The Kroger Company, the nearly $84 billion grocery corporation based in Cincinnati, has set its sights on the lofty goal of eradicating hunger. In 2018, it launched its Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation, a vehicle through which, as the name implies, it apparently aims to “end hunger and waste.” On the foundation’s website, it highlights what is rightly called a “fundamental absurdity”: “35% of food produced in the U.S. is thrown away, yet 42 million Americans struggle with hunger.” To this righteous end, Kroger has donated $30 million to 300+ local and national nonprofits since 2018—roughly 0.33% (less than half of a percentage point) of the $9.067 billion in net profits it has made in that time.
When it’s not philanthropizing, Kroger keeps things hip by promoting its good deeds at trendy multimedia festivals, such as Austin’s SXSW, where it’s slated to discuss its Zero Hunger Zero Waste project alongside representatives of the venture capital firms Village Capital and Supply Change Capital Fund. In absence of the knowledge that donations to nonprofits represent considerable tax write-offs for large corporations, all of Kroger’s talk of addressing hunger and waste in the nation lead one to assume they are quite serious about these problems. Readers will be devastated to find that the evidence suggests otherwise.
To quote an old adage, which I suspect can only be a product of civil society, change starts with you. In Kroger’s case, it would seem that the problem starts with them, too. Indeed, the many and diverse executives in charge of the Zero Waste Zero Hunger Foundation must have been mortified to find out that while they’ve been logging hours of work to cure the nation of one of its most daunting social dilemmas, the Kroger Company was itself facilitating these conditions.
As reported by a survey of 10,000 employees from various Kroger subsidiaries in California, Colorado, and Washington, 78% were found to have been food insecure. Bear in mind, the national average is 10.5%. And while the company insists that it “cares about the whole person” and their “basic needs,” the survey also found that over one-third of the company’s workers reported fear of eviction, and one in seven reported being homeless in 2021.
Looking past the portrait the company paints of itself as a pillar of the various communities it inhabits, evidence to the opposite is plentiful. We’ve spoken already about the massive profits raked in over the last few years alone; consider also the difference in compensation between the most senior food clerks at Kroger and the company’s CEO, Rodney McMullen. While McMullen went from making $12 million in 2018 to $22 million in 2021, the most senior food clerks at Kroger’s wages, adjusted for inflation, have decreased 11-22% since 1990. That’s 909 times less than McMullen’s salary.
Another recent example of the company’s priorities is shown in the cuts to an additional $2.00 per hour “hero” pay for employees—which lasted all of two months. By the same token, Kroger has spent over $2 billion on stock buybacks since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. While the Omicron variant rages through the nation, one is reminded of Kroger’s California stores which suffered closures after a local ordinance was passed that would’ve required the company to pay workers an additional $4.00 an hour; similar trends have since prevailed in cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles.
While the company may have dropped its ‘hero’ pay, it has not dropped its high-sounding rhetoric. Walking through any number of the 123 Fry’s Food Stores in Arizona—another brand owned by Kroger—one can hear Fry’s President Monica Garnes over the intercom “giving a big shout-out to all valued Fry’s associates” whose hard work, she admits, they could not do without. This sentiment is in sharp contrast to actual conditions on the shop floor.
One West Phoenix employee reports that the company’s mask policy, which is mandated for employees only, is scarcely enforced among management. The company’s COVID-19 hotline has seen wait times of up to three hours, and what sick pay is offered is paid retroactively, and is alleged to take up to three months to be paid out. The store has seen up to ten employees out at a time with positive COVID test results, leaving understaffed crews stretched even thinner, including a store manager who is alleged to have stayed home for a mere two days after testing positive, returning to work with moderate symptoms.
Kroger is a goliath of a company. With a 10% share of the $1.4 trillion grocery market, it is the fourth largest private employer in the United States, constituting a daunting challenge to the rank and filers who’ve had their lives dominated and livelihoods constricted by the crushing weight of its monopoly power. It would be criminal, however, not to recognize in the same breath that organized labor, when united, is itself a goliath. This is true of organized labor in general, but considering both its size and that two-thirds of its workforce are unionized, Kroger workers, in particular, have the potential to chart a leading path in harnessing and using this power for the benefit of its members and the whole working class.
Portland employees and UFCW Local 555 members of Fred Meyer, one of many Kroger subsidiaries, are evidence of this. After a single day of picketing for improved working conditions including hazard pay and benefits, Kroger was compelled to return to the bargaining table and strike a tentative agreement. Now, 8,000 employees of the fighting UFCW Local 7 are leading a heroic charge against the Kroger subsidiary King Soopers, citing COVID neglect and demanding adequate wages.
Speaking to a Strike Captain, I was told about the transformative experience the strike is having on the workers’ understanding of what the union is. The union was likened to Frank Azar, a prominent Colorado attorney with a reputation as a strong defender. Realizing the low regard with which the workers are held by the non-local corporate negotiators, “the facade quickly crumbles.” Perhaps most noteworthy was the shift in attitude; once the strike began, the workers stopped worrying so much about getting paid and became more preoccupied with beating Kroger.
As one picketer said in an interview with More Perfect Union, “not money (but) moral support and unity” is what made him overcome his disdain for politics and join the picket line for the first time in his life. For these workers, the strike is laying bare an unambiguous truth: The only us versus them that matters is the working class versus the corporate class. These anecdotes point to the development of an increasingly popular sentiment: Workers are done settling for scraps. They are ready to unite, and real organizing can engage the seemingly disengaged.
Here, however, it is important to note: Not all locals are created equal. After decades of destructive red-baiting and onslaughts against worker gains, some union locals and local leadership have turned themselves into mechanical, third-party administrators for a service that is paid into, as opposed to an organization whose strength lies in the actual discipline and motion of the workers themselves. This kind of malpractice helps to cultivate an atmosphere of disillusionment and discouragement, continually gate-kept by well-compensated leaders who are happy to ‘lead’ from the sidelines, and wield their leverage mechanically, not understanding that successful strikes require active engagement, education, and participation of the rank and file.
Although conditions on the shop floor or in the union hall may seem unpromising, the union as an entity is simply the vehicle through which the driving force, the workers, can steer; but it’s up to them to get in the driver’s seat.
For those union members interested in learning how to mobilize to play a more active and decisive part in their Local, there are a plethora of online resources. The first steps for union and non-union stores alike include having structured conversations with your co-workers and forming organizing committees. For those more advanced union members interested in taking part in the leadership of ineffective Locals, Labor Notes is holding a free online workshop on running for union office on Jan. 27th.
Lastly, as a show of solidarity to those Kroger workers already fighting it out on the picket line, consider donating to UFCW 7’s strike fund.