"Essential workers were invisible": First Trader Joe's union a sign of post-pandemic labor surge

Workers cite a lack of safety training protocols as well as a lack of transparency around compensation

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published August 6, 2022 5:26AM (EDT)

The Trader Joe's storefront  (Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)
The Trader Joe's storefront (Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)

Following a string of successful employee-led organizing campaigns at major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, a Trader Joe's store in Massachusetts has become the first of the company's locations to form a union. 

The months-long labor effort culminated in an official union election last Thursday, when workers (called "crew members") in Hadley, Massachusetts voted in favor of the move 45 to 31, according to the National Labor Relations Board. 

"Since the moment we announced our campaign, a majority of the crew have enthusiastically supported our union, and despite the company's best efforts to bust us, our majority has never wavered," the union said in a statement.


The Hadley location, which launched its union drive back in May, is the first of the company's 500 stores to join Trader Joe's United, which is both worker-led and independent from any larger unions. But workers in Hadley probably won't be the last to cast that vote. Just last week, workers in Boulder, Colorado filed an official petition to hold a union election. Meanwhile, a Trader Joe's store in Minneapolis is expected to hand in their ballots next week. 

Since 1967, Trader Joe's has successfully amassed a loyal customer base with relatively low prices, good customer service, simple packaging, and local sensibilities. Historically, the company has also been known for providing its employees with a better-than-average pay as well as a relatively strong suite of benefits. But over the last decade or so, employee benefits and pay have been gradually hallowed out. Retirement contribution matching has declined, and after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, the company excluded part-time workers from its private health insurance package. 

For many employees, the company's negligence was brought into sharp relief at the height of the pandemic, while employees were being asked to risk their lives by coming into work without adequate personal protective equipment, paid sick leave, or hazard pay. And by March 2020, a coalition of Trader Joe's workers were calling for a boycott of the grocery chain, alleging that store managers were "keeping stores open despite [a] sick crew."


By early June, Trader Joe's workers in Hadley filed a formal petition to hold a union election. In response, the company did exactly as expected by employing an array of union-busting tactics, said Maeg Yosef, an 18-year-employee who helped spearhead the union drive in Hadley.

"Counter to their public support for a fair vote, corporate mounted an intense anti-union campaign that included visits from higher-ups, threats and misinformation about unions, and captive audience meetings where management explicitly asked crew members to 'vote no,'" Yosef told Salon by email. "We were prepared for these classic union-busting tactics, so we held our majority of support in Hadley and believe we will do the same in Minneapolis." 

Asked about these allegations, Trader's Joe's did not respond to comment. A spokesperson for the company, Nakia Rohde, told The Washington Post that Trader Joe's has "always said we welcome a fair vote." Rohde added: "We are not interested in delaying the process in any way."

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In Hadley, workers were reportedly pulled aside by their managers to undergo mandatory meetings about the ills of unionization, according to the Post. Two workers told the outlet that various regional managers explicitly told them to "vote no" on forming a union. And just before the election, the corporate announced that it would be expanding benefits – an oft-employed tactic that workers said is designed to instill the fear that those benefits would be stripped away if they unionize. 

RELATED: Seattle Trader Joe's workers fear the company is retaliating against them for attending BLM protest

In Minneapolis, where one Trader Joe's location is expected to hold a vote next week, workers described to Salon similar instances of harassment and intimidation. 

"One of the managers pulled aside a high schooler and told them that this is the most important decision they're ever going to make in their life and that they better make the right one, which is just absolutely demeaning," Sarah Beth Ryther, a Minneapolis crew member of one year, told Salon in an interview. "It feels like the union-busting rhetoric is really infantilizing. And folks from management are not interacting with us in a way that recognizes our intelligence and our ability to make a decision without feeling intimidated."

Corporations like Amazon pay big bucks for "union avoidance" — and it all happens in the dark

Julia Hogan, another Minneapolis crew member, said that company hasn't yet dispatched any higher-ups from corporate. But still, the store's management, she added, appears to have been fed misinformation from above to sow division between employees.

One manager, Hogan said, told a coworker that people who "write a section, which is … basically just like a specialized section that only you write the order for … wouldn't be included in the union." She added: "It was just literally not true at all to begin with, because they don't know what our contract is going to look like."

RELATED: Following wins by other food industry unions, 50,000 California grocery workers authorize a strike

Both Ryther and Hogan stated that the original impetus for the Minneapolis union drive was a lack of safety training protocols as well as a lack of transparency around how compensation correlated with experience.

Next week, the Minneapolis location will hold a store-wide vote on whether to unionize, an outcome for which both Ryler and Hogan think there is enough support amongst staff.

Still, contract negotiations can drag on for months – if not years – and it's unclear what the time frame would look like, especially given the company's resistance to the union campaign thus far. 

After Hadley's union vote, Rohde, the Trader Joe's representative, said that the company was "prepared to immediately begin discussions with union representatives for the employees at this store to negotiate a contract.

"We are willing to use any current union contract for a multi-state grocery company with stores in the area, selected by the union representatives, as a template to negotiate a new structure for the employees in this store; including pay, retirement, healthcare, and working conditions such as scheduling and job flexibility," they added, suggesting that the company is averse to making the contact tailor-made for Trader Joe's employees. 

RELATED: Organized labor's mini-comeback: Union membership ticked up in 2017, after long downturn

Trader Joe's – which has retained the notorious union avoidance firm, Littler Mendelson – is just the latest big-name company to roll out a legally dubious union-busting campaign as more of Corporate America's workers continue to organize. 

Since last year, Amazon has tirelessly worked to stamp out a union effort, which first started in Bessemer, Alabama but has spread to other parts of the country, including Staten Island, where workers in April officially voted to form a union. In response, the company has unleashed a deluge of coercive anti-union messaging, terminated chief organizers, and subjected workers to threatening mandatory meetings.

Other companies like Starbucks, Apple, and REI have implemented similar tactics – but with limited success, as workers at all three companies have already begun unionizing.

Across the nation, petitions to hold a union drive have reportedly skyrocketed more than 50% over the last year as an increasing number of workers feel emboldened by the wins of their peers. This sharp uptick comes after decades of a gradual decline in union participation, even though most Americans currently support union membership, according to the Pew Research Center

Richard Trumka, president of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, told CNBC that the "pandemic has amplified [public support] even more. It showed how helpless workers are without a union."

"For years and years and years, people that we call 'essential workers' were invisible. It was as if no one knew they existed. They did their jobs every day to keep the country and the economy going," he added." And then Covid came and everybody was staying home except people they called 'essential workers,' people that were driving buses, and delivering food, and taking care of sick people, and making us better […] Now people see those workers and the dignity that they represent." 

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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Labor Reporting Traders Joe's Unions