Minneapolis Trader Joe’s workers aim to unionize second store in U.S.

one asian and one white woman stand powerfully in trader joe's grocery store, stars like the walls behind them
 Kitty Lu (left) and Sarah Beth Ryther are trying to unionize Trader Joe’s in downtown Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Workers at the Trader Joe’s in downtown Minneapolis will vote next week in the grocery chain’s second union election in the country.

The election comes just two weeks after workers in Hadley, Mass., were the first to unionize Trader Joe’s, as organizing drives continue to spread at national chains including Starbucks, Apple and Amazon.

Sarah Beth Ryther, one of the leaders of the union effort in Minneapolis, said workers are seeking better wages, more safety protections and a greater voice in how the store is run.

“In many ways, Trader Joe’s is a really good place to work,” Ryther said. “But there are a lot of problems that we would like to address and we think a union would help us do that.”

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s said only, “We welcome a fair vote.”

Safety leads workers’ concerns

Top among workers’ concerns is safety, Ryther said. Given the store’s location downtown, people with severe mental health issues and other problems often come in, and Ryther says they’re often at a loss at how to handle the situation beyond calling a manager or the security guard if one is on duty.

“It’s safe to say almost every single day there’s a situation that arises that we would really, really benefit from de-escalation training,” Ryther said.

During one of her shifts, a teenager entered the store with a gunshot wound to the head seeking medical attention. Ryther says she was the first to attend to the teenager, which was extremely traumatizing.

The store remained open following the incident, even though police taped off a nearby street as a crime scene. Ryther says a manager told her she could go home, but she wasn’t sure she would get paid so she finished her shift.

In addition to de-escalation training, Ryther says the union could help them advocate for basic technology to improve safety. A loudspeaker to communicate with everyone in the store during an emergency, for example. A conveyor belt to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries for cashiers.

Not as good as it used to be

Wages and benefits at Trader Joe’s more than 530 stores nationwide remain higher than the industry average and even better than some unionized stores, which is why a union push at Trader Joe’s is perhaps surprising.

The California-based grocery chain has long attracted artists, actors and other creative types looking for flexible hours as well as health insurance and a retirement account.

That’s what drew Ryther, a fiction writer, to apply to work at the downtown Minneapolis store about a year ago.

“I wanted to work at Trader Joe’s because I had heard that Trader Joe’s is a really, really awesome place to work, and that they treated their workers very, very well,” Ryther said.

But she says the company’s sterling relationship with its workers has begun to tarnish.

For years, the company guaranteed workers a 15% retirement contribution. Then about a decade ago it slipped to 10%. Today, the company makes only discretionary contributions to workers’ retirement accounts.

The health insurance the company offers isn’t as good as it used to be, either.

Wages at the Minneapolis store start around $16 an hour, but workers say they believe the company can afford more. The company has raised its starting wages amid a national labor shortage, but that has led to new employees making more than employees who had worked there for years.

In a memo to employees, Trader Joe’s said it would be rectifying that imbalance this year.

The roots of the union drive at Trader Joe’s go back to the beginning of the pandemic when employees criticized the company’s COVID-19 response.

Trader Joe’s responded to workers’ early organizing efforts with an anti-union campaign. Store managers received a memo from corporate urging them to disabuse employees of the benefits of a union, according to the New York Times.

The company’s CEO Dan Bane sent a letter to workers early in the pandemic in 2020, telling them Trader Joe’s provides better wages and benefits than other grocery stores without the burden of union dues.

Trader Joe’s United

Established unions reached out to workers at Trader Joe’s stores, but the employees that were the first to file for an election in Hadley, Mass., decided to go it alone and create their own union: Trader Joe’s United.

That’s the union Minneapolis workers will vote on joining.

Ryther and fellow union organizer, Kitty Lu, say they like the idea of a Trader Joe’s-specific union because Trader Joe’s is a unique workplace.

“It’s not like other grocery stores,” Lu said. “And we wanted a little bit more say in what our union was going to be.”

Organizing under a new union also separates the campaign from the baggage of established unions and attacks by management that unions just want to siphon off a percentage of workers’ paychecks.

The strategy worked for workers at Amazon, which had successfully beat back all other union drives by established unions until Chris Smalls organized workers with the Amazon Labor Union at the company’s Staten Island warehouse.

But organizing without an established union — which brings legal resources and public relations knowhow — will likely make it harder for workers to win a first contract with a well-heeled company that can afford to stall negotiations without having to fear significant repercussions from federal regulators.

Workers at a third Trader Joe’s, in Boulder, Colo., have filed for a union election but are seeking to unionized with United Food and Commercial Workers. That union already represents workers at dozens of Minnesota grocery stores including Kowalski’s, Cub and Lunds & Byerlys.

While Starbucks has been largely unsuccessful in beating back union elections, the coffee chain has been able to stall negotiations with its unionized employees, and no store has yet ratified a first contract.

Trader Joe’s has said it would immediately begin negotiations with employees at the Hadley store following their successful vote. A spokeswoman for the company told the Washington Post that Trader Joe’s was willing to match multistate grocery store contracts in the region.

Workers allege union busting

Despite the company’s seemingly less aggressive resistance to unions than national chains like Starbucks, workers at the Minneapolis Trader Joe’s accuse the company of union busting and have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

Days before the union election in Massachusetts, Trader Joe’s announced it was giving workers across the country a significant pay bump: $10 an hour more on Sundays and holidays. The company also increased how quickly employees accrue paid time off.

The pay raise, coming so close to a union election, could be construed as trying to buy votes. It’s not uncommon for companies to increase pay or benefits ahead of an election to tilt the vote in its favor.

But the company did not extend the raises to workers in Hadley, Mass., or the downtown Minneapolis stores. In a memo to the two stores’ employees shared with the Reformer, a Trader Joe’s executive explained the company was prohibited by the NLRB from “vote buying” or otherwise giving the appearance that they were trying to influence the outcome.

The memo, sent by Executive Vice President Kathryn Cahan, said workers at both stores would receive the pay and benefits bump as soon as the elections concluded, including retroactive pay, regardless of the outcome of the elections.

But Lu said she doesn’t buy the company line.

“It still does coerce people to vote one way or another,” Lu said, who filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB, arguing the compensation changes are both coercive and retaliatory.

Workers also allege the company retaliated against an employee for being supportive of the union. The worker gave her two weeks notice the day the employees announced their union petition for an election. Lu said the next day, when the employee showed up for her shift, a manager turned her away and said she didn’t need to finish out the rest of her shifts.

“Two weeks is a lot of time and a lot of pay that most of us really need to get by,” Lu said.

Lu says the company has not held captive audience meetings, in which workers are forced to attend an anti-union presentation. Earlier this year, the NLRB’s top attorney said she would urge the board to deem the practice illegal despite it previously being considered legal.

But Lu says the store manager — called a “captain” in Trader Joe’s parlance — has been using biannual reviews to “spew anti-union myths” like they will lose flexibility in their hours if they unionize.

Lu also takes issue with a notice posted by the store manager in the break room saying the company would have to share names, home addresses and phone numbers of all employees eligible to vote in the union election. The memo warned that the union may share the information with third parties and show up at their homes.

“You do not have to let them into your apartment or house, and you do not have to talk to them, unless you want to,” the memo says.

Lu called the letter a “scare tactic.”

“We’re not going to show up at your house uninvited,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment on the complaints filed with the NLRB or the memos posted in the break rooms.

In the days leading up to the election on Thursday, union organizers are trying to drum up last-minute support from their 70-some colleagues, and they’re holding a rally this Saturday to draw in the public.

Lu says she’s feeling confident they have the votes.

“I’m glad that there is this wave of unions right now,” Lu said. “And I’m happy to be part of it.”

This article first appeared in Minnesota Reformer.

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