Two King Soopers workers file unfair labor charge against union after getting fined for crossing the picket line

Two King Soopers employees who crossed the picket lines as union grocery employees went on strike in January for better wages — and were then fined by the union — filed an unfair labor charge against the union on Monday.

According to the complaint, the union fined Nick Hall $812 and Marcelo Ruybal $3,799. In a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, attorneys representing the two workers called the union’s fines unfair and illegal.

Officials with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7’s officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“What this case is about are two workers who did decide to work despite what the UFCW officials wanted, and they resigned their union membership so they could do so,” said Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is representing the two workers. “The fact that the union doesn’t have the legal authority to issue such fines doesn’t always stop them from attempting to do so. Unfortunately, the incentives are basically there for them to try and fine everyone they can under the sun and then later figure out whether those fines are actually legal under federal labor law or not.” 

Employees and supporters gather at a King Soopers in Glendale during the nine-day strike in January 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The lawyers did not make Hall and Ruybal, who worked at the King Soopers on Wildcat Reserve Parkway in Highlands Ranch, available for an interview.

Union activity has ramped up nationwide in the past year, as workers petition for representation coming out of the pandemic. Over the weekend, workers at an Apple store in Baltimore became the first in the chain to vote to unionize. In Colorado, a half-dozen Starbucks stores have voted to unionize, though three Denver stores now allege retaliation by the coffee seller.

The Right to Work foundation, which provides free legal help, has experience in such union matters. Its mission is to help workers know their rights and that they have a choice. In October 2019, the organization reached a settlement for two Stop & Shop workers in New England who say they were forced to join the local union. Hall and Ruybal reached out to the foundation, which monitored the King Soopers strike aftermath and shared notices online offering free legal advice, Semmens said.

Technically, unions have the authority to levy fines on “voluntary union members,” Semmens said, but since Hall and Ruybal left the union to return to work at the grocery store, they should not have been subject to the union fines, which were $250 per day plus any money earned. 

Going on strike is hard for any worker who really counts on that regular paycheck, he added.

“Someone may be a member up until the day or day before, and they decide, ‘Hey, look. I can’t afford to be out on strike. I need to do what’s best for my family and bills that I have to pay,’” Semmens said. “They turned in their resignation letter and union officials will just ignore it or claim you can’t do that now or say they never got it later.”

Quitting a union at the last minute hurts unions as they negotiate better wages or work conditions. That’s why strikes are rare and all sides try to avoid them, said Jeffrey Zax, a professor of economics and labor expert at the University of Colorado.

“At the end of the strike, there will be an outcome and perhaps the outcome will be more favorable to one side than the other,” Zax said. “But in the meantime, both sides have lost income. And that’s painful and often that loss is often substantial compared to the gain the winners, so to speak, might make.”

The King Soopers strike, which lasted for nine days in January, was held at 77 stores from Boulder to Parker. More than 8,000 workers walked out Jan. 12. In the end, some workers saw increases of more than $5 an hour over three years. Most received a $2 an hour raise in the first year. 

Arthur Collins (right), who started work at King Soopers in April 2020, went on strike in January in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Dropping out of a union while it’s going on strike may not void the contract, Zax added. That will have to be decided in court.

But in most cases, workers have a choice to work for a union shop or not. King Soopers, by the way, has Denver-area stores that are not unionized. And that’s why Zax has problems with the right-to-work descriptor.

“If you voluntarily take a job in a union shop and then say I don’t want the union to cover me,  that’s a deceit. The union is legally required to cover you. And that means you’re just trying to get the union services without paying for them,” Zax said. “So formally speaking, it’s what we would call a right to a free ride rather than a right to work. … If the union gets a favorable contract, workers who are employed are going to get the benefits of that contract. And if they haven’t contributed to the union, that means they are taking advantage of the services that the union provides without compensating the union for those advantages.”

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