Everyone’s favorite store, Trader Joe’s, is facing a unionization push—and it seems some managers are not happy with this fact.

With the possibility of a union being formed in the chain-store’s Hadley, Massachusetts location, there are reports that employees are being pulled aside and specifically asked by supervisors to vote against the quickly forming Trader Joe’s United

Trader Joe’s United is currently a start-up association—they are working with pro bono labor lawyers to put their organization together legally. In an open letter to the company CEO Dan Bane, the organizers wrote: “Two years ago, in March of 2020, you mailed a letter to our homes. In this letter, you argued against unionization, asserting that unions were attempting to ‘drive discontent’ in our stores, and that unions were falsely ‘claiming only joining [a] union will protect the pay and benefits you currently enjoy.’

“Since that letter arrived in our mailboxes, Trader Joe’s has continued to slash our benefits as our wages stagnate and our safety concerns go unaddressed. We’ve come to the conclusion that, in fact, a union is the only way to protect and improve our pay and benefits. The company’s actions have made this clear.

“Yet no union organizers came to us. We organized ourselves.”  

One Hadley, Mass. worker, affiliated with Trader Joe’s United, told HuffPost that recently “supervisors roped her into what’s commonly called a ‘captive audience’ meeting ahead of a union vote. Speaking on the store’s loading dock, managers focused their discussion on how the union campaign had been hard on supervisors in the store.”

Trader Joe’s, the grocery chain with over 530 stores, is headquartered in Monrovia, California. Among shoppers TJ’s has a near cult-like reputation: its food, low prices and friendly workers make going to the store an entire experience.

But on top of that, Trader Joe’s has the reputation of being a great place to work: stores are operated along a work culture that promotes the idea that each store location is a ship with a captain (the leader of the store), a team of eight to 12 mates (or managers), and a crew. All team members are said to be guaranteed a competitive pay with a 7% annual increase; a health plan; paid time-off; a 401(k)-retirement plan; and a store discount.

But working at Trader Joe’s has frequently turned out to be different from what’s promised. During the pandemic, employees complained that their retirement benefits were cut, healthcare coverage became harder to qualify for, and that COVID-19 protections, like enforcing facemask wearing among customers, were infrequently put in place. “The company removed mask policies as soon as the CDC stated vaccinated people didn’t need them, with no plans to check if a customer was vaccinated or not. Just to avoid the hassle altogether,” notes a Trader Joe’s employee, who, like the others quoted in this article, wished to remain anonymous.

At one point the company offered COVID-19 hazard pay and paid time off for workers with COVID symptoms, but last spring they did away with that policy.

Even prior to the pandemic, one former Trader Joe’s crew member said, “In the Trader Joe’s manual it tells you that there’s no bureaucracy, that there’s no hierarchy. But yeah, there’s absolutely a hierarchy, absolutely. Like they can make up the rules as they go as to why they don’t want to keep you. And they reserve the right to deny you a raise: it doesn’t matter, whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if you did everything that was on the book to get the raise, they can deny it, for whatever reason. And that’s acceptable.”

Union organizing efforts are not new among the grocery chain’s workers. Many past attempts to unionize have led to firings, employees say. “Trader Joe’s is known to fire employees who are unionizing,” said a former Trader Joe’s worker. “They’ll find any excuse—like excessive bathroom breaks or not smiling enough.”

“The last time they tried to unionize here was during the initial start of the Roni,” explained a current Manhattan-based Trader Joe’s crew member. “They actually had huddles about the limitations of  a union. I heard rumors of unionizing at my current store but nothing official. We just know that they are worried about it at TJ because of the additional benefits that are being offered.”

If Trader Joe’s United establishes a union at the Hadley, Massachusetts store, it will obviously have trickle down effects on the chain’s other stores—and workers in New York are keeping an eye out for how the union vote progresses.

“Speaking from experience,” a current employee commented, “it’s tough for any of the crew members in NYC to unionize with the roughly 300 employees in each store and the constant disinformation about unions present. But I’m glad there are stores that can collectively come together to unionize the crew.

“The benefit announcements by Trader Joe’s last week was a clear ploy to get in the good graces of the crew as the concern of more stores possibly wanting to unionize. Many people I’ve talked to in person and on TJ’s crew-related internet forums have read between the lines, I’m cautiously optimistic that a majority of the crew are aware of the bait. Any of us who worked when Trader Joe’s announced a $4 bonus per hour we worked, remember how quickly that was removed.”

“I, I really wish for them that they actually can unionize,” another former employee added, “because I know for a fact that people that try to unionize get fired.” The ex-employee spoke of a worker who had been employed with Trader Joe’s for years, but once he took on the role of being the store’s union rep, manager’s found issues with his work performance. Notably, there were complaints that he took too many bathroom breaks. He was ultimately fired. 

Trader Joe’s has contested some of the claims made by Hadley, Mass. store employees but the company officially states that it welcomes the union vote because they believe their company offers good benefits.

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