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Trader Joe’s workers vote to unionize for the first time

Employees at a store in western Massachusetts became the first of more than 500 Trader Joe’s locations to take such a step

Customers walk to a Trader Joe's market in Cambridge, Mass. Workers at a store in western Massachusetts voted to unionize on Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP)

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

The union’s victory in western Massachusetts follows a wave of successful union drives this year at high-profile employers that have long evaded unionization, such as Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and REI. Union victories can produce a ripple effect across employers and industries, emboldening new workers to organize. Petitions for union elections this year are on track to hit their highest level in a decade, as a hot labor market has afforded workers more leverage over their employers.

Trader Joe’s workers at the Hadley store cited the degradation of their benefits, health and safety concerns related to the pandemic, and pay as the impetus for forming an independent union at their store. Some workers at the store make $16 an hour. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $14.25 an hour.

“There’s been a really clear trend over the past 10 years of Trader Joe’s chipping away at our benefits,” said Maeg Yosef, a leader of the union drive who has worked at the Hadley store for 18 years. “We all see that, and it’s really obvious to us that the way to protect each other is through a union contract.”

A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s disputed the workers’ allegations, adding that the company’s salaries, benefits and working conditions remain top notch.

“Trader Joe’s offers its Crew Members a package of pay, benefits, and working conditions that is among the best in the grocery business. Despite this, employees in our Hadley, Mass., store recently voted to be represented by a union,” said Nakia Rohde, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s. “We are prepared to immediately begin discussions with union representatives for the employees at this store to negotiate a contract.”

While Starbucks and Amazon have so far refused to negotiate union contracts with their employees who have recently voted to unionize, Rohde stated that Trader Joe’s is willing to use any current union contract for a multistate grocery store in the region as a model for a contract, including pay, retirement, health care and working conditions, for workers at its Hadley store.

Since workers in Hadley announced their union drive in May, Trader Joe’s workers in Minneapolis and Boulder, Colo., have filed for union elections. The store in Minneapolis will hold its election the second week in August. There are more than 530 Trader Joe’s locations in the country.

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

Trader Joe’s, a national chain that employs 50,000 workers across 42 states, has built a devoted base of customers since its founding in 1967 with reasonable prices, local flair, and a reputation for offering strong wages and benefits to its “crew members” — who don Hawaiian shirts. But unionizing employees in Hadley say that in recent years, the company has steadily chipped away at many of the benefits that made Trader Joe’s an attractive place to work.

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

Trader Joe’s previously said that the change was in part a response to feedback from workers that wanted a bonus instead of 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 required weekly hours to qualify from roughly 20 to 30 hours a week with the passage of Obamacare.

A spokesman for Trader Joe’s told the HuffPost at the time, “We have made some changes to our healthcare coverage that we believe will be a benefit to all Crew Members working in our stores.”

“I think the company has made changes over the years that have made Trader Joe’s a less of a great place to work. Public perception hasn’t caught up with that reality,” said Yosef, 41. “I also feel like unions are good for all workers. You don’t have to have the worst working conditions to benefit from having a union. Eventually 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 took extra steps to protect its workforce. It required customers to wear masks, enforced capacity restrictions in stores, allowed workers to take extended leaves of absence with health-care benefits and in some cases increased wages by up to $4 an hour.

But Hadley workers say that the company rolled back many of these protections too early, in particular “thank you” pay, which ended in May 2021. A coronavirus outbreak swept through the Hadley store, and 22 workers called out sick in May of this year, according to covid-19 alerts received by workers, but Trader Joe’s had already dropped the mask mandate, in accordance with local mandates.

“I think workers at the store have realized they’ll have better working conditions if they have a say in them. 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. “They have awareness that they can make the workplace better.”

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Trader Joe’s has aggressively opposed unionization efforts among its workforce for years, pulling pro-union workers aside to give anti-union talks and sending out a memo to managers to use with workers during the pandemic that compared the risks of joining a union to more like “buying a house” than “toothpaste you don’t end up liking.”

Trader Joe’s managers have pulled workers aside for a series of mandatory meetings at the store in Hadley in recent days to dissuade them from voting for the union. Two workers present at the meetings said regional managers told them to “vote no” in the union election and mentioned the toll that the union drive had taken on the store’s leadership.

“We have always said we welcome a fair vote,” said Rohde told the New York Times in May after workers launched their campaign in Hadley. “We are not interested in delaying the process in any way.”

Edwards, who has worked at the Hadley store for eight years, said a manager sent him home in late May for wearing a union pin to work. Edwards led a rally for the union on the sidewalk outside the Trader Joe’s in Hadley on Saturday that more than 100 community members showed up to support. 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 through, Edwards said.

Less than a week before workers began voting in Hadley, Trader Joe’s announced in an internal memo that it was increasing benefits nationwide. The company said it was raising Sunday and holiday pay by $10 an hour, as well as the rate of accrual for paid time off. It said it would give out raises to employees with more tenure at the company to increase pay equity across the company. Expanding benefits to workers in the lead-up to a union election is a tactic frequently used by employers to dissuade workers from voting to unionize.

The workers at the Hadley store say they expect other Trader Joe’s employees to be emboldened by their victory.

“I think our victory can be replicated,” Yosef said. “Even if we’re living in different areas of the country, the crew experience is universal. We’re all dealing with the same issues: pay, benefits, safety. I think we all have a lot in common.”