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Trader Joe’s workers in Minneapolis won their union in a landslide vote August 12, making theirs the second store to go with the new, independent Trader Joe’s United. The win raises the question of whether the grocer, with its 530 locations and progressive image, could be the next Starbucks.

It seems that Trader Joe’s management is considering becoming the next Starbucks in a different sense: closing stores and harassing workers out of union drives. A store in Boulder, Colorado, had a vote lined up for this week, but workers seeking affiliation with Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 there withdrew their petition the day after filing charges against the company for coercion and intimidation.

The Trader Joe’s drives reflect an emerging theme of recent new organizing: independent versus affiliated unionism. UFCW, which represents 800,000 grocery workers, has watched as workers in its jurisdiction begin to form or join other unions.

In Portland, Oregon, workers at three stores of the regional grocery chain New Seasons have filed for election to form an independent New Seasons Labor Union; workers at a fourth store have filed to join UFCW Local 555. And in Baltimore, workers at a MOM’s Organic Market are seeking to join Teamsters Local 570.

CUTBACKS IN A PANDEMIC

Workers at the three Trader Joe’s stores to go with union campaigns organized independently of one another, but they were all reacting to corporate cuts to wages and benefits, and they all took inspiration from the Starbucks workers organizing drive.

Like many other large grocery chains, Trader Joe’s had implemented a national pay bump early in the pandemic. The $2-an-hour “thank you pay” was put into place in March 2020, and further upped to $4 an hour in February of 2021, in response to local ordinances that UFCW won to boost grocery worker pay in Seattle, Los Angeles, and other West Coast cities.

Then came the cutbacks. By May 2021, just three months after implementing the $4 raise, Trader Joe’s announced it was ending all hazard pay except where mandated by law.

“We kind of assumed that … they would bump it back down to $2, because that’s what the market had moved to,” said Keenan Dailey, a 14-year Trader Joe’s employee in Boulder. “And then they cut Covid pay entirely.” Workers who had been making around $21 an hour were down to $17, while some new hires were being brought in for $18 or more.

Next, Trader Joe’s cut retirement benefits.

“When I started, we got 15 percent put into our retirement for us,” said Maeg Yosef, an 18-year employee at the Hadley, Massachusetts, store, which was the first to vote to unionize. “That really made the job something people could commit to. But then last summer the language in the handbook was changed to ‘the company might give us a discretionary contribution’ but nothing was guaranteed at all. We got one last year, but might not get one next year.”

The change also set a new formula for the contributions Trader Joe’s did make, roughly halving the company’s retirement contribution for most workers, and penalizing those who had taken leave, which many workers did during the pandemic for safety considerations.

INSPIRED BY OTHERS

Although workers in each store began their organizing separately, they were encouraged when they found out others were on the same track.

“We had been organizing seriously for three months, March, April, and most of May,” said Sarah Beth Ryther, who helped organize her store in Minneapolis, “and we were just about at the point where we were going to decide which union we wanted to go with or whether we wanted to go independent, and then Hadley announced. They were organizing in secret, so we had no idea.

“It looks from the outside like we were all working together at the same time,” said Ryther, “but actually we were inspired by each other.”

They were also inspired by the Starbucks workers organizing wave. “I was like, ‘We could do that. You’re just talking to people,’” Yosef said.

At the Boulder store, “we started talking to people very casually about what was going on at Starbucks,” said Dailey. “If they seemed positive we’d say, ‘Do you think we should do that here?’ If they were emphatic about it, we would talk about it more.”

“When Hadley filed, we started talking about Hadley, and then talking about filing [for a union election] here.”

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AN APPEALING STRIKE

There was another important source of inspiration for the Boulder store. In January, just after the cuts to retirement benefits were announced at Trader Joe’s, 8,000 grocery workers at King Soopers stores across Colorado walked off the job with UFCW Local 7.

The King Soopers workers struck 80 stores for 10 days. They won up to $6-an-hour raises, protected their health care and pension benefits, and won safety improvements—a major concern following a shooting that killed 10 people at the grocer’s Boulder store in March 2021.

The wins—and how they were achieved—were not lost on Trader Joe’s workers in Boulder.

“We saw what they [UFCW] got for King Soopers, the way they took care of them, the way they fought for them,” said Dailey. “The workers weren’t giving up a paycheck to go on strike; they were getting paid through the strike fund. The idea of having that weapon was very appealing. If the company knows you can go on strike and keep getting paid, you have a lot more power.”

THE EMPLOYER OFFENSIVE

It’s too early to say whether or not the 530 Trader Joe’s stores will be organized at scale—whether independently or by the UFCW—given the company’s intense anti-union efforts out the gate.

Soon after these efforts went public, Trader Joe’s got aggressive. In New York City, the company closed its popular wine store the same week that employees there were planning to go public with their own organizing drive with the UFCW, as Dave Jamieson reported for the Huffington Post.

In Boulder, UFCW Local 7 filed charges August 23 at the National Labor Relations Board, saying the company was illegally coercing and intimidating workers. The next day, the union withdrew its petition for a union election that was set to take place August 25 and 26.

Like Starbucks, the company has also attempted to undermine the union campaign by offering improvements to wages and benefits. In July—before the votes in Hadley and Minneapolis—the company announced it was providing $10 an hour premium pay for Sunday work, as well as increasing paid time off and raising wages for some existing employees.

PATH TO A CONTRACT

It’s also an open question whether these new unions will be able to extract a first contract from Trader Joe’s.

In response to the union win in Hadley, Trader Joe’s corporate issued a statement agreeing to “immediately begin discussions with union representatives for the employees at this store to negotiate a contract.” In what may have been a dig at the UFCW, the company said it was “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.” Many UFCW stores have lower starting wages than Trader Joe's.

In Boulder, where workers went with UFCW Local 7, the company tactic of holding up inferior union contracts has had a big impact.

But it’s a tactic workers will need to be prepared for if they try affiliating with an existing union. “With an independent union, people can put all their hopes and dreams into that, and we won’t know until we see their contract how that works out,” Dailey said. “I hope it works out exactly the way they’re hoping, but we don’t know. I think winning an election is easier independent–but winning a contract is the hard part.

“With these giant corporations, they can afford to take losses,” says Matt Rogers, a coffee roaster at MOM’s Organic Market in Baltimore, where workers are organizing with Teamsters Local 570. “It helped to partner with an organization that has a history, and has leverage, and has contacts.”

“I was looking for a sense of discipline and militancy around what we were doing because I know how hairy things can get,” Rogers said, explaining the decision to organize with the Teamsters rather than going independent.

Local 570’s biggest unit consists of 800 Costco workers, who have a strong contract and recently authorized a strike. “I knew about UPS and also the Costco contract. That was something that we learned about and found out what they got paid and that they had a good contract.”

‘THE WHOLE COUNTRY KNOWS, GUYS’

Despite having to pull the petition this week, Dailey says he plans to keep organizing at the Boulder store. He is in touch with other Trader Joe’s workers across the country who are quietly doing the same.

“When we first organized, it was very hush-hush,” he said. “It no longer feels scary to many people to discuss the idea of having a union. Whatever happens down the line… that’s part of our history now–that’s not something that can be taken away. It’s not like, ‘What if they find out we talked about this?’ Well, they know. The whole country knows, guys.”

Crossposted from Labor Notes