Militant Journalism

Trader Joe’s workers launch union drive in Minneapolis

On June 28, Trader Joe’s #725 workers in Minneapolis delivered their letter of intent to unionize, making this the second Trader Joe’s location in the country to initiate this process. The crew has received great support from the labor community in Minneapolis as well as wonderful guidance from the Hadley crew, who were the first to file for a union election. 

Sarah Beth Ryther is a crew member at the Minneapolis location and can be seen speaking to the boss while presenting their store’s letter of intent to unionize. Ryther has been working for Trader Joe’s for about a year. While the Hadley location has many long term organizers who’ve seen the company go through changes over the decades, most of the organizers at the Minneapolis location have been with the company for less than one year. Despite being thousands of miles across the country from each other, both locations have experienced a lot of the same issues.

The main improvements the crew at #725 would like to see are related to pay and benefits, worker safety, and protections for workers from being arbitrarily fired. Just like in Hadley, crew members have had their retirement benefits slashed. “One of the reasons I was excited to work there was that they had a great retirement plan,” Ryther told Liberation News. “Several years ago they would make a 15% match contribution to your plan, but then it went down to 10%. But now they say that they’ll make a “discretionary contribution” to your plan. This makes it very hard to plan for your future because you just don’t know.”

In addition to benefits, pay is largely inconsistent. Due to the increasingly competitive labor market, Trader Joe’s has increased starting wages for new hires, but has refused to raise the wages of workers who have been employed at the store for several years. The result is more experienced workers receiving less pay than new hires. Long time workers will also accrue additional responsibilities as they become more experienced, but are not compensated for this additional labor, further compounding frustrations. These pay issues stem from Trader Joe’s raise structure, which is presented as a benefit but is used to avoid bringing experienced employees to parity with their newly hired coworkers. 

Trader Joe’s operates in a way that is largely old fashioned, which adds to the quaint atmosphere, yet comes at the expense of the well being of their workers. Most grocery stores in the U.S. use conveyor belts at the checkout, a time saving measure that reduces the physical toll on workers’ bodies. Trader Joe’s does not have these, instead relying on workers to lift every item from shopper’s carts. As these specific motions are repeated thousands of times a day, the strain accumulates and can result in injury. Ryther shares, “It seems like a very nice inviting thing… but the wear and tear on our bodies, especially over long periods of time, is really significant.” Similarly, “In our particular store there have been lots of safety issues with storing and stacking things in unsafe ways, sometimes things are stacked above our heads. When we communicate about this it changes for a little while and then it goes back to where it was before.” 

This lack of respect for safety demands extends to issues that impact the safety of customers as well. During Ryther’s time working at the store, there have been 3 instances where they were forced to evacuate the store, a vital task in emergency situations. Despite the urgency of these situations, they do not have an overhead loudspeaker to deliver emergency messages and instead employees have to inform each customer individually. When an emergency evacuation is required, these time wasting restrictions endanger both the workers and the general public. Such systems have been requested formally on two separate occasions, but these requests were denied by corporate leadership. 

The safety requests and subsequent denials don’t stop there. “We’ve asked for Narcan training, we’ve asked for de-escalation training, nonviolent communication training that could allow us to de-escalate situations we’re put into. We have a wine shop next door and folks who are intoxicated come in, and we love our customers, but sometimes those situations are too intense for what we are trained to handle. We would love to have some of that training and have asked for this training before. These training sessions would benefit us personally, collectively and on a community level.” 

For Ryther and her coworkers, this is a job that they are happy to do, “We try to say over and over that we’re really happy to work at TJ’s, we aren’t trying to quit or anything like that, we just really want to have the skills necessary to be there and to be in a workplace that’s safe” These requests for additional training have gone unanswered, ignored, or outright rejected. 

Protection from arbitrary termination was a major incentive for taking the campaign public earlier than organizers originally planned. Ryther explains, “Since our intent to unionize, one employee has been let go without explanation. When they asked why, they were told Trader Joe’s is an at-will company. Another employee has been threatened with this same language for an infraction that many of us found minor. One of the reasons we’re so excited about unionizing is that a union could provide us protections from being targeted and fired without serious cause or explanation.”

Crew #725 has well over the 30% of employees required to have signed union cards to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. After filing for their election, the crew is feeling energized and empowered as they work together towards a vision that’s extremely important to them.

As far as advice for others interested in organizing their workplace, “get to know your coworkers, and form a community,” Ryther recommends, “there are so many similarities that you’ll have with the people you work with every single day and you’re living with a lot of the same challenges and responsibilities. Using that as a jumping off point into organizing, into something larger.”

Follow @TraderJoesUnite on Twitter or visit to stay updated on their struggle for a better workplace. For readers local to Minnesota, Trader Joe’s United recommends visiting the store in Minneapolis to express your support.

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