Trader Joe workers file for election to establish the company’s first union

In a sign that service industry workers still have a strong interest in joining unions after successful votes in Starbucks, REI and Amazon, employees at Trader Joe’s in western Massachusetts filed for union elections. If they win, they will create the only union at Trader Joe’s, which has more than 500 locations and 50,000 employees nationwide.

The filing with the National Labor Relations Board late Tuesday seeks an election in which about 85 employees will form an independent union, Trader Joe’s United, rather than join an existing labor organization. This echoes the independent union that Amazon workers created on Staten Island and the worker-led organization at Starbucks.

“Over the past years, no matter how many years, there have been changes without our consent,” said Maig Yusef, the 18-year-old store employee who is leading the union campaign. “We wanted to be responsible for the whole process, to be our own union. So we decided on independence.”

Ms. Yusef said the union has received support from more than 50 percent of the shop’s workers, known as crew members.

“We’ve always said we welcome a fair vote and are ready to take a vote if more than 30 percent of the crew wants one,” said company spokeswoman Nakia Rudd, referring to the NLRB’s threshold for an election. “We are not interested in delaying the process in any way.”

The company shared a similar statement with workers after they announced their intention to join unions in mid-May.

Explaining their decision, Ms. said. Youssef and four colleagues, all of whom have worked with the company for at least eight years, cited changes that made their benefits less generous over time, as well as health and safety concerns, many of which have been amplified during the pandemic.

“This is probably where we get to all of these things together,” said Tony Falco, another worker involved in the union campaign, referring to Covid-19.

the master. Falco said the store in Hadley took several reassuring steps during the first 12 to 15 months of the pandemic. Management imposed masking requirements and restrictions on the number of customers that could be in the store at one time. It allowed workers to take time off while still getting health insurance and gave workers an extra “thank you” pay of up to $4 an hour.

but mr. Falco and others said the company was so quick to undo many of these measures — including additional wages — that vaccines became widely available last year, and they note that the store has struggled with a Covid outbreak in the past several weeks after mask disguise became more leniency. The store followed the local health board’s policy, which changed its mask mandate at various points, and most recently lifted it in March.

Some employees also expressed alarm that the company did not inform them that the state had passed a law requiring employers to provide up to five days of paid leave for workers who missed work due to Covid.

“It was seven months in effect, and they never announced it,” the lady said. Yusef said. “I knew it at the end of December, early January.”

Ms. The spokeswoman, Rudy, said that account was incorrect, but four other employees who support the union also said the company had not told them about the policy.

Trader Joe’s has generally resisted unions over the years, including earlier in the pandemic. In March 2020, CEO Dan Payne sent employees a letter referring to the “current barrage of union activity being directed at Trader Joe’s” and complaining that union advocates “clearly believe that now is the moment they can create some kind of wedge in our company.” Through him they can arouse indignation.”

The company’s response to the current crackdown appears somewhat less hostile, though union regulators have recently brought charges of unfair labor practices, such as requiring employees to remove pro-union pins.

Several employees said the broader issue lay in their frustrations: what they saw as the company evolve from a niche outlet known to pamper customers and treat employees generously to an industry-wide chain focused more on the bottom line.

The company’s employee handbook urges workers to provide an “wow customer experience,” defined as “the feelings a customer has about their happiness in shopping with us.” But the old employees say the company, which is privately owned, is gradually becoming stingy with workers.

For years, the company has provided health care on a large scale to part-time workers. In early 2010, the company raised the average number of weekly hours employees would need to qualify for full health coverage to 30 from roughly 20, informing those who were no longer eligible that they could get coverage under the Federal Affordable Care Act instead. (The company lowered the limit to 28 hours recently.)

Said Sarah Yousef, the manager of the Hadley store at the time, who later stepped back from his role and is now a front-line worker there.

“I had to sit there one-on-one with the crew saying you’d lose your health insurance,” she added. Youssef, is married to Mike Youssef.

Retirement benefits followed a similar path: At about the same time, Trader Joe’s lowered its retirement contribution to 10 percent of employee earnings from about 15 percent, for employees 30 and older. Starting with last year’s benefit, the company lowered the percentage again for many workers, who saw the contribution drop to 5 percent. The company no longer sets any specific amount.

Ms. The spokeswoman, Rudy, said the change was partly in response to indications from many workers that they would prefer a bonus over a retirement contribution.

Workers said the company’s determination to provide an intimate shopping experience often came at their expense amid a rapid increase in business over the past decade, and then again as business re-emerged as pandemic restrictions were lifted.

For example, Trader Joe’s has no conveyor belts at checkout lines and directs cashiers to reach customers’ carts or baskets to unload items. This can seem to personalize the service, but it negatively affects the workers, who usually bend hundreds of times during the shift.

(The company requires workers to perform various tasks throughout the day so that they are not constantly in contact with customers.)

Mag Yusef and her colleagues began discussing union campaigning over the winter, angry at the store’s failure to announce its state-mandated paid vacation benefit and change in retirement benefits, and some took inspiration from successful union elections at Starbucks, Amazon and REI.

Their union campaign may also benefit from the same leverage that workers in those companies have as a result of the relatively tight labor market.

“People keep leaving — I know they want to hire people now,” said Maig Yousef. “It’s hard to keep people around.”

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