Video produced and edited by Nicole Bardasz, Libby Rainey, and Meg Herschlein
Trader Joe’s workers in Hadley, Massachusetts are organizing to form the company’s first ever union. They say Trader Joe’s has been slashing benefits, neglecting safety, and letting wages stagnate. Crew members at the Hadley, Massachusetts, store are unionizing to make the company live up to its own progressive values. We spoke to the workers leading the Trader Joe’s United organizing drive. Below is a full transcript of our video.
Sarah Yosef: The customers right now really really have this idea that Trader Joe’s is this amazing place to work, and they take such good care of us, because that used to be true. I think everything that we’re asking for is what Trader Joe’s is pretending to give us.
Trader Joe’s worker-friendly image is not as it seems. These Massachusetts workers are unionizing to change that.
Maeg Yosef: After we came back from our leave, because we took a leave during the pandemic, it just felt like such a different place. It felt like they weren’t even pretending to care anymore.
Sarah: I have never seen a group of people’s engagement level drop so far so fast with the changes that Trader Joe’s has made. Trader Joe’s used to be a dynamic and exciting place to work for people at every single level. All of the changes that they’ve made have been so they can save money and we can take home less.
In the same year Trader Joe’s slashed benefits for workers, its revenue was $16.5 billion
Sarah: There’s a lot of people who shop at Trader Joe’s because they feel like they’re supporting a company that supports us. And I think that they would be upset if they knew that was no longer true. I think that most of our customers would be horrified to know that Woody lost his insurance because he got cancer. Because our customers know Woody and love him.
Woody Hoagland: I survived cancer in 2019 and part of that journey was having to fight for my health care from the company. I know that they didn’t want to see me dead from cancer but they also didn’t want to pay any more than they had to and as soon as they were able to remove me from the health insurance, they did.
Despite the company’s family-friendly image, health care & retirement benefits are out of reach for many Trader Joe’s workers.
Sarah: Trader Joe’s used to be a place where you could work part-time and have health coverage. I mean, you talk about it being a leader in the industry, I mean that was remarkable and it made people want to work there.
And when the Affordable Care Act passed, Trader Joe’s used it as an excuse to peel back this layer of benefits that were available for crew members. Since then it’s become harder and harder to accrue hours to qualify for health insurance. I don’t qualify. I’m on MassHealth. I’ve worked for Trader Joe’s for 20 years but because I don’t work 5 days a week I can’t get health insurance through them.
Maeg: We don’t have any guaranteed retirement any longer. That changed very quietly last summer. The policy used to be that we got 10% of our pay was given to us as a retirement contribution, and now there’s no guarantee.
Sarah: You have to work 700 hours in a calendar year in order to accrue retirement benefits from the company. The other caveat to that is that you have to do so for 10 consecutive years. So basically, what the company has told us is if you have cancer you can’t earn full retirement for 10 years. If you have a baby, you can’t earn full retirement for 10 years. If you have to work part-time to take care of your dying mother, if your child has a mental illness issue, I mean there’s any number of life events that can come up.
Safety is also a major issue at the store.
Sarah: I do currently have a doctor’s note on file that I can’t work more than 24 hours a week and part of the reason is part of the reason is because of the work I have done for Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s has historically made decisions for crew members’ safety that favor the customers over the crew’s safety.
One of the examples is the registers. We have no conveyor belts. A customer pushes their carts up and then we take every single item out of the cart one at a time, doing this motion with your body thousands of times every day.
Trader Joe’s notoriously has small stores, it’s part of our charm. We’re also very busy which means we restock the shelves continually throughout the day. If you’ve ever been at a Trader Joe’s, you see crew members stocking the shelves during the day. You don’t see that at other grocery stores.
We can’t take that heavy 30 pound box of celery and have something to put it on while we stock it. Often we have to set it on the floor which means we’re picking things off the floor all day, or holding it with one arm.
Maeg: The wear and tear on our bodies just completely wrecks us. So my back just gave out. I cannot work full-time anymore, I can only work part-time physically. There’s so many easy things that the company could fix and chooses not to.
Trader Joe’s has tried to squash pro-union sentiment at its stores throughout the pandemic. In 2020, workers received an unusual letter from Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane in the mail.
Maeg: It was very clearly a preventative union-busting letter. You know, he talks about unions were trying to drive a wedge between us and the company. Like, that wedge is already there. That wedge has always been there in the space between what we the crew need to live our lives and what the company’s interests are. That’s not the same.
Oh, he shared a little bit about union contracts with us. He’s like, you should check out this website if you wanna learn what a union contract is. So I did a little digging and it turns out that website was made 5 days before he wrote the letter. It had like 6 links on it, it was clearly something made by Trader Joe’s to cherry pick some disappointing contracts, things that they think we wouldn’t like to see.
And one of the weirdest things that he said is that he said if after the pandemic was over 30% of the crew at any store wanted to have a union vote, that we would have a vote, and that he was pledging to us that he would allow us to have this vote. I feel like that misled a lot of people—a lot of crew members that didn’t realize that that’s the law, that it’s not up to Dan if we vote, it’s up to us if we vote. And overwhelmingly our crew has decided that they want to have a union vote and that they want to have a union.
If they win, these workers will form the first Trader Joe’s union in the country
Sarah: We are doing this out of not a hatred of Trader Joe’s. An absolute love of our jobs. I wanna be able to work for Trader Joe’s for the next 20 years.
Woody: I love Trader Joe’s. I’m a helper. That’s what I like to do. If it’s finding the right kind of peas for a customer or making sure that my co-worker is seen and heard on a day that they’re struggling, I just like to improve people’s lives. I think a union is just another step in that direction towards a more just and equitable and enjoyable workplace.
Sarah: I feel like the company that I love so much has strayed so far from their core values, and they are bleeding veteran crew members, I would like to help bring us back.