Oakland Trader Joe is first in California to file for union election

Dominique Bernardo first noticed the chewed bread.

“I think the rats chewed that up,” she recalled telling her manager in early 2021 at a Trader Joe’s store in Oakland. Weeks passed, and Bernardo said she would spend the first 30 to 40 minutes of her shift cleaning up rat droppings at the College Avenue store.

It was only after the problem snowballed and customers started returning damaged products that the company took more aggressive action to deal with the infestation, said Bernardo, who works for the grocery chain for 18 years.

Bernardo sees the rat infestation – which she says finally declined nearly two years later, around December – as a stark example of how the company ignored crew safety and prioritized for profit at the expense of workers.

It’s one of the many reasons, Bernardo said, she and other workers at her store are pushing for a union. The group filed a petition Tuesday night with the National Labor Relations Board calling for a union election.

The workers involved in organizing the approximately 150 Store staffers have said in interviews that they seek a union primarily to address what they see as Trader Joe’s disregard for their physical and financial security in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

The Oakland store is Trader Joe’s latest location and the first in California to join a nationwide push that began in May.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to requests for comment on worker concerns about rat infestation and other workplace issues.

Like Starbucks and REI — companies that have long cultivated reputations as progressive brands with strong benefits for their service workers — Trader Joe’s has come under fire for its response to organizing workers. The companies have been accused of a series of illegal union-busting activities, with Starbucks leading the pack, accused in hundreds of unfair labor practice charges of surveillance, intimidation and unlawful dismissal of workers involved in the trade union organization.

“I feel like it was true at one point that Trader Joe’s was an exceptional grocery store to work in,” said Maeg Yosef, union communications director, Trader Joe’s United. She works at a Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, which was the company’s first to unionize.

But that began to change as company management eroded benefits and worker morale, she said. The company’s response to union efforts “has been anything but progressive”, she said.

The group of workers gathered at the BART station across from the store on Wednesday afternoon, then entered the store to present a letter to management announcing their campaign. The letter said the workers viewed a union as a structured way to advocate for benefits and asked that Trader Joe’s ruling voluntarily recognize their group.

“We intend to unionize because we care so much about our work and the relationships we have built with customers, fellow crew members and management,” the letter said. “As we move forward in this process, we ask that you act with the integrity expected of the crew every day.”

Three Trader Joe’s stores have voted to join the independent Trader Joe’s United union.

Trader Joe’s has previously told the media he is worried about how a “rigid new legal relationship” created by a union will affect company culture.

The Oakland Trader Joe’s workers’ group has been working to organize a labor campaign since at least October.

Workers interviewed said they hoped a union would help resolve a myriad of issues, frustrations and grievances that have built up over the years. Among them, they said: the company’s inconsistent pay scale results in large pay gaps among workers; they feel uncomfortable raising issues of sexual harassment; the company has long refused to implement treadmills at the checkout that would help relieve the repetitive strains on their bodies when unloading groceries, demonstrating a disregard for their safety.

Workers said the company during the pandemic had cut hazard pay, skipped increases and eroded its guaranteed retirement benefits over the past decade. Workers at other Trader Joe’s who have launched labor campaigns have expressed similar grievances.

Trader Joe’s offered a temporary $2 an hour bonus at the start of the pandemic called “thank you” pay, but the company skipped merit increases for the coincident review period from January to July 2020, have said the workers. The temporary wage hike rose in 2021 after Oakland demanded that major grocery stores provide a hazard pay increase of $5 an hour, but it ended that summer, just like California. been battered by a wave of Delta and Omicron infections.

“It felt a bit like whiplash,” said Nava Rosenthal, 23, who has worked at Trader Joe’s for nearly five years. She said that when the security shields were removed and Trader Joe’s dissolved its mask policy for customers, it was as if the company had abandoned the workers.

“As we put our health at risk during the pandemic, and the health of our families at risk, this is how they thanked us,” Bernardo said. “It’s so disrespectful. You feel so devalued as a crew member when you sacrifice so much to show up for the company. And how they reimburse you is to take money out of your pocket.

Bernardo said Trader Joe’s past actions have had a chilling effect, making it more difficult to organize the store.

In 2020, some of Bernardo’s colleagues who liked a social media post criticizing Trader Joe’s response to Black Lives Matter protests were called into meetings and “grilled” by a regional manager, she said. . The company had been accused by Seattle employees of retaliating against them for participating in protests, and a lawsuit alleged that a Portland, Oregon store worker was fired for criticizing company messages.

“I think our customers would be so disappointed to learn that Trader Joe’s isn’t as progressive and tolerant as it likes to project,” she said.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to questions about criticism of its handling of employee support for Black Lives Matter.

At the start of the COVID pandemic, Trader Joe’s General Manager Dan Bane released a company-wide memo calling union organizing efforts a ‘distraction’ after some employees circulated a petition asking Trader Joe’s to grant a risk premium. In the letter, Bane told workers that Trader Joe’s provides better wages and benefits than other grocery stores without the burden of union dues.

The memo was cited by Hadley, Mass., store workers who launched the first union campaign at Trader Joe’s last May. Massachusetts store workers won their election in July. Workers at a downtown Minneapolis store voted to join the union the following month.

In July, Trader Joe’s announced a slate of pay and benefit increases, which has been criticized as a tactic to deter other stores from pursuing unionization. Among them was a commitment to correct pay disparities between longer-term employees and new hires.

In August, Trader Joe’s abruptly closed its only wine store in New York State. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said workers at the store were about to go public with a union campaign and accused the company of “blatant and flagrant anti-union acts”.

The union suffered its first defeat in October, when workers at a Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn voted against the union.

The union’s third victory, an election held in January at a store in Louisville, Ky., was not certified. Last month, the company challenged the election results, alleging pro-union workers were “creating an atmosphere of fear and coercion and interfering with the laboratory conditions necessary to conduct free and fair elections.”

Los Angeles Times

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