Trader Joe’s Workers Are Carrying Out an Experiment in Independent Unionism

Independent unions are a real rarity in the US labor movement. But at multiple stores across the country, Trader Joe’s workers are organizing outside of established unions.

Steve Andrade at an organizing event for Trader Joe's United. (Courtesy of Trader Joe's United)

Maeg Yosef was watching Superstore, an NBC television show about retail workers, when she had an idea. The show features a season-long union-organizing arc, and at the time Yosef and her wife, Sarah, were watching the series in late 2021, Starbucks Workers United (SWU) had just won their first union election at a store in Buffalo, New York.

Yosef and Sarah have each worked at Trader Joe’s for around twenty years. In late 2021, the pair had just finished an extended unpaid COVID leave, which they had taken to help care for their son as he attended school remotely. While they’d been away, they say the job became worse. The two worked at a store in Hadley, Massachusetts, and though the state had introduced a policy offering workers up to a week of paid leave if they had COVID-19, Yosef didn’t find out about the policy until eight months after the state implemented it. She says none of the workers at her store knew about it.

Trader Joe’s had relaxed its COVID policies, too. Workers squeezed through crowded aisles and stood in close proximity to customers as they bagged groceries. Trader Joe’s has always emphasized workers’ friendliness with customers, urging crew members to walk customers to items they can’t find and reach into customers’ bags to ring up items instead of using conveyor belts. The employee handbook instructs workers to offer a “wow customer experience,” defined as “the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us.”

But now, that emphasis meant greater risk for workers, and employees say such changes were implemented without their input. The situation threw into stark relief just how little power they had, even in matters of their own health and safety.

Plus, there was the end of the pandemic pay bump. At the height of COVID, localities mandated pay increases for essential workers; spurred by those ordinances and public support for frontline employees, workers at Trader Joe’s saw a $4-an-hour raise. But in May 2021, just three months after implementing the raise, the company ended all hazard pay except where mandated by law.

Where the company’s relations with its workforce had once been relatively harmonious, in recent years, Trader Joe’s workers say they have grown frustrated. Employees at the company’s flagship location in Pasadena, California, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2021. Another worker, this time at the company’s location in New York City’s Upper West Side, alleged that he was fired for failing to smile enough. While the company denied that worker’s claim, John V. Shields Jr, CEO of Trader Joe’s from 1988 to 2001, once said that he didn’t hire job applicants who failed to smile in the first thirty seconds of an interview.

In their home, watching Superstore’s characters unionize, Yosef turned to her wife. “I was like, ‘We could do that,’” she remembers.

Sarah wasn’t so eager.

“She said, ‘Please don’t do this, because it will take over your life,’” says Yosef. “She’s already seen me have ideas that took over my life, which also took over her life by extension. But she got on board, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll just do it if people are interested.’”

Shortly after that conversation, Yosef approached Tony Falco. Falco has worked at Trader Joe’s for nearly twenty years, working in locations across New England and New York before arriving at the Hadley store in Western Massachusetts. He has watched benefits decline since he began at the company in 2006.

Whereas Trader Joe’s once offered health insurance to part-timers, around a decade ago, it raised the weekly hours required to qualify for the plan from twenty to thirty, though the company has since reduced the threshold to twenty-eight hours. Retirement contributions have been subject to a similar squeeze: the company used to offer contributions of 15 percent of a worker’s earnings, but after lowering that amount to 10 percent, then 5 percent, it now doesn’t specify any amount.

“At 6 a.m. one morning, I said, ‘Tony, come over here,’” remembers Yosef. “We stood in the grocery aisle, and I was like, ‘Did you hear about Starbucks? We could do that here.’ He said, ‘I’m down, but you should talk to Jamie.’”

Jamie Edwards has been at Trader Joe’s for ten years and had previously tried to organize the Hadley store. Edwards describes themself as a socialist with an anarchist background, and their politics were no secret at the Hadley store: their metal water bottle bears stickers with the insignia of the CNT, the anarchist federation during the Spanish Civil War. their politics meant that supporting organizing was a given, but they also attribute such commitments to their personal background: they’d grown up poor and at one point slept in their mother’s hair salon. Those experiences led them to an awareness of the possibility that even if they were not struggling, those around them might be. They say that at Trader Joe’s, they were.

Edwards’s prior union efforts at the company petered out, with many of those they had organized alongside having left the store. But they were still there, and when Yosef and Falco approached them about organizing, they quickly joined the effort. Soon, other members of what became a union organizing committee signed on too.

Yosef’s wife was right: the union campaign took over her life. In the year and a half since the campaign began, the Hadley store has won a NLRB election, as have three other Trader Joe’s locations: Minneapolis, Oakland, and Louisville. Trader Joe’s has filed an exception to the NLRB’s recommendation to certify the Louisville union; the company did not respond to Jacobin’s request for comment by the time of publication.

Two stores have lost elections: one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and another, in a tie vote, at Essex Crossing in lower Manhattan. All of them have done so under the umbrella of Trader Joe’s United (TJU), an independent union first formed in Hadley. The union says it is in touch with around a dozen additional stores whose workers are interested in organizing.

Yosef is the union’s communications director, Falco was the first organizing director, and Edwards is the president. All three still work regular shifts at the grocery store. None of them have prior union-organizing experience. TJU has TJU has no outside staff, and the only non-“crew members,” as Trader Joe’s employees are called, are their lawyers — though, notes Yosef, one of their members intends to go to law school, so maybe someday the union will have a lawyer who started at the store, too.

Trader Joe’s has some five hundred locations nationwide, employing fifty thousand people. It’s a subsidiary of the German company Aldi, owned by one of the wealthiest families in the world. In 2022, the company netted around $16 billion in sales, putting it on par with Whole Foods. TJU has a long way to go to organize the company or even the proportion of stores SWU has organized. And they hope to do so as an independent union, unaffiliated with any existing unions.

Such a structure is unusual. Independent unions received renewed interest with the NLRB election win by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at JFK8, a gigantic Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. But that organization has yet to win additional union elections, and the difficulties inherent in building a union from scratch, without resources to help battle a corporate behemoth, have contributed to immense internal pressure on the members. Yet TJU is growing and grappling toward sustainability.

“We’ve pulled off something wild and amazing,” says Yosef. “As people, we’re about as regular as you can get. We bag groceries. And now we have created this thing that has taken on a life of its own.”

Surface Bargaining

TJU began bargaining for a first contract with the grocery chain in Hadley in November 2022. Bargaining has begun at the three other unionized stores as well, and TJU leadership flies to as many bargaining sessions as possible, no matter the store. They sit across the table from lawyers from one of the most infamous union-busting law firms in the United States, Morgan Lewis. Workers say those lawyers have no idea what it is like to work in one of the stores and thus frequently appear confused as workers lay out their proposals.

“If we’re talking about the way shifts are scheduled and I’m talking about my log — the log lists what you’re doing by the hour — I can see that everyone on Trader Joe’s side suddenly gets extremely confused,” explains Edwards. “If they’re trying to figure out what I’m talking about by context, that’s a problem.”

Workers have asked representatives from the stores’ management team to be present in bargaining, but to no avail. It’s a familiar problem: workers from Hollywood, California, to Erie, Pennsylvania, voice the same frustrations about wasting time explaining how their jobs work to corporate attorneys. TJU members say that in one bargaining session, a Trader Joe’s representative admitted to having never entered the store over whose contract they were bargaining.

Trader Joe’s United members at a rally in Boston. (Courtesy of Trader Joe’s United)

As for the substance of bargaining, TJU members say there is little to speak of.

“Trader Joe’s is surface bargaining,” says TJU vice president Sarah Beth Ryther, who works at the unionized Minneapolis store, referring to the strategy of merely going through the motions of negotiating with no intent of reaching an agreement. “Trader Joe’s is showing up to the table in a show of bargaining in good faith because they want to separate themselves from the really nasty union-busting campaigns of Amazon and Starbucks by actually coming to the table. But truthfully, they do not want to accomplish anything.”

TJU members have presented a number of proposals. On wages, they want a $30-an-hour minimum, up from the current starting wage of around $18, along with cost-of-living adjustments. They say the company has offered no counterproposal with concrete numbers. They have also proposed guaranteed retirement contributions for all crew members, health insurance for all members under the same plan offered to management, with the employer covering all costs, and additional paid time off.

Regarding matters of workplace discrimination, TJU members say that they have presented detailed proposals, but that the company’s response has been to argue that the employee handbook is sufficient, despite worker testimony to the contrary.

For several months now, workers say Trader Joe’s representatives have refused to enter the bargaining room. In late March, the NLRB dismissed a complaint by Starbucks against SWU over its desire for hybrid bargaining, in which workers can bargain via Zoom as well as in person. TJU members see that as giving them the right to hybrid bargaining as well, so at an April bargaining session, they brought a computer. The company objected and has refused to bargain since that date.

To illustrate corporate cluelessness, Edwards shares an exchange they say took place during a bargaining session for the Minneapolis location. The two sides were discussing racial discrimination: specifically, hats workers must wear while giving out free samples to customers (a “demo” in Trader Joe’s parlance). Workers say the hats do not work well with black employees’ hair.

“The lawyer gets really flustered and her response is, ‘Well, maybe they just don’t have to work on demo,’” recounts Edwards. “By ‘they,’ she was referring to black people. We were like, ‘Excuse me?’”

“I would say that the bargaining sessions before they refused to come into the room were about as productive as the ones after they refused to come into the room,” says Yosef. “They seem determined to maintain the status quo, and it’s reflected in their proposals. But we organized because the status quo was not meeting crew needs. There are crew that are on Medicaid, they’re on food stamps, they are hurting. It’s not enough.”

Independent Unionism

TJU members often mention that Trader Joe’s hires a certain type of worker: sociable, talkative, and friendly, to fit with the brand’s image. Over time, employees tend to become close, living together as roommates, and spending time together outside of work hours. The members say that is one reason they chose to form an independent union.

“When it’s coming from people who have been working at the company for a decade or more, other workers get that we truly know what they’re experiencing,” says Edwards. “I was the newest hire of the people who were on our first organizing committee in Hadley in 2021, and I’ve been here for decades. So this is really coming from Trader Joe’s workers.”

There was also a perceived lack of interest from, or compatibility with, existing unions. TJU members spoke of trying to work with established unions and encountering difficulties, though they declined to say to which unions they were referring.

At the Essex Crossing location, workers say they were in touch with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), but they say those efforts fizzled out, leading them to organize anew under the TJU umbrella. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), with which RWDSU is affiliated, has expressed interest in organizing other Trader Joe’s locations too. The union, which represents more than eight hundred thousand grocery workers across the United States and Canada, backed an effort to unionize a Trader Joe’s wine shop in lower Manhattan last year. The store closed abruptly during the campaign; Trader Joe’s denies the closure was related to the organizing. The UFCW has also been organizing a Trader Joe’s in Boulder, Colorado, though after filing for an NLRB election last year, the union later withdrew the petition.

TJU members have so far gone the independent route, not organizing with established unions. The challenges of building such a union are many. Few independent unions have had staying power in the United States, overwhelmed by the forces of our particularly powerful, well-organized capitalist class, and sometimes falling victim to the same shortcomings for which they had criticized other unions.

Those that do succeed often end up affiliating with other unions down the line, and for obvious reasons: it is hard to sustain worker organizing without institutional backing. The TJU leadership’s lack of union-organizing experience means that even with informal outside help on getting up to speed, TJU must run its first union elections, navigate the NLRB, and learn how to inoculate workers against union busting, all on their own.

They rely entirely on donations, as they won’t collect dues until workers win a first contract. The TJU leaders I spoke with estimate that they spend anywhere from twenty to forty hours a week on the union, on top of their on-the-clock hours at Trader Joe’s. Yosef, the communications director, used to breed chickens before the demands of union organizing led her to stop. Not long after we first spoke, Falco stepped down as organizing director. Such stories illustrate the vast disparity in resources between TJU members and the corporation.

“It takes a lot of work,” admits Yosef. “Before we started, we couldn’t have conceived of what it would entail. But we’ve been able to figure it out every step of the way, and I continue to remind myself that every union that exists now started somewhere like this one. We’re creating something that can last. It is hard, and it costs us personally, but it’s also really exciting and for a lot of us, this is the most engaged we’ve ever felt doing something.”

The loss at Essex Crossing in New York City, the company’s highest-volume store on the East Coast, was particularly hard. The tally was seventy-six in favor of unionizing, seventy-six against. TJU has filed several unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB over actions taken by Trader Joe’s during the campaign.

“We were posting union information in our break room, which is a federally protected right, and management kept tearing it down,” says Bridget Arend, who has worked at the Essex Crossing store for four years. The workers would hang the information back up after it was torn down, only for it to be removed again an hour later. Arend says Trader Joe’s management told crew members that they couldn’t post anything that wasn’t from the company, even though workers regularly post nonwork-related information there.

Despite the loss, the Essex Crossing workers haven’t stopped organizing. When fires in Canada led air pollution to rise to dangerous levels in New York, the crew took action. The location is in a basement, and its automatic doors meant that the pollution quickly spread throughout the store. One employee left to buy masks for the workers, explaining to management that public officials had deemed the air quality extremely hazardous.

According to Arend, who was not on shift at the time, while management said that they were asking their higher-ups for direction, they also called the worker in question “passive aggressive” for bringing up the issue.

“They said that they did not appreciate that they were creating panic among the crew,” says Arend. “As if the fiery sky and fire smell inside the doors didn’t already do that.”

Management said that workers could leave if they felt inclined to do so, but they would not be paid for the forfeited hours. Needing the money, many workers stayed. Hours passed without updates from management, so at around 5 p.m., a majority of the crew walked off the job.

“The vote was sixty-seven to sixty-seven, so now we have sixty-seven people who all act in solidarity with each other at work and have built up a level of trust,” says Arend. “It was devastating when we lost, but any effort to improve your workplace does improve your workplace in terms of workers believing that we deserve more and standing up to ask for it.”

“Every election campaign we run, we learn from,” says Falco. TJU members spend hours debriefing elections, identifying which union-busting tactics worked and which did not, adjusting their own strategies for the next round.

And as the union grows, there will be more members from whom to fill leadership positions.

“We just take it one step at a time,’ says Ryther, the TJU vice president, who, like her fellow leaders in the union, had no labor-organizing experience prior to the campaign. She’s a writer with an MFA in fiction from the University of California–Irvine; she moved back to the Minneapolis area, where she is from, during the pandemic, and only planned to work at Trader Joe’s for a year while she finished writing a book.

“There’s naivete to what we’re doing, because we didn’t realize it was anything special,” says Ryther. “It was just a thing that needed to happen. So it’s about infusing every step with that imagination, really believing that what we want is possible.”

“We’re All in This Together”

Workers say Trader Joe’s has been, and still is, waging a union-busting campaign. It kicked off before the TJU effort gained steam: in March 2020, in the first days of the pandemic, Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane sent a letter to workers decrying the “current barrage of union activity that has been directed at Trader Joe’s.” Union supporters, he continued, “clearly believe that now is a moment when they can create some sort of wedge in our company through which they can drive discontent.”

That same year, managers began using anti-union talking points. Two workers at a Philadelphia store informed the New York Times that a manager told a group of thirty employees that “a union is a business and they’re trying to take your money.” Another store manager, at a Maryland location, likened joining a union to marriage: “Once you’re in, it’s very hard to get out.”

“Because a union has chosen to inject itself into the lives of our crew members during this time of crisis, we have no alternative but to remind and share with our crew members the facts,” Kenya Friend-Daniel, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson, told the New York Times in response to the allegations.

In July of this year, Trader Joe’s sued the union in Los Angeles federal court for trademark infringement, arguing that the union’s logo, a play on the company’s distinctive font and branding, is “likely to cause customer confusion.”

TJU members say captive-audience meetings, where store managers subject workers to corporate talking points, have been particularly unnerving, as some workers have strong relationships with those managers.

“It’s been extremely tense,” says Ryther of the atmosphere at her store in Minneapolis after the successful union vote. TJU members across the country organized because of concerns about targeted discipline, and those concerns have not gone away.

At the Hadley location, the company fired eighteen-year employee Steve Andrade on June 8, in what workers say was retaliation for his vocal support of the union. According to the termination paperwork he received, Andrade, who was on the store’s art team, was fired for failing to remove a power tool from the store’s premises after he was asked to do so by management. But according to the union, the power tool in question, which was used by store artists to create signs, did not belong to Andrade and predated his employment at the store.

“I believe my firing was retaliatory for two reasons: I’ve demonstrated a willingness to actually discuss work problems with management, and I am and have been vocal in my support of our union,” said Andrade following the termination.

On August 15, TJU held a rally outside of Trader Joe’s corporate offices in Boston, demanding an end to the union-busting campaign and Andrade’s reinstatement; Hadley workers delivered a petition signed by twenty-two thousand community members urging he be rehired. The rally followed a number of actions concerning Andrade’s firing, including a walkout at the Hadley store, an in-store petition, and a letter-writing campaign that the union says has sent over twenty thousand letters to Trader Joe’s demanding Andrade’s reinstatement.

In March, the NLRB ruled that Trader Joe’s had illegally fired a worker at a Houston, Texas, location for raising concerns about working conditions; the Board ordered Trader Joe’s to reinstate the worker with back pay. In May, the Board issued a complaint against the company for removing union literature from the employee break room at the Minneapolis location; Trader Joe’s declined to settle, and a hearing is scheduled for October.

In July, the Board found merit in another TJU charge, this time concerning the Hadley store. That complaint alleges that the company had a discriminatory uniform policy and prohibited workers from wearing union pins. It also alleges that Trader Joe’s retaliated against workers for union activities, interrogated and threatened them, and forced them to attend captive-audience meetings. A hearing for that case is also scheduled for October of this year.

“It’s incredibly vindicating to receive this NLRB complaint,” said TJU in response to the complaint. “It confirms what we’ve known from the beginning: that our employer, Trader Joe’s, has grossly violated our rights as workers, and must be held accountable.”

As the union’s ULP charges wend their way through the legal system, TJU has continued organizing both internally at already-unionized stores and externally at stores that have not yet organized. Trader Joe’s reticence at the bargaining table suggests that, as with workers at Starbucks and Amazon, winning a first contract will require force elsewhere, especially on the shop floor, and rank-and-file pressure that can force the employer to acquiesce.

Trader Joe’s United members outside the Essex Crossing store in lower Manhattan, New York. (Courtesy of Trader Joe’s United)

Strengthening TJU’s hand is the support of other unions, as well as a US public that is more favorable toward unions than it has been in decades.

“We are independent, but we’re not alone,” says Yosef. Several unionized locations have worked closely with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of the United Electrical Workers and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which helped them organize petitions to management and otherwise organize before going public with the union campaign. Yosef also mentions support from Action Network, an online tool for worker petitions and campaigns, and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton, Massachusetts, as assisting the effort.

“We’re all in this together,” she says. “Even though we’re in the beginning stages of organizing, when people call and there’s any way that I can help, I’m like, ‘Well, sure, of course.’ We’re all labor, and the culture of freely giving one another help has been really awesome.”

At TJU rallies, other unions show up: before the NLRB election at the Essex Crossing Trader Joe’s, workers from Amazon, Starbucks, and REI, each with their own active union campaigns, joined the members. So, too, did construction workers.

“We’d gotten this mic and speaker system for the rally, but we couldn’t find an outlet anywhere,” remembers Arend. “We were panicking, texting everyone we know. But then the construction workers just came and set up a generator and we were good to go.”

Such ties refute management arguments that Trader Joe’s employees don’t need a union, that they are, somehow, not real workers.

“One of the major messages we got from management is that we don’t need a union because of the kind of work we do,” says Arend. “They act like we have a cushy job. So to see construction workers, who everyone knows often work in bad conditions and have a physically demanding job, say, ‘No, you guys also need a union’ — that was powerful.”

When workers from an unorganized store reach out to TJU through the union’s website, it is Yosef who responds to their email. When they want assistance, it is Falco, Ryther, or another of the union’s members who helps them organize.

“You can learn how to write a constitution and you can learn how to have an organizing Zoom,” says Yosef. “I’ve learned how to write a press release. You just do it. And part of why it’s working is because the core group of us can depend on each other to get the work done.”

As to why the organizing has taken off now, TJU members say the pandemic was a catalyst. Health and safety concerns forced workers to organize, and even as those concerns have been somewhat allayed, the lessons learned from that experience can’t be unlearned. It’s hard to stop workers once they have realized what they are capable of.

“People like myself are tired of being undervalued,” says Falco. “A job is either worth something or it’s not — I believe ours is worth something, because people are getting wealthy off of our work. We should all be compensated fairly for it. It shouldn’t be a struggle to live, it shouldn’t be paycheck to paycheck, it shouldn’t be a fight to get benefits. There shouldn’t be punishment for getting sick.”

“There’s been a break in the mass brainwashing in which we’re all meant to just suffer and work and be exploited,” he continues. “There’s a moment where you think, ‘Maybe not. Maybe it’s time to seize our power.’ What we’re doing is not without risk, but I don’t feel scared. I’m feeling, and I hope other workers are feeling, the empowerment that we’ve yet to see the results of. I feel a sense of it already. And I can find something else if need be — that’s part of where the lack of fear comes from. Being underpaid? I can get that elsewhere if I have to.”