Trader Joe’s #512 in Hadley, Massachusetts, announced publicly on May 14 their intention to unionize. If successful, the Hadley store would be the first unionized Trader Joe’s location in the country.
Workers began organizing in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 when crew members across the country published a petition calling for emergency hazard pay and formal recognition of a union.
In a letter sent to all employees, CEO Dan Bane denounced these organizing efforts as attempts to “create a wedge through which they can drive discontent,” but acknowledged the company’s legal obligation to oversee a vote if 30% of a store’s workers signed union cards.
Trader Joe’s United posted their public announcement on Twitter as a direct response to Bane’s 2020 letter. “We understand teamwork and how to get things done,” the statement reads. “This union will be no exception.”
Trader Joe’s slashes benefits as pandemic rages
Maeg Yosef is a crew member at the Hadley location and a media spokesperson for Trader Joe’s United. Yosef did not always feel that a union was needed in her 18 years with the company, but recent abuses convinced her and her coworkers to organize.
“Starting about ten years ago, the company started making changes like decreasing our benefits, and especially over the last couple years we’ve seen it become a real trend,” Yosef told Liberation News. “It went from how it was when I started — where you could have a career, feel taken care of, and want to stay for a long time — to a model of lower pay, lower benefits, and higher turnover.”
As the cost of living increases across the country, Trader Joe’s has failed to provide its employees with a living wage, quietly slashed retirement benefits which had been previously guaranteed, and enforced increasingly strict rules on who can qualify for benefits. Many employees are now at risk of losing their retirement benefits and their health coverage during a pandemic.
Trader Joe’s United also reports employer negligence towards the health of their workers when vital government pandemic relief was not communicated to the crew of #512. “There was a state program where if you were sick, you could get five days of COVID relief from the state,” Yosef explained. “That program was hidden from us. No one was informed of that, and I believe it was crew members that alerted management to it.” Yosef was sick with COVID when speaking over the phone with Liberation News.
The physical toll of grocery store work: ‘Our bodies just give out‘
As their health benefits continue to be stripped away, Trader Joe’s United notes that repetitive strain and workplace injuries are extremely common due to the intensive nature of their work, especially among long-time employees.
Crew members carry out a wide array of repetitive, physically intensive tasks. Shifts can begin as early as 6:00 a.m. to unload the delivery trucks, break down pallets, continuously stock the shelves, and help customers in the aisles and at the registers.
Maeg Yosef herself has suffered injuries to her back and wrists which affect her life both in and out of work. Her wife, Sarah Yosef, who is also a crew member, developed arthritis because of the job. “Doing the tasks we do over and over and over — our bodies just give out.”
‘Our interests are not the same.’
To CEO Dan Bane’s insistence that a union would drive a “wedge” between the company and its workers, Yosef counters, “There already is a wedge. There is a difference between the company’s interest and the workers’ interests. Our interests are not the same. Every time they take something away from us, every time they try to union bust us, they just drive that wedge deeper. That wedge is just an inherent part of working in America.”
Trader Joe’s United reports that company executives have already begun touring the store to discourage unionization, and management has refused to allow them to wear union pins on the job — an illegal act of union busting.
Thinking about unionizing? ‘Just go for it.’
Yosef feels much happier and excited to go to work since the union announcement, despite the corporate crackdown. “It has given me a sense of agency knowing that I have the power to make a change in a situation that is difficult for me and my coworkers, and I think it’s given a lot of us hope we can make some positive changes and turn the tide for us. I have really felt the teamwork and the camaraderie and excitement at work with other people in a big way.”
As Trader Joe’s United is currently still in the process of filing a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, they cannot yet support unionization efforts at other locations, but they are encouraging other Trader Joe’s workers to reach out to them in the meantime.
To anyone interested in organizing their workplace, Trader Joe’s United offers the following advice: “Just go for it. Our right to organize is, at least on paper, universal and protected. You can have an impact at your workplace. I’m just a grocery store worker, but I can have an impact at my job and that impact can spread to other stores across the country. Someone has to start it. We have more agency and power than we may think. The companies can’t function without us.”
Follow @TraderJoesUnite on Twitter or visit traderjoseunited.org to stay updated on their struggle for a better workplace. For readers local to Massachusetts, Trader Joe’s United recommends visiting the store in Hadley to express your support.