Earlier this year, Sarah Beth Ryther and her Trader Joe’s co-workers started talking in earnest about unionizing their store in downtown Minneapolis. They didn’t know it at the time, but some of the chain’s workers in Hadley, Massachusetts, were having the same hush-hush discussion 1,300 miles away.
When the Hadley workers went public with their campaign called Trader Joe’s United in May, Ryther and her co-workers immediately reached out to the organizers there, who were store “crew” members just like them.
“It became clear very quickly that we were experiencing so many of the same issues and had the same concerns, and wanted Trader Joe’s to remain Trader Joe’s,” Ryther, 32, told HuffPost. “We decided to join forces with them.”
Just three months later, this new, independent labor group with no real staff or budget has the company on its heels in an organizing battle. Despite pressure from management to reject the union, workers in Hadley voted decisively to join Trader Joe’s United late last month, 45 to 31, making history as the chain’s only unionized store. The workers in Minneapolis will be casting ballots in their own election later this week, with a count scheduled for Friday.
“We’re talking to people all day long about this movement. I think it’s just time.”
– Sarah Beth Ryther, Trader Joe’s worker
A second victory would put momentum behind the young campaign and almost certainly encourage more workers to consider unionizing stores elsewhere. A third Trader Joe’s union election may soon come to Boulder, Colorado, where employees are organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has deep roots in the grocery industry.
Ryther said what happened in Hadley is just the beginning.
“We’re talking to people all day long about this movement,” she said. “I think it’s just time.”
It’s certainly an optimistic time for union organizing. Workers have notched a number of firsts in recent months: the first unionized Starbucks cafes, the first unionized Amazon warehouse, the first unionized REI retail store and the first unionized Apple Store. The federal labor board has reported a sharp uptick in union election petitions this fiscal year, as pandemic-weary workers come together to improve their jobs.
The union efforts are still in their infancy at Trader Joe’s, which has more than 500 locations around the country, but the chain could be ripe for widespread organizing.
Workers at the Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis said many of their co-workers are students or recent graduates of the University of Minnesota with left-leaning politics. Indeed, a lot of Trader Joe’s stores are in liberal areas and probably draw a young and progressive workforce that may be predisposed to appreciate unions. That has certainly been a factor in the organizing success at Starbucks, which has seen more than 200 locations unionize in a matter of months.
Hannah Nybakken started working at Trader Joe’s in the summer of 2020 and graduated from the university the following spring with a bachelor’s degree in product design. She now puts her education to use on two fronts: creating the handmade in-store signage that Trader Joe’s is known for, and handling social media for Trader Joe’s United.
Nybakken, 22, said a union could make the job more stable and attractive for the next crop of employees.
“We have really high turnover … and there are a lot of college students that come here [to work],” Nybakken said. “They’re aware they’re only going to be here as long as they’re in school, so building up this union right now is so important. That means the next time we get a wave of young students, they’ll be able to benefit in ways I wish I had when I started.”
Ryther hopes a union could make the work safer, too. She said the police have been called to handle incidents in or near the store, including when she personally tended to a young gunshot victim who was shot outside last year. Ryther said she and others feel left to their own devices at such moments and would like more training.
“We want to be empowered to take control of the situation for ourselves,” she said.
Trader Joe’s has given the organizing efforts a few inadvertent boosts, like when it slashed the company’s 401(k) contributions in half for workers with less than 10 years on the job earlier this year. The company has since announced some improvements to benefits, such as a $10-per-hour premium for working Sundays and holidays, which happened to coincide with the union push.
Nybakken said managers have told workers in meetings that those benefits wouldn’t be rolled out at their store while a union election was pending. (Starbucks has said it may withhold new benefits from newly unionized stores, saying it believes labor law would require them to bargain over them.) For Nybakken, the announcement served as validation of the union effort.
“Building up this union right now is so important. That means the next time we get a wave of young students, they’ll be able to benefit in ways I wish I had when I started.”
– Hannah Nybakken
“We were sort of shocked to see they were willing to answer so many of the things we had been looking at for so long, just by us saying ‘union,’” she said.
Julia Hogan said one reason she wants to unionize Trader Joe’s is to bring more logic to the compensation system. Hogan, 21, says she started working at the store about nine months ago. She already had some grocery experience having worked at a unionized Lunds & Byerlys store in Minnesota, but she said she was still surprised to see she was getting paid more than some of the Trader Joe’s workers who were training her.
“It’s very confusing. They’re training me. They have the knowledge I need. Why are they not being compensated for their time?” Hogan said. “Nobody likes to train [other workers] because there’s no real payoff for it. There’s no thank-you from the higher-ups.”
Both Nybakken and Hogan said the message from management is that a union will make Trader Joe’s more rigid and less fun, a common prediction made by employers facing an organizing drive. It’s been suggested to workers that they would no longer have the flexibility to take on different roles at the store and work in different capacities over the course of a day, something Nybakken said she likes about Trader Joe’s.
“The biggest threat is you’ll be on the register for eight hours, or you’ll just be in the wine shop,” Nybakken said. “I want people in our store to ask themselves why would Trader Joe’s negotiate for that, if it’s going to completely change the way the store is going to operate. They’ve been saying a lot of things that don’t make sense for the store’s productivity.”
One of the reasons Nybakken and others preferred to organize with a new and independent union like Trader Joe’s United is they liked the idea of starting something from scratch to suit their needs. The strategy has its downsides ― they are relying on pro bono lawyers to help them navigate the legal process ― but it also gives the company an elusive target since the union is made up solely of Trader Joe’s employees and has no track record.
It can be notoriously difficult for workers to secure a first collective bargaining agreement after they unionize, in large part because employers drag out the process and often bargain in bad faith to delay. Trader Joe’s did not challenge the results in Hadley and vowed to promptly start bargaining. The company said it was willing to use “any current union contract for a multi-state grocery company with stores in the area … as a template to negotiate.”
But Ryther said she and others aren’t interested in using the benchmarks of other agreements. After all, Trader Joe’s regards itself as a notch above other grocery chains.
“Anyone who walks into a Trader Joe’s will see that it’s very different from other grocery stores. It’s a unique beast in the industry, and that’s how they’ve made a name for themselves,” Ryther said. “We would like to hold them to their own standards, which is a much higher standard than other retailers.”
Correction: This story originally stated that employees had called the police to handle incidents in the store. It would have been customers who called the police.