Workers rally outside a Fred Meyer store on NE Glisan Friday morning.
Workers rally outside a Fred Meyer store on NE Glisan Friday morning. Isabella Garcia

Update 12/18, 9 am: The worker strike has come to an end, 24 hours after it began, after Kroger management and union members reached a contract agreement late Friday.

Original story 12/17, 12 pm:

With just more than a week to go until Christmas, workers at Fred Meyer and QFC locations across the Portland metro area hit the picket line this morning to begin a week-long unfair labor practice strike.

“We’re on strike!" shouted workers at cars pulling into the NE Glisan Fred Meyer parking lot Friday morning, while other vehicles honked in support as they passed. At the SE 82nd and Johnson Creek Fred Meyer, workers waved signs on the corner, chanting, "Hey hey, beep beep, Fred Meyer is mighty cheap!"

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 (UFCW) who work at Kroger-owned Fred Meyer and QFC locations had been working without a contract for weeks. Their contract expired in August, and the union cancelled an extension as negotiations stalled.

After working through the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time Kroger briefly offered workers hazard pay, workers are aiming for significant wage hikes over the lifetime of a new contract to keep up with cost-of-living increases.

So far, that is not what they’re getting. The union said that Kroger is currently offering longterm employees a 50 cent raise over the first two years of a new contract and a 40 cent raise in the contract’s third year and did not “offer any raises for a vast majority of employees”—perpetuating a two-tier system that divides workers.

Union officials and allies believe that increasing wages would also help alleviate staffing issues that have stretched the capacity of many current workers. They also want to see the company take increased measures to keep workers safe after recent violent episodes near certain Fred Meyer locations.

Fred Meyer did not respond to the Mercury’s a request for comment Friday.

Earlier in the week, a Fred Meyer spokesperson said Kroger’s offer “shows our commitment to the whole person, providing wage increases, high-quality, affordable health care, and a pension benefit for retirement. The most productive thing the union can do is to work with the company in a manner that positively addresses these items.”

The contract isn’t the only major issue dividing the union and Kroger.

UFCW officials have filed a number of unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) against the Kroger-owned companies in recent months, most notably alleging that Fred Meyer has refused to give the union information it needs to determine whether a number of its workers are being paid according to the terms of their last contract.

Without that information, union officials say, they cannot successfully negotiate a new contract—hence to UFCW’s decision to call for an unfair labor strike as opposed to a general economic strike.

“After nearly two years of breaking labor law to continue paying their employees less, Fred Meyer has upped the ante by systematically ignoring the law and trampling on employee rights” said Dan Clay, president of Local 555, in a Friday press release.

Ninety-seven percent of participating UFCW workers voted to authorize a potential strike last Sunday. UFCW and Kroger officials met at a local hotel on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to try to come to an agreement, but made little progress on negotiations.

“Fred Meyer and QFC’s continual disregard for the rules protecting their employees have left members of UFCW Local 555 with no choice but to take action,” said Local 555 communications director Miles Eshaia.

That action commenced at 6 am Friday, when the unfair labor strike began. The strike will last a week, expiring December 24 at 12:01 am.

Fred Meyer and QFC workers have already received substantial community support, much as Nabisco workers did during their five week-strike in the fall.

The strike has been endorsed by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, the Oregon AFL-CIO, and a coalition of progressive organizations including the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Portland Jobs With Justice, who has set up daily mass pickets at Fred Meyer locations across the city to support the workers and encourage shoppers to go elsewhere.

Workers on strike outside of a 82nd and Johnson Creek Fred Meyer.
Workers on strike outside of a 82nd and Johnson Creek Fred Meyer. Blair Stenvick

The first of those rallies will take place at 6 pm tonight at the Hollywood Fred Meyer in Northeast Portland. Mass pickets are set for Happy Valley and Beaverton over the weekend.

Religious and political leaders are expected to join those picket lines in the coming days, with Representative Barbara Smith-Warner appearing this morning on the line at the Hollywood location.

This strike comes at a pivotal time for the grocery stores, with people in the midst of their holiday shopping, and for workers, who are dealing with high inflation and a new COVID variant spreading rapidly across the country.

That has put the contract fight into stark perspective.

“People are pissed that they got hazard pay at the start of the pandemic and then [the hazard pay] went away,” DSA spokesperson Jamie Partridge said. “Did the pandemic go away?”

That kind of dissonance may be one reason why the United States has seen a historic strike wave this year, with essential workers in Portland and across the country taking action to fight for better wages and working conditions.

According to Partridge, who also organized on behalf of Nabisco workers and Kaiser healthcare professionals who narrowly averted what would have been one of the biggest strikes of the year in November, these actions are being driven by the rank-and-file union members.

“Each strike inspires more [action], and the fact that in a number of these—like the John Deere strike and the Kellogg strike, rank-and-file [workers] voted down their first agreements by union officials—shows that union officials have not kept up with the anger and the expectations of the rank-and-file,” Partridge said.

Fred Meyer and QFC have been scrambling throughout the week to temporarily replace their striking workers and keep their stores open during the holiday season.

Kroger has posted listings for temporary workers for numerous jobs at numerous Portland locations on its website, with one physical advertisement inside an area Fred Meyer announcing that interested parties must be “willing to cross a picket line.”

But union officials are confident that, after nearly two years of service during the pandemic, Portlanders will stand with workers.

“All over the country, essential workers are standing up and demanding to be treated fairly,” Eshaia said. “And after facing the pandemic head on, communities are standing with those who stood and risked infection to feed the communities in which they live.”