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SUSTAINED MOMENTUM

Trader Joe’s workers start push to unionize

Shoppers wait in line to get into Trader Joe's during the pandemic.
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Trader Joe’s employees want to form its first union.
  • Michelle Cheng
By Michelle Cheng

Reporter based in New York

Published

Trader Joe’s employees are looking to form the first union for the grocery chain, following successful votes at companies like Starbucks and Amazon.

In the decision to go forth with unionizing efforts, employees at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts cite changes that have made their benefits less generous over time and the company’s inconsistent addressing of safety concerns. Workers are looking to form an independent union called Trader Joe’s United, which will include about 85 employees. 

During the pandemic, the California-based grocery store discouraged unionization efforts. In response to workers at the store in western Massachusetts filing for a union election, the company said that it welcomes a fair vote if more than 30% of the crew in a given store wants one, which is what the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for enforcing labor law, requires to hold an election. The grocery chain has more than 530 stores and 10,000 employees across the US.

The pandemic has seen heightened worker activism, from Starbucks baristas to Instacart delivery workers, with workers calling for better pay and benefits and more protections from covid-19. Continued unionization efforts also highlight that workers are confident that they still have the upper hand in a tight US labor market.

What are workers demanding?

Trader Joe’s is a popular grocery chain in the US, and is perceived as being worker-friendly, as it boasts competitive pay and benefits. But some employees say that perception doesn’t necessarily match the reality

Employees—which the company refers to as “crew members”— say that benefits have become less generous. The company has made it more difficult for workers to qualify for full health coverage and has slashed its retirement contributions, the New York Times reported.

The company has also been less consistent with workers’ safety. In the beginning of the pandemic, Trader Joe’s rolled out hazard pay as high as $4 an hour, and reimbursed sick workers for time off to recover from covid-19. But the company ended covid-19 benefits after three months, and over time, became more lax about masking requirements in stores.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that, in fact, a union is the only way to protect and improve our pay and benefits,” the organizing committee wrote in a letter to Dan Bane, Trader Joe’s CEO, in May. 

Trader Joe’s is one of the buzzy brands like Starbucks and REI that have positioned themselves as companies that embrace purpose, diversity, and sustainability. If you’re running an organization that touts those types of values, you can expect that to influence your workers’ demands, Ruth Milkman, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, told Quartz. Like Starbucks, Trader Joe’s employees are simply looking to enshrine these values in a contract, and have a stronger voice in establishing working procedures, benefits, and wages. 

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