thirty-plus years later, I’m only at $24.21 an hour, so over 30 years that’s only an increase of $12 and some change.”

She criticized the lack of pay increases in comparison to Kroger chief exceutive Rodney McMullen’s salary of $15.7m in 2023. Kroger reported a $3.1bn profit in 2023 and over $4.1bn in 2022. The company is continuing to push an acquisition of the grocery chain Albertsons, which the Federal Trade Commission has sued to block, alleging the merger would result in price increases for consumers and less competition, and would negatively impact thousands of workers.

“We’re all standing strong and letting the company know that it has been too many years of accepting 10-cent raises, 15-cent raises. It’s to the point we all realize and feel how inflation is hurting us,” Hernandez. “I know if we were to go on strike, we will have the loyalty of the customers. We’re a part of their family, they’re part of our family, and many have said they will not cross the picket line. Kroger needs to realize we’re not backing down.”

According to UFCW Local 770, grocery clerks at Food 4 Less stores make $4.30 an hour less an hour, receive fewer benefits, and are guaranteed fewer hours than clerks at Ralph’s stores in the area. Ralph’s is also owned by Kroger.

The union criticized the pay discrepancies and Kroger’s statements in support of diversity and inclusion, given that Food 4 Less stores predominantly employ Black and Latino workers and serve lower-income communities of color.

A 2022 survey of Kroger grocery workers by the Economic Roundtable found that 14% of Kroger workers have or were experiencing homelessness, and nearly two-thirds reported not making enough money to cover basic expenses every month.

“You have these people bending over backwards for these companies and not being compensated,” said Chris Watkins, a meat-cutter who has worked at Food 4 Less in Inglewood, California, for six years. “We shouldn’t have to go to work and stress, your workers should be able to come to work and breathe. There are a lot of people underwater right now.”

A spokesperson for Food 4 Less said the company’s final and best offer includes wage increases of $3.25 an hour over the next three years and no healthcare cost increases.

“We are deeply disappointed that UFCW Southern California chose to leave the bargaining table before contract expiration, rather than working together to prioritize the needs of their members – our valued associates,” the spokesperson said in an email.

“It remains our goal to put more money in our associates’ pockets, maintain industry leading healthcare, and provide retirement benefits for their futures.”

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