As Chicago Trader Joe’s votes on unionizing, grocer fights other efforts

The outcome of a vote on unionizing a Trader Joe’s on Chicago’s North Side is unclear after ballots were tallied late Monday in a closely watched union election at the national grocery chain, which has been gaining a reputation for opposing labor efforts.

Workers voted 70 to 70, with one contested vote, which will determine whether the union succeeds, according to the National Labor Relations Board. If the NLRB decides to count the vote and it’s a yes, the union wins; if the vote is determined invalid or a no, the union loses.

While Trader Joe’s management did not come out publicly against the Chicago effort, the popular grocery store chain is facing a litany of charges alleging anti-union tactics at other locations that have voted to organize.

The NLRB enforces workers’ right to unionize and has filed five complaints with 24 charges against Trader Joe’s since 2023. The grocer is accused of threatening workers with the loss of raises if they voted for the union in Louisville; firing a union supporter and disciplining others in Hadley, Massachusetts; holding mandatory meetings about the union in Oakland, California; providing weaker retirement benefits to union workers than nonunion workers; and closing a wine shop in Manhattan because of a union campaign.

Nakia Rohde, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s, declined to comment on the NLRB complaints but said in a statement that the company is “committed to free and fair elections” for all of its employees.

Trader Joe’s told The Washington Post during the 2022 union election in Massachusetts that the company’s salaries, benefits and working conditions were top-notch. This month, the chain announced a nationwide $2-an-hour raise, bringing top pay for employees to $30 an hour, according to Trader Joe’s.

Earlier this year, an attorney for Trader Joe’s defended the company against charges it had violated workers’ union rights in an NLRB hearing by arguing that the agency is “unconstitutional.” The argument resembled a legal challenge by Elon Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX - with Trader Joe’s attorney Christopher Murphy questioning the legality of “the structure and organization of the National Labor Relations Board and the Agency’s administrative law judges” at the January hearing.

Labor advocates say the move, which Starbucks and Amazon also echoed in court filings, marks an unprecedented attack on workers’ rights by companies newly emboldened by the conservative grip on federal courts. (Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and Amazon have not joined SpaceX’s lawsuit or filed litigation against the NLRB.)

“This is a broad attack on the National Labor Relations Act and the social welfare state of the country,” said Seth Goldstein, an attorney representing Trader Joe’s United. “What Trader Joe’s is looking to do is to reverse the New Deal.”

Rohde, the Trader Joe’s spokesperson, said the company has not filed or joined any lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the NLRB’s administrative law judge system and does not “seek” to dismantle any aspect of the NLRB.

“We offered an affirmative defense,” she said. “This was an opportunity to preserve all of our legal rights under the law.”

NLRB investigators are also processing 50 other charges against Trader Joe’s, which could be dismissed or withdrawn.

Trader Joe’s declined to comment on those allegations while they are being litigated.

Many left-leaning Americans, including those who obsess over the grocery chain’s peanut-butter-filled pretzels or chili lime-rolled tortilla chips, flock to Trader Joe’s for its quirky, multicultural products and its reputation for paying workers fairly.

But mostly, shoppers love Trader Joe’s because they selectively hire for workers “who offer a fun, chatty experience,” said Mark Gardiner, a communications strategist and author of “Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s.”

“They hire a certain kind of person that skews college educated with degrees in the arts and theater,” Gardiner said. “Enough people love that experience of shopping there to make Trader Joe’s pound for pound the most profitable grocery chain in the U.S.”

Trader Joe’s employee Nigel Brown and some of his colleagues are looking to unionize in Chicago. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

On a damp evening this month, dozens of union activists poured into a public square near a Trader Joe’s on Chicago’s North Side. Nigel Brown, a Trader Joe’s crew member and leader of the campaign, bellowed into a mic on a makeshift podium: “I’ve been asked, when was the moment you realized this store needed a union?”

Brown ticked off his reasons: The time he felt he pressured to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a customer. His co-workers getting docked on performance reviews for on-the-job injuries. Workers going on one vacation a year, “if we’re lucky,” while managers go on multiple trips, because “we have to choose between vacation and getting sick.”

A sea of workers, many in red shirts emblazoned with the Trader Joe’s United logo, cheered.

The campaign to unionize Trader Joe’s went public in 2022 - following a string of surprising victories at previously nonunion companies such Amazon, Starbucks, REI and Apple. Those wins for the labor movement, which has been losing membership for decades, have held the promise of rebuilding union power in the United States amid a new era of enthusiasm, especially among younger and college-educated Americans.

Eight union leaders from four Trader Joe’s stores around the country that have moved to unionize gave The Post varying reasons for trying to organize the grocery retailer, which has 545 stores. But most cited a deterioration in company benefits over the years, including increasing the number of weekly hours to qualify for health insurance and lowering the corporate match for retirement contributions.

Trader Joe’s previously said that changes to the retirement contributions were in part a response to feedback from workers who wanted a bonus instead.

Last year, when a group of employees at the Trader Joe’s on the Lower East Side in Manhattan went public with an organizing campaign, managers surveilled organizing efforts, repeatedly tore down union posters in the break room and held daily meetings during work hours where managers recited anti-union talking points, union supporters said. Trader Joe’s declined to comment on the allegations while the charges are under NLRB review.

In an audio recording of one meeting obtained by The Post, a manager told Trader Joe’s workers in the lead-up to the election that if their store unionized, they could not transfer to work at others stores.

The manager said this was “because you will be a union worker. You are no longer a crew member.”

Labor lawyers say these arguments against unionizing are often deployed by companies, but it is illegal to discriminate against union workers.

Trader Joe’s declined to comment on the recorded statements.

Bridget Arend, a 26-year-old Trader Joe’s union supporter who works at the same Manhattan store, said “anti-union rhetoric pushed by management” chilled support.

In that April 2023 election, the vote was close, like in Chicago, but failed, 76 to 76 - a loss for the union, which needs a majority. The union suffered another loss in 2022 at a store in Brooklyn.

John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University, said many of the tactics Trader Joe’s has deployed come straight out of the anti-union playbooks of Amazon and Starbucks. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Both Starbucks and Amazon set the model in terms of intensity and the unrelenting nature and the number of instance of breaking the law,” Logan said. “They fire people. They spy on people. You see a lot of the same things happening at Trader Joe’s.”

Rachel Wall, a Starbucks spokesperson, referred The Post to the findings of an independent assessment of the company’s union practices in 2023 that found no evidence that the company has an “anti-union playbook” and that disciplinary action has been taken at the same rate at union and nonunion stores.

Mary Kate Paradis, an Amazon spokesperson said the e-commerce giant’s employees “have the choice of whether or not to join a union.” She added that the company has called meetings with workers on unions for the purpose of “actively sharing facts with employees so they can use that information to make an informed decision.”

Trader Joe’s has also hired the same two high-profile law firms that specialize in fighting union drives for companies like Starbucks and Amazon.

In Chicago, union supporters are eager to learn the outcome of the election, hoping it will give their campaign momentum amid what they say is an uphill fight to unionize the major retailer.

“Regardless of the tally, our work moving forward is, make sure people feel safe and welcome whichever way they voted,” said Sarah Beth Ryther, a Trader Joe’s employee at a unionized location in Minneapolis and vice president of Trader Joe’s Workers United.

Will Greene, a Trader Joe’s employee in Chicago, said he loves the company’s benefits but felt “deeply ashamed” of how it has responded to the national union campaign, especially because of all of the “PR energy [gone] into creating the impression that it’s a good place to work.”

“Things can get better,” Greene said. “I trust the crew members as a collective to make those improvements more than I trust the company.”

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