- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Trader Joe’s workers in Louisville, Kentucky, are poised to become the grocery chain’s third store to unionize. Nearly 60 percent of the workers in Louisville voted to affiliate with the new independent union Trader Joe’s United, which also represents Trader Joe’s workers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Hadley, Massachusetts.
The company is contesting several yes votes cast in the Louisville election, but organizers predict that the National Labor Relations Board will decide in workers’ favor. In its objection to the election results, the company cited “an atmosphere of fear and coercion” created by union organizers. Organizers responded that the allegation was ironic, considering that “we have several unfair labor practice charges on file against Trader Joe’s for coercion, intimidation, threats and surveillance in the weeks leading up to our election.”
“Trader Joe’s will try to elongate this process for as long as they possibly can,” said Connor Hovey, a Louisville Trader Joe’s employee, in conversation with Jacobin. “But we have such a dedicated group of people at the helm that we’re going to just stick to our guns.” Hovey sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss their pending victory, organizing in the South, and the current surge in unionization campaigns across the country.
When did the campaign to unionize your store start?
We began having very minimal conversations about it starting in April of 2022. It was more or less just asking people what they thought about working for the company, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, what things they wanted to change, and how they thought that those changes could be effectively brought to action. Then we started the conversation of, “Well, what are your thoughts on unions?”
As soon as the Trader Joe’s location in Hadley, Massachusetts, went public with their campaign, we were waiting with bated breath. A unionized Trader Joe’s became a reality now. This could very well happen at our store, too, if we remained diligent and strong willed. Then when Hadley announced that they won their election, we used that as a main talking point.
Conversations started ramping up from there, because a lot of the issues and dilemmas they were experiencing at their store were similar to what was happening at our store. Not only did we piggyback off of the success in Hadley and Minneapolis, but we also drew inspiration from the coffee shop organizing at Starbucks nationally and Heine Brothers all throughout Louisville.
Why did you and your coworkers decide to organize? What was going on at the store that made it seem necessary to form a union?
One of the main things that people were expressing concerns with was how the company was so quick to slash benefits. They got rid of our COVID pay as soon as they could. They also withheld raises in the following review period to try to recoup the losses of paying people during COVID.
We also recognized a lack of accountability from management on down; there weren’t a whole lot of policies and procedures in place company-wide to set everyone up for success. And we realized that the company didn’t have the safety and well-being of their crew members in mind. Obviously, better pay and better benefits are a huge draw for unionizing and at the forefront of what we wanted, but accountability from the top down was a huge talking point at our store.
Did the other Trader Joe’s workers organizing across the country inspire you and your coworkers?
The Hadley, Massachusetts, Trader Joe’s was the location that I always shopped at growing up, so when I saw that happening, I took that as a sign. I was like, “This needs to happen”; I feel like that was just some really wild divine intervention. And then as soon as Minneapolis became the second store to announce, we realized this is not just a one-off isolated thing. Now this is company-wide. That was a huge turning point for a lot of us in our store.
Once we had a certain amount of people on board at our store, we reached out to Trader Joe’s United. Pretty immediately after that, things got going.
What has management’s response been throughout all this?
The company was very quick to establish that they would try to bust any kind of union organizing as quickly and thoroughly as possible. When we went public, they made it well known that their main intention was to stoke and engage in divisiveness throughout our store — it’s not uncommon for union busters to use emotional turmoil to keep a divide in the store. They were going to feed that fire of divisiveness at any cost, which can intimidate workers, especially in the South.
Could you speak a little bit more about organizing in the South?
What’s happening specifically in Louisville right now is incredible. We are seeing a dramatic increase in union elections, and it shows. Heine Brothers Workers United have unionized almost all of the coffee shop chains here in the city; the Sunergos Coffee shops have unionized all their locations; we have locally owned restaurants unionizing; the Louisville Metro Public Defenders Union just won recognition in 2022; the Louisville Courier-Journal workers joined the News Guild. Louisville was a sleeping giant of union activity, and people were waiting for us to join the conversation because they knew that it was only a matter of time.
A lot of Southern states are, like Kentucky, right-to-work states, which undermines union power. This can often disenfranchise and demoralize workers to a point where they feel like their hands are completely tied, but we’re hoping our election helps wake up a lot of the Trader Joe’s locations in the South. And that’s something we stress: if a Trader Joe’s in Louisville, Kentucky, can do this, any Trader Joe’s across the country can do this.
How do you see your win situated in the surge of new worker organizing that we’re seeing across the country and across multiple different industries?
I’m very excited that we’ve been a part of it. I think companies that paved the way for us to do this, like Starbucks and Amazon and REI and Apple and Chipotle — they started this massive wave, and we fit so beautifully in that wave. I hope that with us winning this election in Louisville a bunch of other grocery stores will follow suit, because it’s important for us to recognize our worth.
We’ve been told that we are unskilled labor this entire time, but we all know that no labor is unskilled. We just want everyone else to acknowledge that. I think, especially after COVID, people are finally waking up and realizing that they are way more important than any job tells them they are. It’s inspiring to see that sentiment translate to organizing, because everyone deserves more than just minimum wage for working. Everyone deserves great benefits and workplace safety. That should be the standard. I think it’s time everyone realizes that.
Organizing your workplace is not the norm, unfortunately, and it involves a lot of risk. What has the drive meant to you and your coworkers?
I have never seen so much engagement from people in a workplace before. When you band together to organize a union, workers with legitimate concerns finally get a voice in what’s going on. The engagement level increases. It makes us want to go to work, and it makes us want to be active participants in our workplace and in society.
This has been super fulfilling. I realized that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I am so passionate about this stuff. There’s so much work that’s involved, and sometimes it’s thankless work. But at the end of the day, it is so rewarding to see not only personal growth and personal development, but seeing that development happen in your workplace and seeing it happen and come to fruition for other people. Seeing all that happen in real time is the biggest gift I’ve ever received.