Massachusetts Trader Joe’s Workers Seek Election To Form Company’s First Union

Trader Joe’s employees in Massachusetts who hope to form the grocery chain’s first union say they have gathered enough signatures from their co-workers to hold an election at their store.

The nascent union campaign known as Trader Joe’s United announced Wednesday that it had filed a petition asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote for the store in Hadley, north of Springfield. The campaign is a new, independent group not affiliated with an established labor union.

At least 30% of a workplace needs to sign union authorization cards in order for the NLRB to greenlight an election. Trader Joe’s United said it had gathered “well over” that many signatures, without offering an exact figure. The labor board must review the workers’ petition to determine whether they’ve cleared the threshold and are entitled to a vote.

A successful union campaign at one Trader Joe’s store could quickly spread to others within the chain of more than 500 locations. That’s clearly been the case for Starbucks, where workers have unionized more than 120 stores in a matter of months after decades of the company being union-free.

“We have a ton of support and we’re just moving forward the best we can.”

– Maeg Yosef, Trader Joe’s United

A Trader Joe’s spokesperson told HuffPost earlier this week that it welcomed a vote and would not stand in the way of one.

“We believe Trader Joe’s is a great place to work and our compensation, benefits and working conditions are among the best in the grocery business. We welcome a fair vote and are prepared to hold a vote if more than 30% of the Crew wants one,” the spokesperson, Nakia Rohde, said in an email, using the company term for workers.

Trader Joe’s has brushed off unionization efforts in the past. In 2020, CEO Dan Bane called a union organizing campaign a “distraction,” saying a union could not improve on what Trader Joe’s offers. He invited a union vote wherever employees wanted one.

HuffPost reported Tuesday that workers at the Hadley store have filed unfair labor practice charges against the company, accusing managers of interfering with their union efforts. Two workers told HuffPost they had been ordered to remove their union pins or go home for the day without pay. Under NLRB precedent, there are few circumstances in which an employer can legally require a worker to remove union insignia.

Maeg Yosef, a Trader Joe’s employee of 18 years and spokesperson for the union campaign, told HuffPost she was among those told to remove their pins. She said management had also removed union literature from a break room at one point. Although the campaign does not have staff attorneys, labor attorneys have been advising the workers on their rights, according to Yosef.

“We have a ton of support and we’re just moving forward the best we can,” she said.

Trader Joe’s has brushed off unionization efforts in the past. In 2020, CEO Dan Bane called a union organizing campaign a “distraction,” saying a union could not improve on what Trader Joe’s offers.

SOPA Images via Getty Images

Yosef said many workers’ perception of Trader Joe’s has changed in recent years. The grocer has long been seen as a decent place to work with good benefits, but the company has taken some steps that have angered longtime employees. As HuffPost recently reported, this year it slashed retirement benefits by half for many workers, reducing the company’s 401(k) contribution from 10% of wages earned in a year down to 5%.

Jamie Edwards, an organizer at the Hadley store who’s been with Trader Joe’s for nine years, said the grocer lost much of its sheen while workers toiled through the pandemic, feeling as though their safety concerns weren’t taken seriously. Edwards’ retirement contributions were slashed despite having a nearly decade-long tenure.

“I feel like the company was doing everything they could to make people want to unionize,” Edwards said.

By declining to affiliate with a known labor group, Trader Joe’s United is following a path similar to the Amazon Labor Union, which pulled off a stunning upset at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, earlier this year. Independent union efforts typically lack the resources and experience of well-funded labor campaigns, but they are more immune to management’s efforts to paint them as a “third party,” since everyone involved in the union is a worker.

Election petitions are sometimes withdrawn after they’ve been filed, if the union turns out not to have sufficient support. Such was the case initially with the Amazon Labor Union, which filed for an election, withdrew that petition, then re-filed for the ultimately successful vote in March.

A union needs to win a simple majority of votes cast in order to become the workers’ bargaining representative. Unions typically go for an election once they’ve secured the backing of a supermajority in the workplace, assuming the company will run an aggressive anti-union campaign that erodes support. But they can still succeed by filing for an election with only a minority of support, as the Amazon Labor Union did, so long as they continue to organize in the run-up to the vote and grow their base.

Yosef said the Hadley store recently received a visit from a Trader Joe’s executive, Jon Basalone, the chain’s president of stores. The company said the visit was standard practice, but Yosef said she believes it was certainly tied to the union effort.

“If they’re coming out here and sending Jon Basalone already, I think it just means that they’re that scared,” she said.

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