Trader Joe’s in downtown Minneapolis has become the second union place in the US on Friday, less than a month after a location in Massachusetts became the first. One in Boulder, Colorado, could be next, making efforts to consolidate the grocery chain across the country. There will likely be many more in between.
This could be the start of a massive union effort at Trader Joe’s, where victory leads to victory and unions become a reality for America’s lowest-paid retail and hospitality workers.
In other words, Trader Joe’s could be the next Starbucks.
After a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first company-owned location to unionize last December, more than 215 other stores nationwide have followed suit. That initial victory set off a chain reaction of Starbucks employees working together to share notes on how more locations could organize. The workers explained the unionization process, shared tips with their co-workers, and told prospective union members what anti-union tactics to expect from the company. The strategy appears to be paying off as more Starbucks workers join unions each week.
“This is our vision. This is what we want,” Sarah Beth Reiter, a worker at a Minneapolis Trader Joe’s, told Recode last week before the union vote. “We’re really, really interested in creating a bigger movement because we’re all going through the same things.”
Trader Joe’s, a California-based grocery chain known for dressing its employees in Hawaiian shirts and offering higher-end merchandise at lower prices, has more than 500 locations in more than 40 US states. Workers at the two recently merged union locations say they have heard from colleagues interested in unionizing in every state where there is a Trader Joe’s.
There’s a reason, workers say, that more than 50 years after Trader Joe’s was founded, three separate stores got the idea to merge almost at once. The company’s retail employees across the country face the same issues of worker safety, pay that is no longer competitive and benefits that aren’t as good as they were.
“Trader Joe’s earned its reputation as a good place to work by taking care of us and listening to us,” said Woody Hoagland, who has worked at Trader Joe’s for 14 years and whose Massachusetts store was the first to unionize. “Then it started slowly chipping away, and it really took a pretty steep decline during the pandemic.”
Hoagland explained that making $24 an hour, which is close to the maximum he can get at a Trader Joe’s store in his area, still makes it very difficult to pay rent on apartment for yourself and your two children. Because the cost of goods has risen so much faster than wages, he says, Trader Joe’s no longer offers a living wage. Meanwhile, in recent years, the company has minimized pension benefits and increased health care requirements as jobs become more dangerous due to the pandemic.
The other big reason Trader Joe’s is merging now is, of course, organizational activity at Starbucks. The recent spate of successful unions at the coffee giant has shown Trader Joe’s workers that it’s possible for them, too. And there are many similarities between the two companies.
As people in the past did at Starbucks, many came to work for Trader Joe’s because of the reputation it had as a good place to work. Like the workers at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s employees became unwitting frontline workers who formed close bonds with their colleagues because of their shared experience working in person during the pandemic. Trader Joe’s and Starbucks organizers say they are trying to hold their companies to the higher standard the companies themselves have set so they don’t become as bad as other retailers. Even their demands are similar: better pay, better benefits, more safety precautions and a bigger say in how the store is run.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Workers at Trader Joe’s and Starbucks also say they need unions to restore worker protections that have eroded as the heavily unionized manufacturing economy gave way to low-wage service industries. The pandemic brought an already bad situation to a boiling point and prompted workers to fight back. A tight labor market means that workers now have more influence than they have in recent history. And pro-union sentiment makes now such an opportune time to change things.
About 70 percent of nonunion workers said they would join a union at their primary job in a new research from the career services site Jobcase. Of those skilled and hourly workers, 41 percent said they were more likely to do so now than they would have been three years ago. A Gallup poll last year saw the highest approval rating for unions in almost 60 years. And union petition filings are up 57 percent in the first half of fiscal 2022 compared to 2021, according to National Labor Relations Board.
However, it’s a long way from filing for a union to actually getting one. First, a majority of workers in a particular store must vote in favor of a union, which in itself is no easy task, as the company can use workers’ time on the job to convince them otherwise. And if the workers who organize do win the vote, the union and the company must negotiate a contract that both must agree to — a process that can be lengthy, if it happens at all.
And while Trader Joe’s has many similarities to Starbucks — both progressive companies that have resorted to union-busting tactics, their employees say — there are also differences. Trader Joe’s stores tend to be much larger than Starbucks. Trader Joe’s unions, for example, have about 80 workers, while a typical Starbucks has about 25. Union organizers say it’s much easier to organize small groups because it’s more intimate and easy to connect one-on-one.
The first two Trader Joe’s unions organized under an independent union, Trader Joe’s United, similar to how Amazon workers in Staten Island formed their own union. This independent status helps avoid criticism that these trade union movements are being imposed from outside. (The Trader Joe’s location in Boulder has joined forces with a much larger existing union, the United Food and Commercial Workers). Meanwhile, Starbucks stores are unionizing under the umbrella of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Still, these Starbucks employees say their union is largely worker-led, even if it relies on another union for help.
However, the differences don’t stop Trader Joe’s and Starbucks employees from trying to support each other’s efforts. Unionized workers at a nearby Starbucks showed up to support Minneapolis Trader Joe’s workers in their rally last weekand Trader Joe’s United has largely supported Starbucks’ organizing efforts.
“They showed up for us and we’re going to show up for them,” Reiter said.
More importantly, Trader Joe’s workers across the country are connecting with each other, offering advice, exchanging tips, and hoping their unionization efforts take hold as quickly as Starbucks’.
These Trader Joe’s victories are one of several big union wins this year in places where people don’t normally expect unions. Shops remote An apple stores or an outdoor clothing retailer REI are taking advantage of a unique moment in time to secure better conditions for American workers.
Of course, their influence can only last as long as hiring is tight and the economy is good. But so far it looks strong.