two Trader Joe's cashiers in bright blue T-shirts check out customers wearing leis
PINECREST, FL - OCTOBER 18: Kimberly Davison (L) and Elena Evans pay for their groceries as they attend the grand opening of a Trader Joe's on Oct. 18, 2013, in Pinecrest, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On the eve of the scheduled union election on Aug. 25 and 26, Keenan Dailey, 35, and the rest of the Trader Joe’s Boulder, Colorado, organizing committee faced some difficult decisions. Despite over half a year of organizing and filing a union election petition in late July, they sensed that union support in a store of more than 120 crew members seemed to be wavering in the face of union-busting rhetoric by the company and the possibility of pay changes. 

The uncertainty was understandable—there’s an inherent risk to being an employee anywhere where a union vote has failed. If the Boulder workers won, they had an opportunity to bargain for a new contract. If they lost, they wouldn’t be able to file for another union election for 12 months and feared that Trader Joe’s would retaliate, leaving many crew members unemployed.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Dailey, a father of two kids. “We didn’t feel confident that we had the majority anymore.” 

In the end, Dailey and other committee members withdrew their union petition 24 hours before the elections. Their dilemma is one that Trader Joe’s employees are facing nationwide as workers continue to push for unionization in the wake of mistreatment and exploitation by corporations that intensified during the pandemic.

Over the last year, service workers across the U.S. have filed for elections to unionize stores, including four Trader Joe’s stores in Hadley, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Boulder; and New York City. Many of the issues that workers, named “crew members,” face are similar across the board when it comes to pay, cuts in retirement benefits, health, and safety. But their efforts have yielded mixed results—the same week that Minneapolis unionized with a vote of 55-5, a Trader Joe’s wine store in New York City that had intended to file for a union election was abruptly shut down by the company.

While crew members speak highly of their tight-knit teammates and management, the shortcomings in the stores’ design and workers’ inability to have a voice in shaping benefits, store policies, and worker safety culminated into a push for unionization. Though the Hadley, Minneapolis, New York City, and Boulder stores filed their petitions in close succession, each of these locations reached their decisions to do so independently, choosing different paths and priorities that revealed a variety of successes and challenges. 

The rough reality behind the charming facade

Sarah Beth Ryther, 32, had only worked at the Minneapolis store for a few months when a teenager who had been shot in the head came into the store in November 2021. Ryther was one of the first responders, and the incident revealed a critical lack of procedural information or safety training for her team that reflected their actual needs and experiences. 

“Corporate Trader Joe’s is responsible for keeping us safe—our managers on the store level try pretty hard, but they don’t have the training or the resources in order to actually [do so],” Ryther said.

According to advocates, that lack of concern for worker comfort and safety, whether in the face of physical threats or health emergencies like the pandemic, is not only reflected in the absence of resources and support for workers, but also undermines into the progressive brand aesthetic that Trader Joe’s uses to appeal to customers.

For example, the charming design that makes Trader Joe’s look like a neighborhood grocery store—famously known for having the highest products per square foot among grocery stores—can contribute to repetitive stress injuries that workers develop from restocking items. The lack of conveyor belts at the cash register means that cashiers are also at risk for developing chronic pain and stress injuries from reaching for customers’ items.

“How our registers are set up, what kind of tools we have, how we use our bodies, what our spaces are like—those are all things that contribute to us having chronic pain or repetitive stress injuries, but we have no control over it,” says Maeg Yosef, an organizer at the Hadley location. 

And while Trader Joe’s unique bell system of communication may seem quaint, crew member Julia Hogan, 21, says that in an emergency evacuation—such as the one following the shooting victim needing help at the Minneapolis store—the bell system “[is] not adequate.”

“Our district managers have said they don’t want to be ‘that kind’ of store—the type of store that makes announcements over a loudspeaker—even though in an emergency situation, being that kind of store is very important,” Hogan said.

While Trader Joe’s continues to promote the “fun workplace” reputation, the actual way that salaries and benefits are implemented has been a frustrating reality check for workers. Health care benefits are determined by the number of hours crew members work, so if a crew member works fewer hours due to stress injuries sustained on the job, they end up losing those benefits just when they need them the most. And when Hogan arrived at Trader Joe’s, she discovered that even with just one year of middle management experience elsewhere, she was making as much as a team member with decades of management experience at Trader Joe’s.

“[It’s] wild,” Hogan said. “It’s a slap in the face [to employees], and it’s barely a living.”

Fighting misinformation requires building community 

Creating a union is a tough process. When stores filed their petition, crew members who supported the unionization efforts faced a bevy of anti-union tactics designed to intimidate and break worker solidarity. Management banned their Trader Joe’s United pins in Hadley’s store, which Yosef says is a clear violation of labor laws. Additionally, Trader Joe’s unveiled new benefits such as pay raises and employee discounts just ahead of the Hadley union vote that were withheld from the two locations filing for union elections. While a Trader Joe’s spokesperson said that these raises would be retroactively conferred after the election, some workers believe withholding those benefits until after the union election was coercive and meant to intimidate workers.

“All of the benefits that corporate has unrolled since we announced that we are unionizing have been things that we’ve been asking for for a long time,” Ryther said. 

Even the benefits that were conferred to stores can be taken away. Robert “Rab” Bradlea, 32, of the New York City wine store, says that Trader Joe’s implemented a “thank you pay” of an extra $2 per hour in March 2020 (later raised to $4 per hour in February 2021), but rescinded the raise in May 2021 and skipped its usual biannual permanent pay increases, despite the ongoing pandemic. 

“People had gotten into leasing agreements based on the thank you pay of [the extra $2 per hour],” Dailey said. “They were in affordable housing, and they were worried that they now made so little they were going to get kicked out.” 

But the biggest challenge to unionizing is fighting the spread of misinformation by corporations about the workers’ rights. David Young, the international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), recommends that prior to going public, organizing committees should ensure that the workers know they have a majority and are equipped to deal with inevitable pushback from management. Corporations often claim that union drives happen because a “third party” is intervening, so Ryther says that organizers have to convey the counter message that “it’s really just a group of workers [asking for better treatment].” 

Social media has played a major role in union organizers’ efforts. The Minneapolis store workers launched an Instagram account after announcing they had filed for a union election, putting out notices for local community organizing events, using bright and colorful spreads featuring workers and their own testimonials about why they supported unionization and their beliefs about the larger labor movement. Starbucks Workers United, the union for Starbucks, has a TikTok account that reveals Starbucks’ union-busting techniques and amplifies workers’ reasons for wanting a union. REI Soho also launched an Instagram account with a whiteboard campaign among its pro-union workers who share personal stories, such as one Chinese-American employee feeling unsafe while working late shifts because of anti-Asian attacks.

Store workers’ connection and investment in their local communities can also be significant factors in garnering public support. When crew members wore pro-union pins in the store, Hogan recalls how customers encouraged their efforts to pave a new path for the community’s service workers. In fact, workers have found that the same community care-based rhetoric Trader Joe’s corporate uses to claim it’s protecting crew members can also be used by organizers as they advocate for unionization. 

“We have a lot of Minneapolis pride,” Ryther said. “We’re very, very tight knit, and we like each other a lot. And when something happens to one of us, everyone knows about it immediately. Everyone is very vocal and careful about how we want to protect each other.”

Go independent or be affiliated with an established union?

Out of the four known unionization attempts at Trader Joe’s locations, Hadley and Minneapolis have voted to form their own independent union “Trader Joe’s United,” rather than join already established unions among local grocery stores. By contrast, the New York City wine shop and the Boulder location had intended to join forces with the UFCW.

Dailey says that filing to unionize with UFCW was in many ways a practical decision. While Dailey had time to work with a union, he didn’t have time to actually run one. Others on the organizing committee had similar restrictions. However, Dailey says that a common misconception among crew members was that joining an affiliated union meant using generalized grocery store bargain contracts instead of ones that accounted for the unique circumstances of working for Trader Joe’s. For example, Trader Joe’s crew members have different responsibilities and roles than workers at Kroger, Dailey says. A new contract for Trader Joe’s with UFCW would have been bargained separately. 

Going unaffiliated, as the Hadley and Minneapolis stores chose to do, can have its own challenges. Young points out that there’s strength in numbers when it comes to establishing an industry standard, which can be easier to gain by joining a larger, previously established union. By going independent, Hadley and Minneapolis are relying on a smaller pool of collective bargaining strength to get the contract that they need. Additionally, larger unions have dedicated staff attorneys to help in cases of unfair labor practices. 

Ryther says that the organizing committee in Minneapolis did their due diligence and sought advice from the Hadley workers, who Ryther calls “their older siblings.” While most of the Minneapolis crew members were under the age of 25, many at the Hadley location had worked for Trader Joe’s for more than 10 years as “career” crew members. Working together, they believed they could create a grander vision for a Trader Joe’s union. 

Unfortunately, the New York City wine store never got the chance to find out how being affiliated with UFCW would benefit workers. The store was shut down on the eve of crew members beginning to gather signatures for union cards. Bradlea says that the closing made little sense because selling wine requires expertise of the craft and industry, and many repeat customers came to the store after developing trusted relationships with the crew, making workers a valuable resource who would be difficult to replace. Additionally, the shutdown coincided with the return of New York University’s student body, a significant customer base, and a petition points out that the lease for the property had not yet expired. 

“We were let down consistently by a company that had told us we were family, that their core value was integrity, and had told us that they would support us in an unprecedented time,” says Bradlea. 

Young notes that UFCW is seeking to help file unfair labor practice charges (ULPs) for Trader Joe’s in New York City. The details are still in development as they are gathering evidence. 

Intersectionality and addressing regret

Although Boulder withdrew their union election petition, Dailey says that he learned important lessons about organizing, preparation, and delegation. Sharing organizing duties rather than depending on a single person would both demonstrate a united front among workers and help individuals avoid burnout. Additionally, Dailey felt that they should have prepared materials to raise more awareness about their experiences among both the press and the public. 

“Talking about unions is very taboo when you are not somewhere that is already unionized,” Dailey said. 

One of the mistakes that Dailey believes they made was filing for an election halfway through performance reviews. Doing so made employees more vulnerable and gave management the opportunity to use anti-union rhetoric during pre-scheduled meetings. Some of the organizing committee members felt uneasy in the workplace and feared publicly supporting unionization. 

Bradlea says that he suspects that word of their unionizing spread to management through a fellow crew member, showing how reporting pro-union activity doesn’t guarantee employment safety, since the wine store was shut down anyway. He believes trying to unionize and prioritizing crew members’ welfare was the right thing to do. 

However, both Bradlea and Dailey also acknowledge their unionization efforts critically lacked protections for crew members of color. When Prism asked about the possibility of interviewing other BIPOC organizing committee or pro-union members, all declined, and many feared that identifying themselves in the press could result in potential retaliation. The “overwhelmingly white” makeup of the stores and organizing committees, as Bradlea and Dailey put it, points to the inherent challenge many union organizers have to confront: not everyone has the same level of risk when they come out as pro-union. 

Dailey says that time and availability were often barriers to workers’ involvement with the organizing committee’s union efforts. The persistence of gender and racial wage gaps and the fact that BIPOC are also taking on other gig work means that union organizers need to adjust how people can participate so their efforts will be more integrated. The risks and consequences of unionizing are also disproportionate for BIPOC, which Bradlea says white organizers need to account for during the process. Bradlea emphasizes that future organizers should hold intersectionality at the core of their efforts, consider the different levels of burden and risks in unionizing, and be proactive by involving underrepresented voices from the beginning. 

Young says that it’s important to remember that while not all efforts may succeed, the past isn’t prologue when unionizing. 

“[Workers are] trying to improve their job,” Young said. “And by trying, they’ve done everything right.” 

In Boulder, the crew is regrouping to see if there is still a desire to unionize. Currently, it’s an employee’s market, but Dailey isn’t sure how long that will last. However, he is glad that even the possibility of unionizing is now more of an open discussion.

“The whole quietness, where people didn’t even want to say the word ‘union’ out loud [has changed],” Dailey said. “We get to talk about it now, and it’s a normal topic of conversation.”

Helen Li is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her podcast work and multilingual writing focus on youth civic engagement, international affairs, labor, technology, and identity. Her words have...