Grocery workers seek better pay and conditions as chains reap huge profits

Kroger workers asking for $5 raise while CEO’s salary is 904 times the median employee wage

After more than two years as essential workers on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic, grocery store workers around the US are pressuring supermarket corporations to raise wages and improve working conditions amid record profits for the industry.

Ahead of the expiration of their union contract, 60,000 grocery workers at subsidiaries of Kroger and Albertsons in California are holding actions outside stores, demanding at least a $5 wage increase over three years, improved safety and security for workers, improved staffing and eliminating the two-tier system of workers.

James Peete has worked as a food clerk at Ralphs, a subsidiary of Kroger, in Glendale, California, for nine years. During the pandemic, Peete claimed his department and store has been understaffed to a skeleton crew.

“When we had a lot of people out with Covid, I was working 12 to 15 hours, six days a week, and so were many of my co-workers,” said Peete.

Peete said that with every new contract, Ralphs tries to expand the classification of workers under general merchandise, which pays less at $16 an hour, forcing many workers to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

When the City of Los Angeles enacted a $5 an hour hazard pay for grocery workers for four months in early 2021, Kroger shut down three local stores, and Peete argued management pressured workers to ramp up production during those periods.

“In their most profitable years ever, closing stores down to punish us for getting hazard pay definitely ruined morale. Like many of my coworkers, when we got that $5 an hour pay increase temporarily, we were pushed incredibly hard,” Peete said.

Grocery workers around the US have expressed similar grievances throughout the pandemic, as pay has lagged behind while these workers were expected to continue working throughout the pandemic, with thousands of workers contracting the virus, and workers frequently facing abuse and assaults from customers over enforcing safety protocols.

John Grant, the president of UFCW Local 770 union, argued the Covid-19 pandemic revealed how indispensable grocery workers are to the communities they serve and their employers, while putting themselves at risk for wages that aren’t enough to make ends meet.

“This is the opportunity to rebalance the work in the grocery industry,” said Grant. “These used to be career jobs where people could sustain their family, live the American dream of being able to support themselves and send their kids to college, and it’s just been ripped apart and gutted. Companies can’t claim any longer an inability to pay or hide behind some economically thin margins. Their profits are obscene.”

Kroger reported profits of $2.8bn in 2020. In 2021, Kroger reported even higher profits in its first three quarters of the year, with its fourth quarter results expected to be released in early March. The company authorized a $1bn stock buyback program in 2021.

Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen received $22.4m in compensation in 2020, 904 times the median worker pay.

Albertsons also reported record profits in 2020 of $850.2m after its stock first went public in June 2020 and has seen its stock price nearly double since then.

“We’re asking for at least $5 over three years. We’re simply trying to just make ends meet, especially here in California being so expensive,” said Christie Sasaki, a cashier at Pavilions, an Albertsons subsidiary, in Beverly Hills, California, for more than 20 years. “We all work terribly hard in the grocery industry. It’s been a tough two years, with the unknowns, and Covid, changing constantly. I go to work, often in fear, and hope that I don’t become ill or die.”

More than 8,000 grocery workers represented by UFCW in Colorado went on strike at Kroger-owned subsidiaries in January 2022, while other UFCW local unions representing thousands of grocery workers are in the midst of new contract negotiations with Kroger and other grocery corporations.

Tina Sanchez, who has worked as a service deli manager at Vons, a subsidiary of Albertsons, in Oxnard, California, for 22 years, said the pandemic has been crazy for grocery workers, as customers were hoarding food products and she was working 10- to 14-hour days to keep up with the surge in demand.

“A lot of us feel that it’s been profit over people. They got that money so quickly that they had never seen before and they just wanted more. They didn’t care that people were tired, that I was working six, seven, 18 days in a row. It didn’t matter,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez claimed her department is understaffed, operating with three workers with limited hours, when she used to run a crew of nine. She also explained the common cut injuries and dangers associated with working in the deli, the risks she and other workers have taken while working through the pandemic as higher management workers in offices were able to work from home.

“We’ve had people that come into the store from higher management telling us ‘if you get that $5 an hour increase, you are going to get less hours. Why is it a punishment to ask for something that we deserve?” she asked.

A spokesperson for Kroger said in an email the company is still negotiating with the unions and committed to reaching a new agreement for Ralphs associates, claiming the average associate wage is nearly $19 an hour. But the firm did not add specifics on company proposals or comment on workers’ claims of understaffing and increased workloads.

“It’s important to note that more than 50% of our 17,000 bargaining unit associates have been with the company for 10 or more years, reflecting good, stable jobs in southern California. Bottom line: We want to continue to significantly invest in our associates’ wages, and industry-leading health care and pension benefits while also keeping groceries affordable for local shoppers,” the spokesperson said.

Albertsons did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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