It’s been a tough couple of years to be a worker at King Soopers in Colorado.
Slicing deli meat, stocking shelves and sweeping up glass from shattered pickle jars has never been easy — but since the outbreak of COVID-19, grocery-store workers have added mask-policy enforcement (along with the subsequent abuse from anti-maskers) and the constant exposure to disease to their workload.
Then came March 22, 2021, when a gunman killed 10 people, including King Soopers employees, in the Kroger Co. (NYSE: KR) King Soopers store in Boulder’s Table Mesa shopping center.
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With restaurants closed, the supply chain in shambles, and consumers in a constant state of agitation, frontline employees such as grocery-store workers “found out they were essential,” United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 president Kim Cordova, who represents King Soopers workers in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado, told BizWest.
The historically tight labor market, combined with an increased appreciation for the chronically underappreciated workers who make everyday tasks such as shopping for food possible, has resulted in an environment in which labor now wields more power than it has during most periods in recent history.
Union membership has declined nationwide during recent decades. Roughly 7.5% of all workers in Colorado are represented by a union, making it 37th in that category compared with other states, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Could a reversal of that membership decline be on the horizon?
“What a tight labor market means, primarily, is that the balance of power in the labor market has shifted slightly, or perhaps a bit more than slightly, away from the employer and toward the employee. Employees are in a position to negotiate more-advantageous bargains with their employers,” said Jeffrey Zax, a professor of economics and a labor expert at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“The pandemic has revealed that some jobs we’ve thought of as fairly innocuous are actually harmful [to workers in certain positions],” he said. “You’re exposed to the public and therefore exposed to public health hazards, so your health is at risk. That means that employers have to treat their employees better if they want to have any.”
Facing the expiration of their collective-bargaining agreement with King Soopers, the UFCW Local 7 took its shot — demanding pay raises, the elimination of a two-tiered salary system that treated newly hired workers different from longer-term workers, the halt of job outsourcing to non-union workers, and stronger health and safety protections in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
King Soopers management balked, and more than 8,000 union workers from nearly 80 King Soopers locations throughout metro Denver and the Boulder Valley — including employees in Boulder, Broomfield, Louisville and Westminster — went on strike and hit the picket line.
In fewer than two weeks, a bargain was struck, and strikers returned to work.
“They’ve never been treated as essential, respected or paid as essential workers,” Cordova said. “Now companies around the country know that they can’t function without them.”
In Greeley, coming to work during the COVID-19 pandemic was a life-or-death decision for some JBS USA meat-processing workers.
After the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed that COVID-19 led to at least five workers’ deaths, more than 50 hospitalizations and about 300 confirmed positive cases, workers at the Weld County facility held a walkout in demand of better pay and more health protections.
“Workers said, ‘I’m not going to die on the job today. You can’t run this company without us,’” said Cordova, whose union also represents some agribusiness workers in Northern Colorado.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed workforces in a number of industries to the limit — perhaps none more so than frontline health-care workers.
Nurses at Centura’s Longmont United Hospital voted to unionize this year in part as a reaction to understaffing.
“Pay is a factor, but most importantly, having safe staffing ratios is something that would help keep nurses,” LUH nurse Tricia Hartley told the Denver Post in late 2021. “We don’t have enough nurses to care for the patients we have.”
Centura fought back by challenging which workers were eligible to vote in the organizing election — a common employer strategy — but in the end, votes were cast, counted and the organizational effort succeeded.
Faced with ever-shrinking newsrooms and hedge-fund owners hellbent on slashing budgets to create margins for their shareholders, newspapers and the journalists who staff them don’t merely write about labor-relation issues, they are party to them.
In 2021, journalists at the Reporter-Herald in Loveland voted to join the NewsGuild-CWA Local 37074. The Local 37074 touted this effort as the first newsroom unionization in Colorado since the 1940s. (Disclosure: BizWest has a contractual agreement with the Reporter-Herald and its parent company, Prairie Mountain Media, under which the chain of newspapers is permitted to publish BizWest news content.)
“This was a major victory for the communities we cover, whose access to great local news will be far more secure moving forward,” the Reporter-Herald journalists, operating under the banner Heart of NoCo News Guild, tweeted after the successful union drive. “All of us love what we do, and we look forward to bargaining for greater job security, better wages and other protections as soon as we can set a date.”
King Soopers, Centura and JBS are but three of a slew of examples of large employers that have been embroiled in labor disputes with Colorado workforces. It comes as no surprise to labor-relations experts that the relationships between corporations and their employees have become increasingly contentious in recent years.
Partisan politics are partly to blame.
A paradox exists in that employees in regions and industries with fewer labor protections are more likely to benefit from the perks of worker-organization efforts. However, right-leaning politicians have successfully coupled “a package of policies that are hostile to the economic interests of [conservative voters], but are indulgent of the social and cultural interests of these people,” Zax said.
Conservative political leaders, who hold more sway in Northern Colorado than in the Boulder Valley, have savvily “recognized that the cultural issues are so important to this constituency that they could be enticed into sacrificing their economic interests to some degree,” he said.
Exemplifying this partisan and geographic divide was Colorado Senate Bill 230, a newly adopted law sponsored by Colorado Sen. Stephen Fenberg (D-Boulder) that allows certain public employees to collectively bargain the terms of their employment. The bill was opposed by conservative lawmakers, including Weld County officials.
“Democrats are using this collective bargaining bill to betray Coloradans. While we suffer under record-high inflation and a cost of living most families can’t afford, Jared Polis and his legislative allies are asking us to pay $400 million more out of our local governments,” Colorado GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said in a prepared statement. “They would rather sell out to get donations from unions than make sure our families can have fire and ambulance services. They’re sacrificing our safety in an attempt to buy their seats. Voters should be angry at this cruel betrayal.”
Of course, politics isn’t the only factor at play when it comes to labor organization.
While industries such as meatpacking, which are often staffed by lower-wage workers traditionally thought of as easily replaceable, have seen increased labor energy, the relatively high-paying energy industry in Northern Colorado has not.
“From an employer’s perspective, the way you make sure your workers don’t unionize is to pay them enough that they don’t feel like they need to,” Zax said. “So if oil and gas workers are pretty well compensated, then it wouldn’t surprise me at all that they don’t feel the need for a union.”
A somewhat similar dynamic is in play in local technology hubs such as Boulder and Fort Collins.
“The prototypical example [of historic labor organization] has been the automobile industry where workers were more or less interchangeable” and their employers were “large and powerful institutions” willing and able to exploit their workforces, Zax said.
That dynamic resulted in a workforce more prone to solidarity and more energized to organize against powerful, high-profile corporate opponents.
Along the Front Range, there are relatively few “very large employers who you can point to as dominating the labor market in such a way as to artificially depress wages,” Zax said.
Locally, particularly in tech hubs, employers don’t have throngs of highly skilled workers waiting in the wings to take over for disgruntled employees, inherently boosting the power of the individual worker and lessening the need for organized labor movements.
Still, the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado regions have recently served as focal points for blue-collar, hospitality-driven labor movements.
In April, employees at the Starbucks location in Superior became the first company workforce in Colorado to unionize.
“I’m kind of like body jitters, heart pounding, face flushed, kind of excited,” Starbucks shift supervisor and labor organizer Len Harris told the Denver Post.
Despite the successful union drive in Superior and at other shops across the country, the coffee giant has been hesitant to embrace organization among its workforce.
“We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” a Starbucks spokesperson told BizWest in an email.
Starbucks isn’t the only mega-corporation with ties to the Front Range that is dealing with an increasingly assertive workforce.
In April, Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island, New York, won an historic bid to form a labor union, sparking hope for similarly situated employees across the country.
While it remains unclear whether a unionization movement will spread across other Amazon facilities, the possibility exists. Colorado has no shortage of Amazon facilities, including a warehouse under construction in Loveland that could be more than 3 million square feet.
But a worker-empowerment movement is by no means inevitable.
“There are tens of millions of businesses in the United States,” Zax said. “The fact that you can point to three or four or even 10 examples of recent unionizations doesn’t necessarily constitute a trend.”
However, even a small number of labor-organization efforts can have a broader impact on the overall employee-employer relationship across the country.
Amazon leadership “must be asking itself whether these facilities [across the country] present the same kinds of challenges to us as employers and whether the employees there have the same kinds of concerns as they did in Staten Island,” Zax said.
The result of this compelled-consideration of working conditions by corporate executives could lead to the decision to preemptively meet certain employee demands in advance of a unionization effort.
Another potential outcome could be a reevaluation of the manager-employee dynamic.
In Boulder, workers at Spruce Confections LLC organized this year with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers Union and are in the midst of a contract negotiation with ownership.
“The purpose of our union is to support the success and growth of the business through a structure well informed by its employees,” Spruce baker BJ Wheless told BizWest in an email. “In our negotiations we hope to secure better wages, more inclusive benefits and a more standardized structure for a company that is growing as fast as Spruce Confections is.”
The Spruce Confections unionization drive is somewhat unique in that it has the support, at least philosophically, of management.
Company founder David Cohen said that he had a “panic attack” when he was served papers from the National Labor Relations Board indicating that his workforce planned to unionize.
He was referred to a “union-busting attorney” who “really, really got me scared,” Cohen said.
Rather than taking an aggressively anti-union stance, “I had a heart-to-heart with one of my baristas and realized that all the stuff these lawyers were telling me wasn’t the only way to look at this stuff,” he said. “… I needed to understand the why [of workers’ desire to unionize] so I could address what needs to happen.”
Spruce Confections employees “see the bigger picture,” Cohen said. “They know that the business needs to thrive in order for the employees to thrive too.”
Employment contract negotiations resume next month.