Minneapolis Trader Joe workers aim to unionize second store in US

Kitty Lu (left) and Sarah Beth Ryther attempt to syndicate Trader Joe’s in downtown Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

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

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

Sarah Beth Ryther, one of the leaders of the labor effort in Minneapolis, said workers are seeking better wages, more safety protections and a bigger voice in store management.

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

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

Safety at the heart of workers’ concerns

Safety is the top concern for workers, Ryther said. Given the store’s downtown location, people with serious mental health and other issues often come in, and Ryther says they often don’t know how to handle the situation beyond calling. a manager or the security guard if he is on duty.

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

During one of his shifts, a teenage girl entered the store with a gunshot wound to the head and sought medical attention. Ryther says she was the first to take care of the teenager, which was extremely traumatic.

The store remained open after the incident, although police registered 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 ended her shift.

In addition to de-escalation training, Ryther says the union could help them champion core technologies to improve safety. A loudspeaker to communicate with everyone in the store in the event of an emergency, for example. A treadmill to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries for cashiers.

Not as good as before

Wages and benefits at more than 530 Trader Joe’s stores nationwide remain above 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 prompted 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 was a really great place to work and they treated their employees very, very well,” Ryther said.

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

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

The health insurance offered by the company is not as good as it used to be.

Wages at the Minneapolis store start at around $16 an hour, but workers say they think the company can afford more. The company raised starting salaries amid a nationwide labor shortage, but that led to new hires earning more than employees who had worked there for years.

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

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

Trader Joe’s responded to early efforts to organize workers with an anti-union campaign. According to New York Times.

Company CEO Dan Bane sent a letter to workers at the start of the pandemic in 2020, telling them that 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 who were the first to run for office in Hadley, Massachusetts decided to go it alone and start their own union: Trader Joe’s United .

This is the union Minneapolis workers will vote for membership.

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 to have a little 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 from management that unions simply want to siphon off a percentage of workers’ paychecks.

The strategy worked for Amazon workers, who had successfully fended off all other labor campaigns by established unions until Chris Smalls organized workers with the Amazon Labor Union at the company’s warehouse in Staten. Island.

But organizing without an established union – which brings legal resources and public relations know-how – is likely to make it more difficult 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, Colorado, have filed for union election but are seeking to unionize with United Food and Commercial Workers. This union already represents workers at dozens of grocery stores in Minnesota, including Kowalski’s, Cub and Lunds & Byerlys.

While Starbucks has largely failed to postpone union elections, the coffee chain has successfully stalled negotiations with its unionized employees and no store has yet ratified a first contract.

Trader Joe’s said it would immediately enter into negotiations with Hadley store employees after they voted in favor. A company spokeswoman told the Washington Post that Trader Joe’s was ready to match multi-state grocery store contracts in the area.

Workers denounce anti-union activity

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

Days before union elections in Massachusetts, Trader Joe’s announced that it was giving workers across the country a significant pay raise: $10 an hour more on Sundays and holidays. The company has also increased the speed with which employees accrue paid time off.

The pay rise, so close to a union election, could be interpreted as an attempt to buy votes. It’s not uncommon for companies to raise wages or benefits before an election to tip the vote in their favour.

But the company did not extend the increases to workers in Hadley, Mass., or stores in downtown Minneapolis. In a memo to employees at both stores shared with the Reformera Trader Joe executive said the company was barred by the NLRB from “vote buying” or appearing to be trying to influence the outcome.

The memo, sent by Executive Vice President Kathryn Cahan, said workers at both stores would receive pay and benefits as soon as the election is over, including retroactive pay, regardless of the election result.

But Lu said she wasn’t buying the company’s line.

“It still coerces people into voting one way or another,” said Lu, who filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB, arguing that the pay changes are both coercive and restrictive. reprisals.

The workers also allege that the company retaliated against an employee for supporting 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 fired her and said she didn’t need to complete 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, where workers are forced to watch an anti-union presentation. Earlier this year, the NLRB’s lead lawyer said she would urge the board to declare the practice illegal when it was previously considered legal.

But Lu says the store manager – called a “captain” in Trader Joe parlance – used semester exams to “spew up anti-union myths” as if they would lose flexibility in their hours if they unionized.

Lu also takes issue with a notice posted by the store manager in the break room stating that the company should share the names, addresses and phone numbers of all employees eligible to vote in union elections. The note warned that the union could share the information with third parties and come to their homes.

“You don’t have to let them into your apartment or house, and you don’t have to talk to them unless you want to,” the memo reads.

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 complaints filed with the NLRB or memos posted in break rooms.

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

Lu says she is convinced they have the votes.

“I’m glad there’s 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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