Trader Joe’s workers vote to join unions for the first time

Suspension

Trader Joe’s workers at a store in Hadley, Massachusetts, voted 45 to 31 to join a union, becoming the first to do so at that company, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

The union victory in western Massachusetts follows a wave of successful union campaigns this year at notable longtime union evaders, such as Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and REI. Union victories can produce a ripple effect across employers and industries, encouraging new workers to organize. Petitions for this year’s union election are on track to reach their highest level in a decade, as a hot labor market has given workers more leverage over their employers.

Trader Joe’s workers at the Hadley store cited deteriorating benefits, health and safety concerns about the pandemic, and a push as an incentive to form an independent union in their store. Some workers in the store earn $16 an hour. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $14.25 an hour.

“There has been a really clear trend over the last 10 years of Trader Joe’s cutting our benefits,” said Maeg Yosef, a union leader who has worked at Hadley’s shop for 18 years. “We all see that, and it’s really clear to us that the way to protect each other is by holding a union.”

A Trader Joe’s spokesperson cast doubt on the workers’ claims, adding that the company’s pay, benefits and working conditions remain top notch.

“Trader Joe’s offers crew members a package of wages, benefits and working conditions that are among the best in the grocery business. Despite this, employees at the Hadley, Massachusetts department store recently voted to be represented by a union,” said Nakia Rudd, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s. “We are ready to immediately begin discussions with union representatives of the employees in this store to negotiate a contract.”

While Starbucks and Amazon have so far refused to negotiate union contracts with their employees who recently voted to join a union, Rudd stated that Trader Joe’s is willing to use any existing union contract of a multi-state grocery store in the area as a model for a multi-state grocery store in the area. Contract, including salary, retirement, health care, and working conditions for employees of her Hadley store.

Since workers in Hadley announced their union campaign in May, Trader Joe’s workers in Minneapolis and Boulder, Colorado, have filed for union elections. The Minneapolis store will hold its elections in the second week of August. There are over 530 Trader Joe’s locations in the country.

Workers at the Hadley store as well as in Minneapolis are collaborating with Trader Joe’s United, an independent union that was recently It formed, echoing new, worker-led union movements at Starbucks and Amazon.

Trader Joe’s, a national chain that employs 50,000 workers in 42 states, has built a dedicated customer base since its founding in 1967 with affordable prices, local flair, and a reputation for offering solid wages and benefits to its “crew members” — who wear Hawaiian shirts. But Hadley’s union employees say that in recent years, the company has steadily shed many of the benefits that made Trader Joe’s an attractive place to work.

Trader Joe’s has offered a solid retirement plan for many years, contributing 15 percent of employee earnings to employees 30 or older. But in early 2010, the company reduced its contribution to 10 percent, and last year it reduced the percentage again to 5 percent for many employees. The company has since announced that it is no longer specifying a specific contribution.

Trader Joe’s previously said the change was partly in response to feedback from workers that they wanted a bonus rather than a retirement contribution.

Health care benefits for part-time workers have also taken a beating. The company used to offer such benefits to part-time workers but raised the weekly hours required to qualify for about 20 to 30 hours a week with the passage of Obamacare.

A Trader Joe’s spokesperson told the Huffington Post at the time, “We’ve made some changes to our healthcare coverage that we believe will be beneficial to all staff members working in our stores.”

“I think the company has made changes over the years that have made Trader Joe’s a great place to work for less. Public realization hasn’t caught up with that reality,” said Yusef, 41. I also feel that unions are good for all workers. You don’t have to have the worst working conditions to benefit from having a union. In the end, if we can’t take care of ourselves, the company will lose that magic that made it so special.”

During parts of the pandemic, Trader Joe’s has taken extra steps to protect its workforce. It required customers to wear masks, enforce capacity restrictions in stores, allow workers to take extended vacations with health care benefits and in some cases increase wages by up to $4 an hour.

But Hadley workers say the company rolled back many of these protections too soon, notably the “thank you” pay, which expired in May 2021. The coronavirus outbreak swept through the Hadley store, recalling 22 sick workers in May this year according to covid alerts -19 received by workers, but Trader Joe’s has already dropped the mask mandate, according to local mandates.

“I think the store workers realized they would have better working conditions if they had a say in it. I honestly think a lot of that has to do with Covid,” said Jamie Edwards, a 33-year-old crew member who voted for the union. Awareness that they can improve the workplace.”

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Trader Joe’s has fiercely opposed union efforts among its workforce for years, pulling pro-union workers aside to give anti-union talks and sending a memo to managers for use with workers during the pandemic that compared the risks of joining a union to a similar one. “Buying a house” instead of “toothpaste you don’t like in the end.”

Trader Joe’s managers have pulled workers aside for a series of mandatory in-store meetings in Hadley in recent days to discourage them from voting for the union. Two workers present at the meetings said regional managers told them to “vote no” in union elections and mentioned the losses the unions’ campaign had taken on store leadership.

“We’ve always said we welcome a fair vote,” Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Nakia Rudd told the New York Times in May after workers launched their Hadley campaign. “We are not interested in delaying the process in any way.”

Edwards, who worked at Hadley’s shop for eight years, said the manager sent him home in late May to wear a union pin to work. Edwards led a union rally on the sidewalk outside Trader Joe’s in Hadley on Saturday where more than 100 community members turned out to support them. After the rally, the union organized for customers to deliver flowers to workers inside the store, but security threatened to call the police if they followed, Edwards said.

Less than a week before workers begin voting in Hadley, Trader Joe’s announced in an internal memo that it is increasing benefits nationwide. The company said it raised Sunday and holiday pay by $10 an hour, plus the accrual rate for paid time off. It said it would give raises to employees with more position in the company to increase shareholder equity in payroll across the company. Extending benefits to workers in the run-up to union elections is a tactic frequently used by employers to discourage workers from voting to join unions.

Workers at the Hadley store say they expect other Trader Joe’s employees to be encouraged by their victory.

“I think our victory can be repeated,” Yusef said. “Even if we live in different parts of the country, the crew experience is global. We all deal with the same issues: payment, benefits, and security. I think we all have a lot in common.”

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