Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 union, which represents around 8,700 Colorado King Soopers employees, walked off the job at 70-plus Front Range locations Wednesday morning to protest unfair working conditions and poor pay, among other issues.

“Right now, we are fighting because the company is cutting our wages, cutting our hours, taking our benefits away, which has been happening since the start of the pandemic,” Noah Segura, one of the thousands of King Soopers employees and UFCW Local 7 union members currently on strike, says. “I feel like this [strike] is something that has been a long time coming. It was only a matter of time really.”

The strike comes after failed contract negotiations between UFCW Local 7 and King Soopers, the state’s largest grocer. Following the expiration of the previous labor agreement between the two parties on January 8, union members officially began the strike, which is expected to last three weeks.

“Local 7 is putting politics before people and preventing us from putting more money in our associates’ pockets,” Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market, said in a statement about the strike. “Creating more disruption for our associates, their families, and Coloradans, rather than negotiating for a peaceful resolution, is irresponsible and undemocratic.”

Tensions between the two groups began boiling over on December 29, when the union filed a lawsuit against Kroger-owned King Soopers for allegedly violating its contract by hiring part-time, third-party employees for work designated for union workers. On January 7, UFCW Local 7 union members voted to strike at the conclusion of their current contract.

The company responded with a proposal for a new contract last week, which featured wage increases, up to $4.50 more an hour in the first year based on job classification and signing bonuses, ranging from $2,000 to $4,000. However, UFCW Local 7 rejected that proposal, claiming it included unfair concessions, like an increase on health care premiums and capping sick leave at 48 hours per year. King Soopers released a statement saying the union’s president Kim Cordova is “dead set” on “inciting disruptions and restricting the community’s ability to access fresh food and essentials.”

King Soopers employees also say they’ve experienced a number of hardships during the pandemic. Kroger was criticized for offering additional $2-an-hour hazard pay to workers for only two months at the start of the pandemic. Around the same time, top executives received multi-million dollar bonuses. In Colorado, more than 2,000 King Soopers employees have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, including three people in Denver who died from the virus. And in March 2021, an active shooter killed 10 people at a King Soopers in Boulder. Cordova says the union has asked for more security in stores since 2018, but the company continues to deny the request.

Over the weekend, King Soopers urged the union to come back to the table. The company said it was ready to come to an agreement with assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a federal third-party mediator that aids in conflict resolution. However, Cordova rejected the use of the group, saying it “bogs down” the process, and will only resume contract negotiations under the right conditions. King Soopers responded by filing a lawsuit against the union, citing a resistance to bargain in good faith.

That meant the strike officially began Wednesday morning. At the King Soopers at Ninth Avenue and Corona Street, roughly 25 workers created picket lines around the store’s entrance, in the parking lot, and on the nearest street corner. On the street, passing cars were honking and waving as the workers raised picket signs.

“In order to fight to protect our community, we are going to be out here on the line for the next three weeks,” says Sarah Fotis, a King Soopers and UFCW Local 7 union member. “They keep stripping away what we have.”