Photo: Carol Lollis/AP
Workers at Trader Joe’s successfully won union elections at stores in Hadley, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis, Minnesota this year, but workers have now filed numerous unfair labor practices charges against the US specialty grocery chain, alleging the company has at Violating labor laws in an attempt to prevent this discouraging more shops from unionizing.
The move comes as a wave of union efforts sweeps through parts of the US economy, including household names like Starbucks and Amazon. The situation at Trader Joe’s is particularly noteworthy as the company has cultivated a liberal brand ethos and anti-union policies are likely to damage that public image.
In Boulder, Colorado, workers at a Trader Joe’s had petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election in July to join United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7.
That same month, Trader Joe’s announced company-wide increases in compensation and benefits, including an increase in employee discounts from 10% to 20%, a $10 hourly bonus for Sundays, an increase in paid time off, and market-standard salary adjustments over complaints about Wage differences between long-term employees and new hires.
“We believe this was in response to union activity, not just in this store but in other stores across the country,” said Jim Hammons, organizing director at UFCW Local 7. “That in itself is illegal, they’re not allowed to do that. ”
The union recently withdrew the election bid and filed charges of unfair labor practices for announcing new wages and benefits during its union campaign, and alleged several other instances of retaliation. These include using company property used by some workers in the shop to make anti-union buttons and retaliating against a pro-union worker by removing them from their regular Sunday shift and replacing them with an anti-union worker.
Trader Joe’s also hired Littler Mendelson, a union avoidance law firm, which Starbucks also hired because dozens of stores across the US had unionized over the past year.
Aspen McKinzie, a Trader Joe’s worker at the Boulder store, said the union organizing campaign that began earlier this year over worker grievances about wage increases and benefits enacted at the company during the pandemic was taken away with no action from the workers.
“It’s a very shallow attempt to discourage people from unionizing by trying to make them feel like their employer actually cares about them. But none of that is secured and they can take it away whenever they want,” McKinzie said. “If they really care that much about us, they would pay us a lot more than pay a bunch of anti-union lawyers to run lines to our management.”
At the start of the Covid pandemic, Trader Joe Chief Executive Dan Bane released a company-wide memo describing union organizing efforts as a “distraction” amid calls for hazard pay and safety measures.
That memo was cited by workers who launched the first union campaign at Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts earlier this year, claiming that the company unilaterally halved workers’ pension benefits and canceled wage increases during the pandemic despite high inflation concerns.
Keenan Dailey, who has worked at Trader Joe’s in Boulder for 14 years, also cited these cuts as inspiration for the unionization campaign, as workers were upset by the sudden cuts.
“They were concerned that without that extra money, they weren’t sure how to pay their bills. Some of them had re-let their apartment in anticipation of getting that extra $2 an hour,” Dailey said. “And to add insult to injury, we found that the new employees were making $2 more an hour.”
He pointed out that the July announcement of wages and benefits had seriously disrupted the union campaign, but stressed that these benefits could be taken away without a contract at the employer’s whim.
“When you fight unions, you can do it with the carrot or the stick, so to speak, and Trader Joe’s has tried to use the carrot,” Dailey said. “We need a contract to keep that. And maybe we can get more stuff too, but if we don’t have a contract, we’ll probably lose it, at least part of it, in the next year or two.”
In New York City, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has filed charges alleging that Trader Joe’s abruptly closed a wine store in New York City just days before the workers planned to call for a union election. The UFCW has started a petition to urge Trader Joe’s to reopen business and has signaled an intention to take legal action.
Trader Joe’s denied that the store’s closure was linked to unionization efforts, saying the store was closed for underperformance. However, employees were not given advance notice of the store’s closure, and the site had several years of lease left.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story in response to allegations by workers in Boulder. In previous comments on union efforts, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson said, “Trader Joe’s respects our crew’s right to support a union – or not.”