Why Trader Joe’s Employees Are Fighting For Unions
Workers at two of the hundreds of Trader Joe’s locations across the country hope to join a newly formed independent union.
There was a big lie that modern companies sold to American workers in the late twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first century: It was those profit-driven entities that could make employees and customers happy enough not to have interventions like strong or labor unions. Federal regulations were needed.
This article was produced by Economy for allIndependent Media Institute project.
Modern companies like Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Trader Joe have perpetrated this lie, masking their business practices with a veneer of progressive ideals and referring to employees with euphemistic titles such as “partners,” “partners,” or “crew members.” In fact, many workers employed in this segment of the corporate American world have often been relatively satisfied—until now. Combined with recent pro-union activism in more than 150 Starbucks coffees across the United States, there is a new awareness among some employees of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain that a union may also be in their best interest.
Unlike companies like Starbucks or Amazon where attempts at unionization have a long history, Trader Joe’s workers have traditionally been satisfied. In 2003, when tens of thousands of grocery workers in Southern California – Trader Joe’s native home – went on strike for better working conditions and wages, Trader Joe’s workers, who had not joined unions, stopped the labor struggle.
In fact, before the pandemic, Trader Joe’s was considered one of the best retail workplaces in the United States. Employee resource site Glassdoor gives grocery chain high marks year after year, making Glassdoor’s annual list of the best workplaces for 2011-2013 and 2017-2022. One Trader Joe’s employee told Business Insider that the part of their job they enjoyed most was customer interaction: “As long as I make sure the customer is having a good time, and I emphasize Trader Joe’s values, I can talk to people about whatever I want.” Workers also cited good hourly wages, health insurance benefits, and retirement benefits as reasons to love their employer.
So why would, in 2022, workers at a Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, vote to join a newly formed independent union called Trader Joe’s United? And why are their colleagues at a store in Minneapolis looking to do the same?
According to Sarah Beth Reither, an employee of the aforementioned Minneapolis Trader Joe’s and Regulatory Member of Trader Joe’s United, the reputation of her employer “was once well deserved.” But, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, she explained, “there has been an erosion of some of the benefits” and “there has been a kind of deterioration in the situation in the workplace that has led some of us to understand that and see it in the future.” [company’s] The narrative no longer corresponds to the truth.”
In fact, the company began cutting worker benefits years ago. In 2013, Trader Joe stopped offering health insurance plans to part-time employees. It did so based on the fact that workers were likely to get plans through the Affordable Care Act, cynically taking advantage of a government program intended to help the uninsured.
Trader Joe’s has about 530 stores in 43 states – more locations than Whole Foods – Trader Joe’s, like many grocery companies, has thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, generating $16.5 billion in revenue in 2020. But instead of sharing some of that wealth With workers, the chain of companies continued to cut benefits.
“A few years ago, the benefits were really good,” Richer says, adding, “There was a 15 percent guaranteed retirement match.” But then in recent years, she says, coverage has dropped to 10 percent. Last January, company workers discovered that their retirement match had been cut in half, to 5 per cent. “As of now, there is no guaranteed retirement contribution,” Rayther says.
Wages are also a huge issue. “The pay structure is set up so that some of the people who have worked in the company for several years get paid less than the people who are hired now,” says Richer.
Reiter also conflicts with the fact that there is no job security in her workplace. “Trader Joe’s is an ‘at will’ company, which means they can let people go for no or little reason.” Union membership can bring in contracts that prevent workers from being fired without cause—a critical protection for those active in organizing work.
Instead, unsurprisingly, Trader Joe began engaging in union-busting tactics once it became apparent that employees were eager for better working conditions. Several Hadley store workers who wore Trader Joe’s United pins said they were retaliated and sent home before their shifts ended, even though wearing a pro-union badge is protected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There was similar retaliation against workers at a store in Vermont, until one worker was fired. The staff filed a complaint with the NLRB and they won.
Richer says, like many young workers across the country who have no direct experience with unions, it has been a journey for her and her colleagues; They have been working since February to educate themselves “about what unions are, and what union can mean for Trader Joe’s and our everyday working lives.”
When the Hadley store’s union elections were scheduled for late July, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson Nakia Rohde sent an email to workers saying, “We’re happy to have the dates set. Trader Joe’s is a great place to work, and we look forward to our crew members having a chance to vote on keeping things as they are or representing them by this SEIU-backed group.”
Richer says she’s never heard of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, a well-established and large union that happens to be a favorite target of the right-wing media. In fact, Trader Joe’s United is not affiliated with SEIU or any existing union. The company’s reference to SEIU is likely to be a malicious attempt to undermine the newly formed independent union.
But, like many companies whose progressive facade is crumbling in the eyes of their young workers, Trader Joe’s may lose the battle over unions. Noella Williams, a former supermarket worker in Florida, posted a slew of complaints last June, protesting several concerns, further eroding the company’s reputation and confirming the opinions of many disgruntled workers.
For most of her fellow workers, it “does not make sense” that unions would be, says Raither, who hopes her Minneapolis store colleagues will soon follow in the footsteps of their counterparts in Hadley, Massachusetts, with union elections due.
“We are very, very excited to be able to vote in this election,” she says.
Author BiographySonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali”, a television and radio program broadcast on Free Speech TV channels and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All Project at the Independent Media Institute.
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