There was a big lie that modern corporations sold to American workers in the late 20th century and into the first decade of the 21st century: It was that profit-driven entities could make both employees and customers happy enough that no interventions like worker unions or strong federal regulations were needed.
Modern companies like Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s perpetrated this lie, obscuring their business practices with a veneer of progressive ideals and referring to staff with euphemistic titles like “partners,” “associates,” or “crew members.” Indeed, many workers employed within this slice of the American corporate world were often relatively content—until now. Alongside the recent pro-union activity at more than 150 Starbucks cafés across the United States is a newfound awareness among some workers at the Trader Joe’s grocery chain that a union may also be in their best interest.
Unlike corporations like Starbucks or Amazon where attempts to unionize have a long history, Trader Joe’s workers have traditionally been content. In 2003, when tens of thousands of grocery store workers in Southern California—home of the original Trader Joe’s—went on strike for better working conditions and pay, Trader Joe’s workers, who were not unionized, sat out the labor strife.
Indeed, before the pandemic, Trader Joe’s was considered one of the best retail workplaces in the U.S. The employee resource website Glassdoor gives the grocery chain high marks year after year, making Glassdoor’s annual Best Places to Work list for 2011-2013 and 2017-2022. One Trader Joe’s employee told Business Insider that the part of their job they enjoyed most was customer interaction: “As long as I make sure the customer is having a great time, and I’m emphasizing Trader Joe’s values, I can talk to people about whatever I want.” Workers also cited good hourly wages, health insurance benefits, and retirement benefits as reasons to love their employer.
Why then, in 2022, are workers at a Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, voting to join a newly formed independent union called Trader Joe’s United? And why are their colleagues at a store in Minneapolis looking to do the same?
According to Sarah Beth Ryther, an employee of the aforementioned Minneapolis Trader Joe’s and an organizing member of Trader Joe’s United, the reputation that her employer enjoyed “was once well-deserved.” But, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, she explains that “there’s been an erosion of some of the benefits,” and “there’s been a kind of degradation in the situation in the workplace that has led some of us to understand and see that the [company’s] narrative no longer aligns with the truth.”
Indeed, the company began cutting workers’ benefits years ago. In 2013, Trader Joe’s stopped offering health insurance plans to part-time employees. It did so based on the fact that workers could potentially obtain plans through the Affordable Care Act, cynically taking advantage of a government program aimed at helping the uninsured.
Boasting about 530 stores in 43 states—more locations than Whole Foods—Trader Joe’s, like many grocery companies, has thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, earning $16.5 billion in revenues in 2020. But instead of sharing some of that wealth with workers, the corporate chain continued slashing benefits.
“Several years ago, the benefits were really good,” says Ryther, adding, “There was a 15 percent guaranteed retirement match.” But then in more recent years, she says that coverage was reduced to 10 percent. This past January, workers at the company discovered that their retirement match was further cut by half, to 5 percent. “As of right now,” says Ryther, “there is no guaranteed retirement contribution.”
Wages are also a huge issue. “The pay structure is set up so that some folks who have worked for the company for several years make less than people who are hired now,” says Ryther.
Ryther also takes issue with the fact that there is no job security at her workplace. “Trader Joe’s is an ‘at-will’ company, which means they can let folks go for no reason or small reasons.” Union membership can bring contracts that prevent workers from being fired without cause—a critical protection for those active in labor organizing.
Rather unsurprisingly, Trader Joe’s reportedly began engaging in union-busting tactics as soon as it was clear that employees were agitating for better working conditions. Several workers at the Hadley store who wore Trader Joe’s United pins said they were retaliated against and sent home before their shifts were over, even though wearing pro-union insignia is protected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There was similar retaliation against workers at a Vermont store, with one worker even being fired. Employees filed a complaint to the NLRB and won.
Ryther, like many young workers around the country who have no direct experience with unions, says it has been a journey for her and her colleagues; they have been working since February to educate themselves “about what unions are, what a union could mean for Trader Joe’s and for our daily work life.”
When the Hadley store’s union election date was set for late July, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson named Nakia Rohde sent an email to workers saying, “We are happy the dates have been set. Trader Joe’s is a great place to work, and we look forward to our Crew Members having a chance to vote on keeping things as they are or being represented by this SEIU-backed group.”
Ryther says she had never even heard of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, a well-established and large union that happens to be a favorite target of right-wing media. Indeed, Trader Joe’s United is not affiliated with SEIU or any existing union. The company’s reference to SEIU was likely a sly bid to undermine the newly formed independent union.
But, like many corporations whose progressive façade is crumbling in the eyes of their young workers, Trader Joe’s may well lose the battle over unions. One former worker at a Florida store, Noella Williams, who resigned in protest of numerous concerns, published a litany of complaints this past June, adding to the company’s eroding reputation and confirming the views of many disgruntled workers.
For most of her fellow workers, “it’s a no-brainer” to unionize, says Ryther, who hopes her Minneapolis store colleagues will soon follow in the footsteps of their counterparts in Hadley, Massachusetts, with a union election date.
“We are very, very, excited to be able to vote in this election,” she says.
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