Workers continue unionizing around the country despite retaliation

Published on Oct. 28, 2023

There has been a dramatic rise in retail industry workers’ interest in unionizing after successful votes at Starbucks, REI, and Amazon, and employees at Trader Joe’s have filed for a union election.

There is a long list of reasons why workers at these companies decided to dedicate time to unionizing efforts, but many of these reasons are related to decreasing benefits, as well as health and safety concerns, many of which were magnified during the pandemic.

Starbucks Workers United, the independent union organized by Starbucks employees, lists their demands, some of which include guaranteed and consistent weekly schedules, improved base pay to $20 per hour, and affordable employer-paid healthcare.

REI workers, who are unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), expressed their wants for guaranteed minimum hours, better pay, and safety standards.

What has come to light in these union movements among retail and service workers are the tactics of union retaliation that have been committed by companies in efforts to diminish the strength of workers’ organizing. With this, there is a need to consider legislation and reinforcement to restrict employers’ ability to retaliate.

Workers at the REI store located in Berkeley voted to unionize in August, 2022, but have since then dealt with attempts by their employer to hinder their labor organizing efforts. Amidst contract negotiations with REI starting in November, 2022, 10 workers were fired in early 2023, two of whom were part of the bargaining team. REI claims that employees were fired for reasons concerning “violations of company policies.” However, one of the fired workers, Freddi Farias, stated that these policies had not been previously enforced. Berkeley workers are not alone in this experience. At store locations in Cleveland and SoHo, the RWDSU filed Unfair Labor Practice charges in June 2023.  A major charge was against an unfair wage reduction targeting unionized SoHo employees. “The Way Forward,” a benefit and wage package, was not extended to workers at union stores, which appears to be a very direct act of retaliation. They are asking for support for these workers in donations to support their organizing and petitioning for their lost wages.

Starbucks workers across the nation have emerged as spurring a widespread labor movement. The first store to unionize is in Buffalo, NY, in late 2021. Now, workers at over 300 Starbucks across the nation have joined Starbucks Workers United. In response to the rapid growth of unionized stores, the company has struck down hard to defeat the movement. Some of the practices include distributing anti-union materials, favoring nonunion stores with raises and more benefits, along with firing some employees that are union leaders. The consequence of this retaliation has been the slowing of Starbucks stores unionizing. Starbucks was accused and eventually found guilty of violating labor protection laws when the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of workers in Buffalo, NY, early 2023.

On March 23, Trader Joe’s sent a memo to store managers encouraging them to relay a message to employees: “joining a union may be a bad idea” with a series of anti-union talking points, including a warning about the size of dues.

The pandemic has led to a wave of worker activism in recent weeks, as employees at Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods have gone on strike and demanded more protections. At Trader Joe’s, a chain known for its outwardly cheerful workforce, employees have criticized what they describe as the company’s haphazard response to the crisis. The RWDSU has held talks with employees. At the end of March, store managers gave anti-union lectures during regularly scheduled “huddles” with staff, using talking points from the email. Kris King was fired after starting a Facebook group for Trader Joe’s employees to talk about how the company was handling the coronavirus pandemic. “This is not how we operate,” he said his manager told him. “We don’t operate by letting crew talk amongst themselves.”

Last spring a transgender employee at a store in Albuquerque was told they could not wear a pin showing their preferred pronouns because the regional manager believed pronoun pins “do not reflect the values of our neighborhood stores,” the employee, Ezra Greene, wrote in a Facebook group for Trader Joe’s workers.

Trader Joe’s has generally resisted unionization over the years, including earlier in the pandemic. Over the years, company officials have aggressively opposed unionization, employees said, taking workers aside to track down rumors about efforts to organize staff. In March 2020, the chief executive, Dan Bane, sent employees a letter referring to “the current barrage of union activity that has been directed at Trader Joe’s.”

Union organizers have recently filed charges of unfair labor practices, for incidents such as managers asking employees to remove pro-union pins.

In the early 2010s, the company raised the average weekly hours that employees needed to qualify for full health coverage to 30 from roughly 20. Around the same time, Trader Joe’s lowered its retirement contribution to 10 percent of an employee’s earnings from about 15 percent, for employees 30 and older. Last year, the company lowered the percentage again for many workers, who saw the contribution fall to 5 percent.

Trader Joe’s does not have conveyor belts at checkout lines and instructs cashiers to reach into customers’ carts or baskets to unload items. This can appear to personalize the service but takes a physical toll on workers, who typically bend over hundreds of times during a shift. 

In 2022, Wells Fargo was accused of trying to deter their employees from forming a union. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed a complaint against Wells Fargo, accusing the bank of illegally firing an employee who was organizing a union. The complaint also alleges that Wells Fargo has engaged in unfair labor practices by threatening and intimidating workers who were involved in the unionization effort. In April 2023, efforts to unionize at Wells Fargo were still taking place.

Over 700 employees in 29 states are involved in these efforts to unionize and if successful, would become one of the first banks in the United States with a unionized workforce. A group of Wells Fargo employees has submitted a shareholder proposal to create a report about the bank’s policies and actions regarding the right to unionize. The proposal was to be voted on at the bank’s annual meeting later that month. During that time, proxy advisory firm ISS recommended that shareholders vote in favor of the proposal. Efforts by Wells Fargo employees to unionize have been met with resistance from the bank. The bank’s leadership is not happy, privately demonstrating their opinions and plans on slowing down employees’ efforts. Later that month, shareholders rejected the unionization proposal.

As of June 2023, Wells Fargo is creating a labor relations director position and expanding its labor relations team as it prepares for workers’ drive to unionize. The director will report to Gerri Parker, Executive Vice President, Human Resources Executive Employee Relations, Risk and Regulatory Governance, and have a team of five to seven people. This move comes as the bank faces a union campaign by the Communications Workers of America, which represents employees of Bloomberg Law. The director will be responsible for designing and delivering a “labor strategies framework for practices, policies, and procedures” and representing the bank in labor-management disputes.

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo is dealing with another unfair labor practice case filed with the NLRB. A worker at the Hillsboro call center, Cole Weber, has claimed that a manager prevented him from posting a pro-union flyer outside his cubicle. Weber’s manager allegedly removed the flyer and claimed that pro-union flyers could only be posted inside a cubicle. Another worker at the same site filed a similar complaint in May. The bank is now facing five unfair labor practice claims related to the union drive.

Cases like these ones call for an expansion of worker’s protections, and to support strong legislation that enhances a company’s accountability for retaliation practices. A current example is the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act which was reintroduced in January, 2023. The act aims to strengthen employee strike protections, ban “captive audience” meetings, and more. Further changes to this act in its reintroduction include more accountability standards for employers who abuse workers’ rights, strengthening rights of secondary boycotts, union “fair share fees”, improving the union election process, and enhancing transparency in labor management, among more provisions. As of now, the PRO Act has only been reintroduced to Congress and assigned to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The PRO Act is an essential piece of legislation that would improve remedies for all the violations of workers’ rights to unionize. You can take action by emailing or calling your Congressional Representative today!

by Angelisa Rodriguez and Gabriela Muro

Action Steps

  1. Write to your senators to fight for the PRO Act. Click here

Additional Materials

  1. Put pressure on Senators to pass the PRO Act. Read more
  2. White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. Read more