Employees have accused the company of violating labor law, saying managers have instructed them to remove union pins or go home.
Jamie Edwards recently wore a union pin on their hat while working at the Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts. Some customers noticed the pin and told Edwards they supported workers’ effort to unionize the store. But Edwards says an assistant manager was less enamored with the “Trader Joe’s United” button.
“They told me I wasn’t allowed to wear that on my hat,” recalled the 33-year-old, who’s worked for Trader Joe’s for almost a decade. “Initially, I complied, for the sake of not causing any more trouble.”
But while on a lunch break, Edwards pulled out their phone and read about rulings from the National Labor Relations Board related to workers wearing union insignia on the job. In most cases, employers can’t legally prohibit it. So Edwards returned to work and showed the manager what Google had to say on the matter.
“After that, we were sort of at an impasse,” Edwards recounted. “She says, ‘If you insist on wearing it, I will have to ask you to go home.’ ... I ended up having to go home and miss the rest of that shift.”
Edwards said they had to burn a few hours of paid time off to make sure they didn’t lose money for the day. The alleged dismissal is now part of a batch of unfair labor practice charges that workers have filed against Trader Joe’s amid a budding union campaign.
Pro-union employees in Hadley are hoping to create the chain’s first unionized store under the name Trader Joe’s United, an independent effort not affiliated with an established labor group. Edwards is an organizer for the campaign.
Workers have criticized the grocery chain for slashing retirement benefits during the pandemic and making it harder to qualify for health care coverage as a part-time worker. Now they’re accusing Trader Joe’s of illegal retaliation for their union activism.
In a June 2 filing with the labor board obtained through a public records request, union supporters allege Trader Joe’s retaliated against them by sending Edwards home for the day, by removing union literature from a common area of the store, and by “maintaining work rules that prohibit workers” from talking about pay and working conditions.
The charges are now under investigation by the NLRB. If board officials find merit in them, they could pursue a case against the grocer. Although the remedies are weak for labor violations, an employer could be forced to change company policy if it’s deemed to run afoul of the law.
Workers can seek a union election when at least 30% of the proposed bargaining unit has signed union authorization cards, though they typically want to secure more support than that, under the assumption the company will run an anti-union campaign that weakens support. In the case of Trader Joe’s, a successful unionization attempt at one store could easily spread to others, as it has at Starbucks, where Workers United has organized more than a hundred stores in a matter of months.
A Trader Joe’s spokesperson did not directly address the allegations related to union pins, but said the company was committed to a “fair vote” on whether or not to unionize.
“We believe Trader Joe’s is a great place to work and our compensation, benefits and working conditions are among the best in the grocery business. We welcome a fair vote and are prepared to hold a vote if more than 30% of the Crew wants one,” the spokesperson, Nakia Rohde, said in an email, using the Trader Joe’s term for workers. “A Crew Member in our Hadley store stated to the press weeks ago that 65% of the Crew agrees with their efforts. We are ready to hold a vote when they are.”
Maeg Yosef, a Trader Joe’s veteran of 18 years involved in the union campaign, said the Hadley location recently received a visit from executive Jon Basalone, who serves as president of stores for the California-based chain.
It’s common for big companies facing nascent union campaigns to send in high-level executives to meet with managers and workers in an effort to blunt the organizing drive. (Starbucks flew in longtime CEO Howard Schultz to speak to workers in Buffalo, New York, and its North America president, Rossann Williams, spent weeks inside stores that were considering unionizing.).
Rhode said there was nothing unusual about Basalone’s visit to Hadley: “Jon spends a majority of his time visiting stores and talking with Crew Members around the country. This is common practice among our leadership team.”
Yosef said she never personally saw Basalone in the store because she was also sent home for wearing a union pin.
“These tactics do interfere and put pressure on the crew. They are allowing anti-union crew members to be very vocal in the store,” she said. “It’s just a distraction, and we’re trying not to get too wrapped up in it. We anticipated there would be union-busting. We know the company’s history and we’ll just deal with it.”
Yosef said managers initially removed union flyers from the break room. She said workers put them back up, and they have remained there since. “There’s also a lot of anti-union stuff up, too,” she said.
Edwards said at least three other workers were told to remove their union pins. Union supporters have decided to comply for now and file charges against Trader Joe’s if managers continue telling them to remove their pins, rather than be sent home for the day and lose pay or end up fired, Edwards said.
A recent copy of the Trader Joe’s employee handbook obtained by HuffPost says workers can’t add anything at all to their uniforms: “None of these items is to be adorned with added logos, statements, décor, symbolism, or messages of any kind except as approved by your Captain.”
But the NLRB has found that employers can only institute broad bans on union insignia in “special circumstances,” like when a button on a uniform poses a safety hazard. Workers often argue that their employers’ handbook rules are “overly broad” and infringe on their right to what’s known as “protected concerted activity” – i.e., joining together with co-workers to improve working conditions.
Unlike an established union, Trader Joe’s United does not have its own legal team. But Yosef and Edwards said labor lawyers have been advising workers on what their rights are, and they plan to file more charges against the company with the labor board.
“These are things I expect to happen,” Edwards said. “The company is going to put pressure on [managers]. Most people, when their boss is putting pressure on them, they’re going to do what they’re told.”