According to Kroger’s site, the grocery chain is “on a mission to end hunger in the communities we call home.” It touts a perfect score on something called the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. “Every community is unique, but our common goal is to be welcome in the neighborhoods we serve and help the people there live healthier lives,” the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. says.
Our community has seen a lot of brazen betrayals go down over the past year, but Kroger closing stores in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Seattle to avoid hazard pay is particularly hollowing and enervating. Despite turning a $2.6 billion profit since the pandemic started, the company is shuttering seven locations in vulnerable, food-scarce neighborhoods.
Los Angeles City Council passed the local hazard pay ordinance last month. It is a very temporary, modest piece of legislation that lasts 120 days—after incessant County-wide messaging that our “unsung heroes” deserve our gratitude—adding “hero pay” at $5 an hour for a few months of essential labor. Kroger is the only grocery company planning to close stores instead of complying with this law. Requests for injunctions challenging these new hazard pay ordinances have been flatly denied. Most of the United States’ top retail companies have flipped record-breaking profits during the pandemic, but this increase in profit has obviously not trickled down to the workers or benefitted the neighborhood.
Instead, several Kroger stores, including a Ralphs at 3300 West Slauson Ave. and a Food 4 Less on 5420 Sunset Boulevard are expected to close in May. Both of these stores are located in Los Angeles food deserts, or metropolitan areas where residents lack access to affordable food. In 2018 the US Department of Agriculture estimated that 2.3 million Americans without a car lived more than one mile away from a grocery store. Closing these particular supermarkets would be another callous blow to a rapidly-gentrifying city.
In the past week, activists organized two rallies to protest these store closures. The first was held this past Saturday, April 3, at the Ralphs in South Los Angeles, organized by a coalition including the Harriet Tubman Center for Social Justice, Union del Barrio, and United Workers Assembly. Protesters marched in front of the store, and organizers and community members spoke to the crowd.
“During the pandemic, workers died making their profit…they didn’t make that money, the workers inside that store made that money,” said John Parker, an organizer with the Harriet Tubman Center of Social Justice LA. “2.6 billion [dollars] during the pandemic and they don’t want to give us an extra $5? That’s a problem with a balance of power. So we have to make our own power. When they say, ‘we don’t have enough money because it’s not profitable enough,’ that’s not our concern. The workers here and the community here already bought and paid for this store. This is their store. They have no right to take our jobs.”
On Thursday, union workers and comrades collected at the Food 4 Less on the 5400 Sunset Blvd. block of East Hollywood, bellowing chants of “UNION POWER” and “SAVE OUR STORE,” and forming a picket line.
“These workers deserve an increase in pay. They decided this from L.A. County to Pasadena, Glendale, Montebello, Long Beach, all over,” said Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer for the UFCW 770 union local. “Soon thereafter, Kroger announced the closing of stores. They did this to threaten and bully our communities.”
UFCW 770 says Kroger is misrepresenting the truth when it claims the stores in question were under-performing and hurting its bottom-line. After an hour of marching and chanting outside the store, comrades took the picket line inside, making their way from the aisles to the back of the store. Food 4 Less workers on shift cheered in solidarity as shoppers watched on or pulled out their phones to record.
“I’m angry, I’m disappointed,” said Omar Hernandez, an employee of the Food 4 Less store. “To not be appreciated for the hard work we’ve done in this pandemic…for them to not even acknowledge us? We are the ones here for the community. We’re here day and night. And we work hard.”
Both of these rallies recalled the Ralphs strikes of 2003. UFCW-repped workers at Ralphs, another supermarket chain owned by Kroger Co., held out after management tried to reduce benefits. The chain pleaded guilty to hiring replacement workers during the strike, resulting in a two-tier settlement for $70 million in fines and worker restitution.
“These workers have risked their lives during a very, very difficult time,” added Skylar Summers, a customer at the Food 4 Less location and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council Woman for District 5. “We can’t forget that the word HERO applies to them as much as it applies to the doctors treating our sick. They gave our communities sustenance, and with far less PPE.”
Kroger Co. has a market capitalization of about $24 billion. William McMullen, the CEO of the company since 2014, was paid a total of $21 million in February 2020, a 19 percent increase in compensation from the prior year. Mike Schlotman, the company’s CFO, got a 26 percent raise to $5.5 million, including a $1.4 million bonus—a 563 percent increase from last year.
“They’re saying that if your city passes hazard pay, we’re going to close your stores too,” Finn said. “This store makes almost a million dollars a week in sales. That’s a high-performing store…they made $2.6 billion dollars in profit last year, and they’re not sharing it with the people who earn that profit for them.”
“It’s despicable,” she added. “They’re closing stores and denying 250 workers jobs in the city of L.A.? Despicable. We’re here to demand that Kroger be better.”