Smith's, union extend talks as deadline looms

Jan. 28—Kroger and the union representing around 2,500 Smith's Food & Drug employees across New Mexico have agreed to a one-week extension of their current contract, postponing a potential strike.

Thursday was the final day of planned negotiations between Kroger, the parent company of Smith's, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. UFCW chapter president Greg Frazier said the extension renews the contract between the two parties until Feb. 5. If the two parties fail to agree on a contract or another extension, the union will take a vote on whether to strike after that point.

Frazier said the two parties plan to meet again next week for two days, adding that workers continue to seek higher pay and better working conditions.

Aubriana Martindale, corporate affairs manager for Smith's, said in an email that the company plans to continue working to strike a balance between investing in employees and keeping groceries affordable.

"Our associates are the most important piece of our business and we will continue to negotiate for an agreement that is in the best interest of our people," Martindale said.

Workers are seeking an additional $2 per hour, which would match the hazard pay the company offered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but discontinued in May 2020. Other demands include an armed police presence outside stores to deter armed robberies, additional cashiers to assist customers and a process to avoid losing banked vacation pay.

Carl Trujillo, a meat-cutter who has worked at the Smith's location on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe for 16 years, told the Journal on Monday that the pandemic has made his job significantly more challenging. Trujillo said employees now have to deal with verbal abuse from customers about mask mandates and empty shelves due to supply-chain challenges, adding that he'd like to see managers available to respond to more complaints.

"We're all trying our best," Trujillo said. "We are there to serve the public, but at the same time, we're not slaves either."

Trujillo added that many workers have left since the pandemic began and haven't been replaced, leaving those who have stayed on to do more with less. He said a typical weekday shift at his store has between five to seven fewer employees on staff, which makes day-to-day work more challenging and makes it harder to schedule vacations.

"I understand that we all are a team, but it shouldn't be up to us to cover our own vacations," Trujillo said.

He acknowledged that striking would be challenging for many workers, but said it's important to them to take a stand.

"We need to stand up for all this hard work we've done the last two years," Trujillo said. "And if we don't stand up now, they're just going to keep on stepping on our throats."

The list of demands from Smith's employees resembles the recent demands from striking workers at the King Soopers chain of grocery stores in metro Denver. Workers at King Soopers, also a subsidiary of Kroger, went on strike for 12 days demanding higher wages, more security and more full-time hires, among other demands. The strike in Colorado ended Monday after UFCW Local 7 members approved a new three-year contract, according to The Denver Post.

Bob Bussel, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, said he expects to see an uptick in worker strikes, at grocery stores and other institutions, going forward. Bussel pointed to a unique confluence of factors, including pressures related to COVID-19, inflation and increased public support, as reasons to expect an increase.

"I think it's just opened up a lot of people's eyes," Bussel said. "COVID has exposed a number of inequities, inequalities, structural flaws in the employment relationship."

Bussel added that an increase in strikes can create a snowball effect for workers in other industries.

"There is a certain contagiousness to it," Bussel said. "You see workers in other industries striking and making gains and being successful, and it emboldens other workers."