- Over 8,000 Kroger's King Soopers workers are on strike in Colorado over wages and safety.
- Andres Becerril, a front-end supervisor, is one of them. This is his first-ever strike.
- He said that workers are realizing what they're worth as strikes sweep across the country.
Andres Becerril, 30, has never been on strike before.
Becerril is a front-end supervisor at a King Soopers store in Denver, Colorado. He's worked at the Kroger-owned supermarket for nearly 12 years.
Now, as over 8,000 King Soopers workers across 77 stores in Colorado go on strike, Becerril is taking up a new responsibility: Strike captain.
"I'm just a guy that is trying to get a better contract for myself and everyone else I work with," Becerril told Insider.
The strike began on Wednesday, and workers will be out picketing until February 2. It's the latest group of workers to take to the picket line as thousands across the country fight for better conditions — a moment that the labor movement is hoping to build upon. Despite union approval ratings being at their highest since 1965, union membership has been declining for decades, which the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute attributes to increasingly weakened labor laws that allow employers to host mandatory anti-union meetings and replace striking workers.
The King Soopers workers, who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 union, voted in early January to authorize a strike over unfair labor practices amidst what the union called a "a tumultuous bargaining process." UFCW filed a lawsuit against King Soopers saying that the company used third-party staffing services to perform work that should be done by employees who are part of a union. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), it's illegal for companies to fire or replace workers who strike over unfair labor practices.
The company has filed its own complaint with the NLRB alleging the union is not bargaining in good faith, for example, that the union refused to schedule negotiation meetings.
"Local 7 is putting politics before people and preventing us from putting more money in our associates' pockets," Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market said in a Wednesday statement about the strike. "Creating more disruption for our associates, their families, and Coloradans rather than negotiating for a peaceful resolution is irresponsible and undemocratic."
Workers turned down a "last, best, and final offer" from the company on Tuesday that the union said offered limited overtime and contained inadequate safety proposals, among other issues. Kim Cordova, UFCW Local 7's president, told Insider that safety, wages, healthcare, and creating more full-time positions are core issues.
"Workers now are saying, if I'm gonna risk my life at the job, it's gonna have to be worth it," Cordova said. The union will return to the bargaining table on Friday.
'Heroes' who barely make minimum wage
Safety is of particular concern to Becerril. As a head clerk, he's called to diffuse situations anytime a customer is irate.
"A lot of that doesn't always go great," he said. "Someone's just having a bad day and decides to take it out on you."
At the onset of the pandemic, he said, the company called its workers "heroes." Kroger employees received an additional $2 an hour in "hero pay" starting in April 2020 — a bonus that ended in May 2020.
"That was the closest I ever had this entire time to having like a real livable wage," Becerril said. He added: "I was like, 'Oh wow. That's what being able to pay your bills and have a little bit leftover feels like.'"
A Kroger spokesperson said in an email to Insider that they've "invested significantly to raise frontline worker wages," and that average hourly pay has risen from $13.66 to $16.68 since 2017.
"Denver's minimum wage moved to $15.87 in January — and that's only the city of Denver — but they [management] only proposed to go to $16. And that's only 13 cents over minimum wage," Cordova said. "It's only 13 cents. That's not gonna help anybody's life."
As increasingly prominent strikes grip the country — recent examples include John Deere and Kellogg's — Becerril said companies are constantly testing the waters for how far they can push workers. They're now finding out they've overstepped their boundaries. COVID helped a lot of people see what they were putting up with, and "people are realizing that they're worth more than they're being offered."
"Unfortunately, to work is to be abused, and people are tired of not being abused at a livable wage," Becerril said.