Union chatter was already bubbling inside the downtown Minneapolis Trader Joe’s by last fall. On November 6, the need for better worker protections became horrifyingly clear for crewmember Sarah Beth Ryther.
“A teenager with a gunshot wound to the head came into the store. I was the first person to approach him, and he collapsed onto me. It was extremely traumatizing,” she says. “They did not close the store. We had workers who just kept on working, even though all of Chicago Avenue was blocked off.”
Managers told Ryther she could go home that day, but didn’t clarify whether she’d receive workers’ comp. So she finished her shift. Unsure whether she’d be compensated for her shifts later that week, she kept showing up for work. Finally, several days later, a boss let her know to take any time off she needed.
Safety grievances are at the top of list for workers at the 721 S. Washington Ave. shop, who announced this week that they’ve become the country’s second-ever unionizing Trader Joe’s. (Workers at the Hadley, Massachusetts, TJ’s made history earlier this month by becoming the first.)
A densely populated location means interacting with folks “who probably need services we can’t provide,” Ryther says, noting that crewmembers and management lack the training to handle “intense” moments. (In TJ’s nautical parlance, assistant managers are “mates” and the head manager is “captain.”) Other worker issues include: physical wear/tear from lifting heavy boxes, unloading and unloading product, and operating checkout lanes that don’t have conveyor belts. Pay inequity looms large, with some recent hires out-earning peers who started up to four years ago, Ryther says. “Arbitrary” firings for “minor infractions” have increased in frequency, she adds.
“The thing we want to say over and over is: Almost all of us believe in the Trader Joe’s values,” Ryther says. “We want to be the best employees we can be, and we don’t feel the structures currently support that. We love Trader Joe’s, but our voices need to be louder.”
To find that volume, workers scouted several existing unions. Grocers like Cub, Lunds & Byerlys, and Kowalski’s Markets have been unionized for decades, so local options abounded. Ultimately, however, they opted to join the independent union Trader Joe’s United, which was created by workers at the pioneering Massachusetts shop.
“We decided to partner with them because Trader Joe’s is a different animal in the grocery store industry,” Ryther says. “There’s a unique culture that we want to preserve.”
On Tuesday, downtown TJ’s workers staged a “march on the boss” rally where they presented their captain with a letter formally announcing their intent to unionize. (Click here to see video.) The captain refused to receive the letter, thus eliminating the easy, voluntary recognition path to unionization.
That means, in the coming months, workers will vote in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Should the yeas outweigh the nays, blammo: The first-ever unionized Trader Joe’s in Minnesota and, depending on the election outcome out east, potentially the country. Ryther declined to reveal what percentage of her 80+ colleagues signed union cards, instead noting: “We’re well over the required 30% threshold; we’re very excited about the election.”
TJ’s CEO Dan Bane is likely less excited. In 2020, the top captain issued a letter to employees addressing “the current barrage of union activity” across his company. Union organizers “clearly believe that now is a moment when they can create some sort of wedge in our company through which they can drive discontent,” he wrote. TJ’s corporate HQ didn’t respond to Racket’s interview request.
Ryther says her colleagues have already been overwhelmed by public support for their cause. She’s aware of the vicious union-busting behavior exhibited by Starbucks, but remains hopeful that TJ’s will “act with the same unwavering integrity” that it expects from its 50,000 crewmembers at its 500+ locations.
“Come into the store and say hi,” Ryther says. “Tell somebody in a Hawaiian shirt that you’re super happy we’re unionizing.”