Kroger store an example of Kroger flyer against a strike

Even though the pandemic and inflation have been good for business, Kroger this year closed their Refugee Road store. On the right is Kroger corporate's statement to UFCW 1059 members. 

On the Westside of Columbus, Kroger employee “Saundra” arrives at her store at 4am to push an oversized cart as she shops during the next eight hours for others in the community. Since the pandemic, Kroger’s “ClickList” – for those who don’t want to go inside and shop – is booming. “Saundra” makes $14-an-hour with benefits, but benefits that have become more expensive.

“They thought an extra $.15 cents would be enough, but everyone in my store was like “no way,’” said Saundra (not her real name).

For the past three days, Kroger’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 1059 members voted a third time on a new three-year deal. Each contract was endorsed by their own union (UFCW 1059), but the 12,500 Kroger members of 1059 voted “No” each time.

During the third vote, UFCW 1059 added another vote – one to “authorize a strike” – and that passed as well.

If Kroger corporate does not come back to the bargaining table with more, members have told the Free Press they will press UFCW 1059 leadership to greenlight a strike.

The biggest point of contention is pay – for the first two rejected contracts, Kroger was only offering $.65 cents extra an hour for the first year, and $.50 cents for each of the next two years, even though inflation is around 8.5 percent. Kroger corporate came back on the third contract offering just $.15 cents more, or $.80-extra-an-hour cents for the first year, and then $.65 cents for the second year. Those employees who are capped out at pay would receive annual $2,500 bonuses, but those are heavily taxed.

“The Fully Recommended Agreement on our Last Best and Final offer showed our commitment to the whole person, providing wage increases, high-quality, affordable health care, and a pension benefit for retirement,” stated Kroger corporate in a release Friday morning.

The pandemic proved that every community has a far greater dependence on grocery store workers than was once apparent. Within super-spreader settings, the men and women who stock our freezers and work our registers risked their lives so the community could meet its basic needs, such as providing baby formula.

And besides wearing masks for two years, they dealt with privileged customers who in some cases admonished them for wearing a mask while demanding they go find non-GMO unsweetened almond milk, or some other complicated request.

What has been apparent is that the pandemic and inflation have been good for business. Kroger’s fourth quarter revenue (fiscal year 2021) reached $33 billion with a profit of $965 million.

Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen – also a fervent Trump supporter who worked from home during the pandemic – made $20 million in 2020.

Yet in the summer of 2021 the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit from California, surveyed over 10,000 Kroger employees and 63 percent said, “they didn’t earn enough monthly to cover basic expenses” and “36 percent worry about being evicted.”

Many rank-and-file Kroger employees may not be aware that Kroger’s Board of Directors this past June increased its dividend payout to shareholders by 24 percent, which marks the 16th consecutive year of dividend increases.

The annual dividend payout from Kroger is now $1.04 a year per share. The Vanguard Group is the largest Kroger shareholder, with 11%, or 81 million shares. BlackRock is the second largest, owning 10%, or 61 million shares. 

Keep in mind these shareholders have probably never stocked a Kroger freezer, gathered carts for Kroger, or worked a Kroger register in their lives.

“It’s pretty clear that Kroger is profitable and they put their stock above their employees,” said Chuck Lynd, a retired OSU professor, economist, and advocate for sustainable local economies. “You can be sure Kroger could afford to pay a living wage, but they are a cartel with the other big grocery chains. We need legislation to break up the monopoly capitalists that dominate every sector of the economy.”