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Kroger workers' strike in Colorado ends after 10 days, tentative deal reached

More than 8,000 workers were on strike against the largest grocery store chain in the state seeking a pay increase, better health benefits and stricter Covid safety measures.

DENVER — A 10-day strike by King Soopers' workers against the Kroger-owned grocery chain will end immediately after the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 announced it reached a tentative agreement early Friday. 

Workers can return to work Friday, the union said in a release. Early details of the agreement are not yet available.

"After months of negotiations and after our members walked out on strike, we have reached a tentative agreement with King Soopers/City Market that addresses the Company’s unfair labor practices and ensures that our members will receive the respect, pay, and protection they warrant," union President Kim Cordova said. "This fight will always be about the workers. I could not be prouder of our members who put it all on the line to have their voices heard."

 "We are pleased that this agreement allows us to put more money in our associates' paychecks and secures health care and pension plans." Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market, said. 

More than 8,000 workers across Colorado spent 10 days striking against the largest grocery store chain in the state, looking for a pay increase, better health benefits and stricter safety measures after working through the pandemic. As negotiations stalled day after day, a court granted King Soopers a temporary restraining order against its striking workers, limiting each picket line to 10 workers per site.

The workers called the order a "bullying tactic," while the company cited "picketers engaging in unlawful activity, including threatening, blocking and intimidating both associates and customers who have chosen to cross the picket line," adding, "These activities are peaceful and frankly are unsafe."

NBC News visited workers at several Colorado store locations and only witnessed workers handing out flyers and asking customers to consider shopping elsewhere for the duration of their strike. 

"We do feel shortchanged and we feel taken advantage of," said Liz Wesley, who has been a floral manager for 17 years. In that time, she says, she’s received a total raise of $4.50. 

Kroger initially offered to raise the starting hourly salary to 16 dollars an hour, just 13 cents more than Denver’s new minimum wage. Wesley says that wouldn't be enough, and also noted it would offset the rates for more senior workers. 

"We just want to be treated fairly. We want to feel safe and be respected," she added. "If you’re working 40 hours a week, you should be able to make at least enough to support yourself and put food on your table."

In a union-backed survey of 10,000 Kroger workers across Colorado, Washington and California released during initial negotiations, 78 percent of workers say they are "food-insecure," while nearly half live in "inadequate housing." Kroger released its own research highlighting that the company on average pays hourly workers more than its peers. 

But that doesn't mean they pay more than other local job opportunities, workers said, adding they end up working longer with unexpected schedule changes due to the high turnover rate as coworkers quit to work for McDonalds or Costco. 

"We expected more respect given the essential nature of our work during the pandemic," Steve Ponzio, a produce clerk for 10 years, said. "Before the pandemic, I don't think we would've thought we're essential, but we're open through blizzards, pandemics, holidays so people can get food. And now with all the job openings, we've just been overworked."

He also expressed concern about a lack of security given aggressive customers who resist mask mandates, and cited the Boulder King Soopers' mass shooting in March last year.

Samuel Estreicher, director of New York University's Center for Labor and Employment Law, acknowledges the current trend of the "Great Resignation" in America, but points to the overall issue of inflation as the impetus for these strikes, and expects to see more if employers don't keep up.

"Inflation is eating away at the purchasing power of American workers," he said. "When you have that, you're going to have a lot of unhappiness among workers. Companies are slow to keep up. I have a saying: 'When employers act like pigs, prepare to be slaughtered.' In other words: you have to think ahead."

While the final details of the contract will be shared with union members in coming days, workers are cautiously optimistic and are proud of the work they did on the picket line.  

"This community is my family. This is the best community that I ever saw," Barbara Hunter, a worker in the meat department, said. "We always support each other. When we have an issue, we work it out."

Ratification votes by the union will begin Monday.