Trader Joe’s grocery workers organizing in stores across the country

Published on Nov. 19, 2023

Many consumers view Trader Joe’s as their go-to loveable grocery store for its one-of-a-kind and relatively inexpensive products. Who doesn’t enjoy their Everything but the Bagel seasoning! However, this favorable, ethical perception of the retailer may not remain once you observe the company’s labor relations.

The store’s independent labor union, Trader Joe’s United, was created in late July 2022 when their workers announced their victory in voting to unionize 45-31 at the store location in Hadley, MA, becoming the first Trader Joe’s unionized store. Trader Joe’s workers in Hadley, when posting their union decision on social media, addressed the need for this in “securing a contract that will benefit and protect us, the crew, instead of the company’s bottom line.”

This prioritization of the company’s “bottom line” was something Trader Joe’s workers began to notice when they felt the effects of diminished benefits and stagnating wages. Workers further identified the need for unionization as many grocery and retail workers experienced the hard-hitting economic effects of the Covid pandemic. So, in response to the company’s failure to ensure strong benefits, healthy workplace conditions, and fair wages, Trader Joe’s United was born and has since grown in-store participation. Later in August, 2022, a store in Minneapolis formed a union, and even more recently this year workers at locations in Louisville, KY, and Oakland, CA, made the decision to join TJU.

A Trader Joe’s on College Avenue in Oakland has recently become the first location in California to file for a union election. Workers at this store filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board out of frustration over their employer’s numerous unfair labor practices. One abuse committed by Trader Joe’s in claims by workers made earlier in the month of April, 2023, was a form of union retaliation, in violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Under Section 8 of the NLRA, an employer cannot “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employers in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7”, these rights being “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid protection.”

Workers at the Rockridge store accused their employer of  “surveillance or creating the impression of surveillance” geared towards monitoring their unionizing efforts, along with interrogation tactics. Oakland employees are not alone in experiencing this retaliatory behavior by the company. For instance, the Trader Joe’s wine store in New York City was immediately shut down within a week of plans by workers to announce joining the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a sign that the corporation aims to push back on actions by workers to join a union.

Even prior to this offense, Trader Joe’s employees in Rockridge were motivated to join the union due to experiences of unsafe and exploitative working conditions.

A worker named Dominique Bernardo complained to her manager about a rat infestation in their store in early 2021. She reported that she would spend upwards of 40 minutes at the start of her shifts cleaning rat feces in the store. The company did not care about the rats until customers noticed and started returning damaged merchandise and yet it took nearly two years for the company to stop the infestation. It should also be noted that a New York store in Essex has had reports of what appeared to be raw sewage seeping from the ceiling in the store which workers had to clean. This shows that lack of precautions for worker safety may be a widespread issue at stores, and the company has a pattern of neglecting workers’ demands and concerns.

Along with the poor behavior and lack of efforts to create a healthy working environment for its employees, Trader Joe’s has also chipped away at workers’ benefits significantly. Workers have experienced inconsistent wage scales that lead to major pay discrepancies. Workers feel uncomfortable raising sexual harassment issues. Trader Joe’s also has refused to install conveyor belts at registers which leads to the workers being harmed from the constant strain of moving groceries.The company canceled their retirement. Workers’ short-lived access to $4 additional hourly “hazard pay,” early in the Covid pandemic, was dramatically cut in May, 2021.  On top of this, Chief Executive Officer Dan Bane issued a company-wide memo calling union efforts a distraction after employees petitioned for “hazard pay.”

This extra pay ended just as California started struggling to fight the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 which shows the company’s lack of compassion for their employees. The company also had safety shields taken down and they dissolved their mask policy for customers which left employees feeling exposed to the virus and abandoned by the company.

While Trader Joe’s company experienced a 14 percent growth in sales from 2021 to 2022, none of this was deservingly distributed to the in-store workers that maintain the functionality of the company.

As unionizing efforts in food and retail service are on the rise, with workers at Starbucks and Amazon establishing their first unionized locations these past few years, the demand for support for this work is essential.

Grocery workers, like all workers in these industries, have the right to a fair living wage, extensive benefits, and healthy, safe workplace environments,  and should not be treated with disregard and inconsistency by the Trader Joe’s corporation.

Trader Joe’s United’s current goals are drafting their first contract proposal to negotiate with the company and the continued growth and support to workers nationally for resources and tools in their efforts to unionize. Trader Joe’s United is an independent union organization, which was a choice to safeguard that decision-making roles remain in the hands of the workers. To uplift Trader Joe’s crew members union organizing,  everyone should support any future strikes or boycotts, and stay up to date on Trader Joe’s United social media platforms and website. For instance, a current petition asks for signatures to support the rehiring of crew member Steve Andrade, who was unfairly fired in retaliation for union efforts in Hadley, MA which is linked here.  You can keep up with the union on their Twitter page which is @ TraderJoesUnite. Organizing also always requires financial support, which you can donate to using this link.

Article by Baine Loughran and Angelisa Rodriguez

Additional Materials

The Saga of Organizing at Trader Joe's