Independent grocer Trader Joe’s is one of many retail chains that’s seen workers unionize this year. And for at least one employee, that’s because working for the company just doesn’t feel like it used to.
A location in Hadley, Massachusetts, became the first Trader Joe’s to vote to form a union in late July with a 45-31 vote, followed by another location in Minneapolis that voted 55-5. Workers at those stores are now represented by the independent union Trader Joe’s United. Then on Thursday, workers at a Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg voted against forming a union; Gothamist reported the vote was 94-66.
In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we offer anonymity in exchange for candor, Modern Retail spoke with a Trader Joe’s employee at a unionized location.
They’ve worked for the company in various locations for more than four years, moving through the ranks to a position as an artist who paints and draws the signage placed around the store. Initially, they were drawn to the company for having a friendly environment. But they say the emotional stressors, health challenges and high turnover caused by the pandemic have made Trader Joe’s a different place to work than when they started.
Their store, located in a downtown area, sees stressful incidents with customers such as people losing their temper or experiencing negative mental health episodes.
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“Emotionally and mentally, the space changed. It felt like we were working at a completely different company,” the employee said.
But since the unionization drive, the tenor has changed once again. There’s a new tension with management, who are doing more new hire training in what this employee sees as an attempt to keep them out of the union effort.
“There was a lot of captive audience meetings, where management would take one person to the side and either ask them how they were going to vote in the union meeting, or just tell them not to vote or to vote no,” the employee said.
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Still, there’s a new bond among employees.
“I think it’s really an amazing thing that we’re all coming together for this common cause, and it’s making us feel connected and protected,” the employee said.
Trader Joe’s, which has more than 500 stores across the country, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the unionization drives. But following the first successful union vote in Hadley, the company issued the following statement, according to public radio station WGBH:
“We are willing to use any current union contract for a multi-state grocery company with stores in the area, selected by the union representatives, as a template to negotiate a new structure for the employees in this store; including pay, retirement, healthcare, and working conditions such as scheduling and job flexibility.”
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why were you motivated to support the union effort?
I’ve been wanting to unionize stores for about probably two years prior to this, just because of different treatment that I’ve received, the changes in the company due to the pandemic and how I’ve seen other people go through it at the company as well. I think we need a system where we can be paid fairly and where we’re not at will employees any longer.
What were some of the challenges during the pandemic that workers had to deal with?
The crew was a lot of veterans or near veterans, people who have been at the store for a while. And once the pandemic started, either because of people’s age or health reasons, they had to leave. Or just, it was too mentally stressful, or other things in their life that got messed up by the pandemic were affecting their work. So they had to leave. And so it felt like about half of the crew left and then were replaced. And that kind of started this cycle of turnover, that hasn’t really stopped in the company.
Not only were we are adapting to all these changes and trying to figure out in the first months of the pandemic what safety gear is, what the company will allow us to wear and X, Y and Z, but the general public had to deal with, like, waiting in lines, there not being food and things that were scary.
And I think normally situations would be resolved very quickly, like with an agitated customer. What a pandemic added, was, no, these are daily blow ups, people getting angry daily. And that takes a real toll on your mental health.
How did the unionization effort take place at your location, and what came together to make it successful?
Our head manager, which is called the captain, was not doing a good job and was really not present in the store a lot. They had some really negative interactions with a lot of crew members. We as a crew started to feel like we should do a climate review for her, which just meant requesting from management that they take a look at, like, her service record — potentially transfer or fire (her), or have some sort of discipline. We ended up getting 30 to 40 people — that’s like half our crew — to send emails to management. And this actually ended up getting her transferred out, and a new captain was brought in.
So from that, we really started to feel like, ‘Oh, wow, we just worked together to change something.’ And then another co-worker of mine was the one who kicked off this union drive, and people started hopping on board.
And I think that sense of camaraderie from that initial incident really helped us feel like, ‘This is something that needs to happen, and that we think we can actually do, because we’ve actually done something to change stuff before.’
What’s changed since the union vote?
I think the camaraderie among the crew is at an all-time high. I think we’re all feeling much more supported by each other, and even protected in some ways, which I think is interesting given the fact that the environment has become a lot more hostile.
So that’s a good change. And then bad change? The turnover has stayed the same. I think they’ve been very frustrated that we’ve been able to retain so much support for the union, even given the turnover. Because everyone who [is hired] comes in and within two weeks, they’re wearing a union pin.
In a more official context, every crew member who gets hired or gets transferred in is getting a talk about, ‘Oh, this is a unionized store. Are you okay with that?’ It’s not the best situation. And then those people come to us and say, ‘What’s this all about? They made it sound like the worst place ever to work.’
Additionally, we’ve tried to put up our federal rights, put up posters with our Weingarten rights as employees. Those have been taken down. We’ve been told we can’t put those up. It’s lots of little things that, like, all together paint a big picture of a continual union-busting effort.
What do you want to see out of a contract?
In general, we’ve always said: we want better, more fair wages. We want a direct voice in safety concerns, health concerns that we have as crew. We just want fair treatment.
I just want as much as I can to get people the options to take that time and make the money that they deserve, and be able to take that time for the things in their life that matter the most. You get barely any time to talk to your co-workers. You have to constantly be working.
Your workers are human. They have lives, and they get tired. Just because it’s a low position in a company doesn’t mean it’s not tiring, and takes a lot of skill.