- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Alex Pham works at the flagship Trader Joe’s location in Pasadena, California. It’s the store where new policies and technologies are rolled out. It’s also near corporate headquarters in Monrovia, making it the local grocery store of many corporate employees.
If you think such heightened visibility means the location runs smoothly, you’d be wrong. During the pandemic, management mistreatment provoked workers into attempts at collective action. In response to the company’s annual survey of employees, some workers at the store coordinated responses, hoping to multiply their power and effectively convey the extent of the problems. In response, Trader Joe’s management violated their rights.
After days of questioning by management, Pham filed charges against Trader Joe’s with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That was on May 10. Within a month, Trader Joe’s had signed a settlement and posted a notice in the flagship store that it would not violate workers’ rights. Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Pham about working at the grocery store during the pandemic, being interrogated by Trader Joe’s management, and what’s needed to force changes at the company.
What was working at Trader Joe’s like during the pandemic?
People became increasingly unhappy as the pandemic went on. Crew members — which is what Trader Joe’s calls workers — have found management dismissive of their concerns and more interested in keeping the operation going. It differs from store to store and even hour by hour in part because the company culture is to give stores some autonomy.
At our store, for example, the sanitation policy was drawn up locally by management, who are not qualified to make public health decisions. The cleaning protocols we had in place weren’t adequate, and couldn’t be followed because we’re cleaning while customers are shopping. And many people ended up using their own accumulated leave to stay home, and they felt like they had to put their family members at risk by coming into work.
It’s obviously hard to run the company during a pandemic but the feeling was that crew members’ concerns weren’t taken seriously. There was a corporate representative who did a store visit at another location and the tape on the floor to enforce social distancing wasn’t adequately spaced nor were customers following it. When crew members brought this up, the corporate representative told them not to be dramatic. These reps are people who were largely working from home, they could quarantine. So, there is an aloofness from corporate.
The way Trader Joe’s wound down benefits, such as higher pay, and determined that the pandemic is over has been unacceptable too.
They did the right thing on health insurance, suspending eligibility requirements during the pandemic. That followed workers’ demands, including from a group called Crew Members for a Trader Joe’s Union, which called for hazard pay. But Trader Joe’s response to some demands included huddles that were basically captive-audience meetings. The company even sent a physical letter to every crew member from the CEO, which discouraged people from unionizing.
As to the demands around pay, they agreed to give us what they call “thank you pay.” They tacked on two extra dollars an hour, which if you looked at your pay stub, was not a raise, it was taxed differently. It was classified that way, presumably, because if they needed to reimburse you for some reason they wouldn’t have to pay that rate. But they capitulated, though they said it wasn’t because of the union.
Eventually, they bumped the thank you pay up to $4 an hour. Some local governments were requiring employers to increase the amount of hazard pay during the pandemic, so they’d have had to do that anyway, but they did it across the country, including in places where it wasn’t required. But it was pretty short-lived. Raises are down now — we’re getting fifty cents regardless of how we’re assessed in our performance reviews.
Customers would come in and say, “Congrats on the $4. You deserve it.” It was weird because this sense of appreciation was simultaneous with poor treatment. For instance, I’m an Asian-American, and there are times when people will ask me for help and when I turn around, they’ll back up and put their shirt over their face. “Essential worker” vocabulary has entered into our culture but people also don’t know how to act, especially after having been quarantined. There’s still a lot of mistreatment by customers.
There was also a period where the CDC announced that vaccinated folks would not need to wear masks in public, and Trader Joe’s immediately put signs up saying vaccinated people can shop maskless. We couldn’t check vaccinations, so it meant anyone could shop maskless. When they announced that, they said crew members will need to wear their masks. Even if we wanted to wear masks, we felt disrespected.
What was worse was that, despite the CDC recommendation, LA County was still in the weeds with COVID-19, and the county had a regulation to keep wearing masks until June 15. The county reprimanded Trader Joe’s for announcing policies that were contrary to that. The sense that we got was that the sooner the company could make shopping seem normal, the sooner they could justify taking away our pay.
All of this contributes to our sense that workers are dismissed and we don’t have a say. Then there was an NLRB settlement in New York along these lines. There, a crew member wrote a letter to corporate suggesting improvements around air quality as well as a strike policy for customers who violated regulations. They terminated this individual and then reinstated them.
At our location, we were frustrated, we felt unsafe, and then we felt dismissed when we raised concerns. That was part of the impetus for us coordinating responses to the annual survey, which was conducted by a third party in late April. The survey’s nominal purpose is to allow crew members to give feedback on the company, but it’s more specifically about local management and the store operation.
Some of us at my store had agreed that we wanted to bring up grievances in unison, both to keep ourselves safe and to show that many of us had these concerns. We figured it’d be hard to dismiss. We worked on a resource that had crowdsourced grievances and tips for how to be anonymous but still be effective in your responses to the survey. In a way, we were doing what the company wants, which is responding to the survey.
That got back to management and they started interrogating people in a backroom of the store over the course of several days. One day, they might play good cop and ask, “Do you know anything that might be lacking in integrity?” The first core value of the company is integrity, and they clearly knew that it was protected concerted activity because they phrased their questions to make it sound like it was a violation of core company values. The next day, the boss shows up on his day off. I get text messages before my shift from people who say, “The boss is here and he’s going really hard, be ready for grilling.” Apparently at this point, he has asked to check people’s phones.
When I got there, I feigned surprise, saying, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d be here on your day off.” And he responds sternly saying, “Sometimes I need to see what’s going on here on a Friday.” Shortly after I clock in, he has an assistant manager grab me from my section. They phrase it very politely: “Can we borrow you for a second?” They bring me to a backroom. My boss says, “We saw some texts and call records indicating that you shared this resource. Why didn’t you mention that yesterday?” There’s some back and forth. I ask, “Did I violate something? Am I being disciplined? I need to know what I’m being accused of.” He knows the legal language and says, “I’m not saying that you violated anything yet. This is an ongoing investigation.”
We’re aware that management’s trying to build cases to terminate or discipline some of us. There was another day when the regional vice president of the company comes to the store and she questions me. To be clear, she doesn’t ask about the document, which she’s aware of and which has serious grievances involving sexual harassment, ableism, favoritism, mismanagement during COVID-19, and health and safety issues. Instead, she says, “We’re getting survey responses and they’re verbatim to that document, which is muddying the waters.”
How could seeing the same answers come up again and again be confusing? I had, maybe foolishly, thought that they might try to do something about the management person who was the cause of these grievances and a liability, but instead they sent corporate to effectively protect that person.
At this point, we saw the NLRB settlement in New York, so I called the regional NLRB office. I knew we’d been wronged. I’m the name on the charge. The charges correspond to the four lines in the notice that Trader Joe’s had to post: interrogation of employees over protected concerted activity, surveillance or creating the impression of surveillance, making threats of unspecified reprisals, and making coercive statements.
We had the best possible outcome for the NLRB process but in and of itself, it doesn’t have teeth — there are no fines, for example. I didn’t think that the company would be fined or disciplined in any way but I thought that it might at least get management and corporate to chill out — which it did eventually do, our management keeps holding pizza parties and tastings now. But when you file a charge, the charged party receives a mailed copy, and you could tell the day it arrived at both corporate and my store. People in management were on edge.
The process entailed my giving a four-hour affidavit, and then some witnesses as well. Before even a fraction of those witnesses could give their affidavits, the company’s hired counsel reached out to the board agent assigned to our case and said the company wanted to resolve the situation quickly. That counsel was Littler Mendelson, the anti-union law firm.
Initially, they offered an apology letter. The board agent told them that given the severity of the case, it’s unlikely the charging party would accept that. They never even replied to that offer. But it became clear that they were willing to sign a settlement, and to settle it fully because they understood the credibility of our claims. The process took less than a month: I filed on May 10 and the notice was signed on June 8.
“Kaizen” is a core value of the company, which is the notion that you improve something regularly in small ways. Us bringing up concerns about the way we’ve been treated and coming up with ways to improve things should be seen as part of that. But the threat was not that we had these concerns but that we’re coordinating.
Given corporate’s conduct when there has been more formal union organizing activity nationally, their stance is pretty clear. They don’t seem to care that multiple individuals are implicated by the NLRB settlement. They’ve posted the notice, which went up on June 13, but to our knowledge, no one has been disciplined. The same problematic individuals are still there and none of the grievances we raised have been addressed.
Some of those grievances are about health and safety issues, some are about sexual harassment, some are about other misconduct. They’re not all things that I have experienced myself, but I believe my coworkers and corporate and management needs to believe them and take this shit seriously. I was shocked that they spent all this money on lawyers, there was all this hubbub, and after posting the notice, they act like nothing’s happened.
No one’s spoken about it in management. They even originally posted the notice on the lowest clipboard in the break room, right above a trash can which often overflows with garbage, meaning the stuff near it gets covered in shit. The compliance agent talked to their attorneys about that and now it’s printed on a higher clipboard. But that’s a recurring theme: they don’t respect the dignity and intelligence of their employees. The company has disrespected and harmed its employees since well before the pandemic, and it still does that. We as employees shouldn’t stand for how Trader Joe’s acts as an institution, and consumers should be offended by it too.
Having experienced the company’s response to protected concerted activity, how do you think Trader Joe’s can be forced to change?
My expectations are pretty low. Nationally, there are efforts to organize. The most democratic approach would be to allow the people involved to determine what that looks like, meaning whether it’s formally unionizing or not. We’ve seen that there are a lot of approaches to direct action that don’t involve unionization in the formal sense.
In Los Angeles, there’s a sense among a lot of service people, especially in grocery, that unionization might not be radical enough or forceful enough. There was a big UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] grocery strike here in the early aughts where they failed to win a contract. I don’t want to speak down to unions or about the UFCW in particular, because they do good work and the union is just its people. The union could be us and would be us if that were the approach we wanted to take.
Collective direct action in combination with institutional means like the NLRB or OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], or departments of health locally, and in combination with media and social media exposure — since the company cares so much about reputational harm — is the only way our situation is going to improve. The NLRB settlement is a victory only insofar as it points us toward more collective action and expanded consciousness as far as who we are as a class.
All these things matter, and they’re best in combination with each other, but we’re not going to get anywhere unless we continue to act in solidarity with each other. And we need to be strategic. It’s not enough for people to want to work collectively or even to unionize. Corporate entities like Trader Joe’s, with help from gigantic law firms, are ahead of us in a lot of ways in terms of intel and strategies. So we need to be strategic, not just enthusiastic.
The opportunities are there. We need to believe each other and ourselves when we sense that something is wrong with the way we’re being treated rather than accepting and internalizing the notion that Trader Joe’s is a good employer because it’s aesthetically progressive in some way.
If the opportunities don’t seem immediate, build them in your workplace and work together. It’s difficult, but we’re protected. Nothing’s going to get better unless people make it better. Our company has shown that, just like every other institution has shown that too. A lot of people talk about injustices in the world, about people power, about things that need to change, without recognizing our workplace as a real site of struggle — struggle that is linked to those very injustices they talk about as occurring elsewhere.