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A grocery store workers’ strike similar to the one occurring in metro Denver may be brewing in New Mexico, as Smith’s Food & Drug employees are seeking better pay and improved security, among other demands.
The most recent round of meetings between The Kroger Co., the parent company of Smith’s, and the New Mexico chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents around 2,500 grocery store workers across Smith’s New Mexico locations, ended Thursday without a new contract in place.
UFCW chapter President Greg Frazier characterized the two sides as remaining far apart in negotiations. He told the Journal on Thursday that a strike is a strong possibility if the two sides cannot reach a deal by Jan. 30, when the current agreement expires.
“The workers are upset,” Frazier said. “They’re expecting to be treated with a little bit more respect.”
Workers are seeking an additional $2 per hour, which would match the “hero bonus” they received from Kroger during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. That benefit expired during the summer of 2020. Other demands include an armed police presence outside of stores and the removal of automated safes located at the front of stores, which Frazier said constitutes a security concern for employees.
Aubriana Martindale, corporate affairs manager for Smith’s, declined to provide any specific demands from the company during bargaining, but said Smith’s priorities included striking a balance between investing in its employees and keeping groceries affordable for shoppers.
“I think both parties, including Smith’s, want this to be genuinely in the best interests of our associates,” Martindale said.
Negotiations began in December, but Frazier said conditions for a workers’ strike have been building for some time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made working at the stores more challenging. He estimated that more than 3,500 current and former Kroger employees have contracted the virus since 2020.
“These folks are here to help and assist people, so some of them will encounter a … couple hundred people a day,” Frazier said.
Additionally, Frazier said employee wages haven’t kept up with company profits, which reached record-highs at points during the pandemic. Martindale said Smith’s employees in New Mexico have an average hourly wage of $14.05.
“The pandemic has been very good for the corporation, but it’s been very bad for the employees,” Frazier said.
Frazier added that employee safety has also become more of an issue during the pandemic, saying armed robberies and shoplifting have increased at stores since the pandemic began. He said most stores currently lack a dedicated security or police presence.
Additionally, enforcement of the state mask mandate often falls to employees. As a result, Frazier said employees encounter abuse both from customers who aren’t wearing masks and those who want the mask mandate enforced.
“The other customers apply pressure on the workers to enforce the mandate,” he said.
Frazier characterized the workers’ demands as similar to those from grocery store workers at King Soopers, another Kroger subsidiary based in Colorado. Workers at King Soopers locations across metro Denver have been on strike for more than a week after their union contract expired Jan. 9.
The strike has generated local and national headlines, and prompted politicians like former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to weigh in.
Frazier added that the two sides are expected to meet two more times next week prior to the contract expiration. If no deal is reached, he said Smith’s workers will vote on whether to strike.