Trader Joe’s has come up with a new tactic for thwarting union drives.
Trader Joe’s United is an independent union that has won elections at stores in several states. On April 20, its attempt to gain a foothold in New York City failed by the narrowest of margins. Workers at the Essex Crossing Trader Joe’s store at 400 Grand St. in the Lower East Side voted 76-76 in a union election. The unionists lost the vote, not having the majority required by law.
Around 65% of the estimated 200 Essex Crossing employees signed on to the petition to hold a union election in March. Since the campaign went public, union-busting was “mostly done through one-on-ones and huddles; I think Trader Joe’s incorporates it into its branding,” reflected worker-organizer Jordan Pollack after the election. “So it seems friendly, like it’s your manager who’s always cared about you and your life, and they’re telling you that this union is going to destroy you.”
This election came after two years of on-the-ground worker-led labor organizing at the store. Worker-organizers sought to unionize with Trader Joe’s United. The independent union first organized by the victorious staff of the store in Hadley, Massachusetts last year, is aiming to follow the success of other independent unions that have served as the face of a revitalized push for organized labor — namely Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).
On the same day of the New York City tie, the grassroots union won an election at a store in Oakland, marking the fourth victory for Trader Joe’s United after wins in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Kentucky.
Trader Joe’s preaches a more “progressive” corporate gospel that claims to foster a familial and friendly relationship with their workers — until they decide to unionize.
Trader Joe’s Essex Crossing, located on Grand Street near the Williamsburg Bridge and is the largest Trader Joe’s on the East Coast. Opened in 2018, it is reminiscent of the sprawling stores more commonly found in the suburbs. This location — in the middle of a historic hot-bed of radical labor history, Manhattan’s Lower East Side — serves as another testament to the brand’s popularity with consumers, even in a city with as many alternative options as New York. It shares the building with Target, another fiercely anti-union store.
“I started organizing my store about two years ago, completely unaware that there was organizing happening at other stores,” said Gabe Medrano, a crewmember at Trader Joe’s for seven years and a member of the organizing committee at the store. “I researched unions and labor law a little bit and got some information from an organizer at the RWDSU.”
The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union that led the unsuccessful union drive at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama in 2020, worked with Gabe during the initial unionization effort, “but the end of the day, people were still put off by the idea of an outside union that people didn’t really know or understand,” Medrano told The Indypendent.
The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a collaborative effort between the DSA and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) that aims to assist ongoing organizing efforts in a variety of industries, also supported the Essex Crossing organizing team with planning events and has provided organizing training.
Essex Crossing worker-organizers have also been organizing alongside TJU workers in other cities. “It’s a very amazing movement to be joining and to be getting insight and support from [the other organizing stores],” said Pollack.
The initial spur to organize was in response to what Medrano and other crew members described as an erosion of Trader Joe’s values and their abandonment of the “inverted pyramid,” an alternative to traditional corporate hierarchies. Medrano said that these changes became apparent during the early period of the pandemic.
Managers at the store appeared to prioritize the “customer experience” over staff safety when it came to the use of PPE, such as masks and gloves, and regarding signage in response to CDC guidelines for maintaining distance, say workers.
“Trader Joe’s eventually started giving hazard pay once an online petition started circulating and following discussions on forums involving unionization,” said Gabe.
These concessions were not enough for many crewmembers.
TJU’s website showcases the union’s motto: “a union is the ultimate inverted pyramid.” Scheduling concerns, a non-living wage, insurance issues, and favoritism were some of the issues that union organizers have named as the driving force behind their efforts.
Briget, another member of the organizing committee, says worker-organizers engaged in other efforts prior to the union drive — petitions, conversations with coworkers — “but everything just felt like it was leading to a union. It felt like…a lot of the issues were just a lot bigger than we can take on [without a union].”
The emergence of independent unions that are not affiliated with larger national unions, such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters or those affiliated under the AFL-CIO, marks a break with the traditional approach to organizing new unions that dates back decades.
Regarding the difference between the independent and traditional approach, financial and otherwise, “It’s definitely a good trade-off,” said Medrano. “A lot of my coworkers are just so happy at the idea that this is our own thing, and we determine how it functions.”
“I think it’s scrappy — workers doing extra work,” Pollack chimed in. “The ideal of a union is that it is as representative as the place you’re working as possible, and that’s exactly what TJU is and does because it is only crewmembers.”
Being involved in the union campaign can feel like a full-time job on its own, organizers say.
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Pollack, describing the hypocrisy of Trader Joe’s, said, “The thing about a company preaching these values of non-hierarchy, family, integrity — if you’re not going to actually put that in place you can only market it for so long because you’re going to keep hiring workers with those values, so of course we’re going to want to unionize, build solidarity as a workforce and want more rights in the workplace.”
This has been consistent with the union efforts at Starbucks, Amazon, REI, and other employers who preach a more “progressive” corporate gospel that claims to foster a familial and friendly relationship with their workers — until those same workers decide to unionize. “They don’t come out swinging like how Amazon came out swinging,” says Medrano.
Trader Joe’s encourages the rotation of crew members between different roles throughout the day — an aspect of the job many crew members want to protect. But, managers suggested that benefit would end, says Medrano. “They’re actually putting unfounded fears into people because there’s no way that workers who are involved in their own negotiations are going to make their jobs worse for themselves.”
According to TJU, management also implied that unionized employees won’t be promoted.
“Even if you tell them that that’s not true, that’s like not the case, I think that for a manager to be telling you this is very scary,” says Pollack.
According to Essex Crossing crew members who spoke to The Indypendent, management held anti-union huddles daily ahead of the April 20 election, frequently threw away union flyers and spread rumors about what would happen if the store were unionized — all common union-busting practices.
According to TJU, management also implied that unionized employees won’t be promoted and will lose scheduling privileges.
“There was just complete censorship of union literature,” Pollack adds. “It would be at least five times a day, a cat-and-mouse game of putting up union information on a bulletin board and having it taken down.”
The unique aspect of Trader Joe’s tactics at Essex Crosssing was that they did their best to have other on-the-ground workers deliver an anti-union message.
“Trader Joe’s is learning. The first store in Minneapolis, they had regional managers and higher-ups come in and talk to people. In Kentucky, they just had regional managers and managers do it. At our store, they just had crewmembers and mates do it. So I think they’re learning that if you put it on the people that everyone works with instead of a corporate face, the result is you can probably get people to back out of the union,” Medrano told The Indy after the election.
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Trader Joe’s Essex Crossing was not the first store in New York to seek unionization under the TJU banner. A store in Williamsburg lost an election in October 94-96, following managers revealing their knowledge of the union effort prior to the organizers announcing it and the firing of an organizer. Additionally, the Trader Joe’s Wine Shop in Union Square was shuttered prior to a planned union drive (the company claims this was merely a coincidence).
The Amazon Labor Union lost votes in two subsequent warehouse elections last year after its initial win at a Staten Island warehouse with more than 8,000 workers. Starbucks Workers United has unionized 300 stores (out of 16,000 total in the United States) despite the relentless union-busting tactics employed by the company, but has been unionizing stores at a steadily decreasing pace.
The Teamsters have been emboldened after reformers in the union ousted the union’s old guard leadership, which was seen as being too accommodating to management, and voted in a new leadership that is emphasizing a rank-and-file strategy that mobilizes members to fight aggressive contract campaigns. With the possibility of 350,000 Teamsters who work for UPS going out on strike in August — possibly rivaling the famed strike of 1997 — we might be able to see what larger, national unions are still able to accomplish in comparison to smaller, independent unions.
Regardless of these differences, for crew members at Trader Joe’s Essex Crossing who wanted to unionize, the independent approach was the clear preference.
“We’ve been organizing in this store for years now and we’ve really built up to this moment. There is high turnover but there’s still this core base of support that’s remained strong throughout all of this,” said Briget at a TJU rally at the Essex Crossing store on April 18, two days ahead of the election.
TJU Lawyer Seth Goldstein thinks that the organizing team should be proud of the tied result. “Organizing isn’t supposed to be easy,” he says. “The labor movement is hard. It’s hard work.”
Amba Guerguerian contributed to this report.
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