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Attention LES Trader Joe’s Shoppers: These Workers Just Launched a Union Drive

"They tell us, oh, we're raking in record profits these days."

A mural at the TJ's on Grand Street above the dairy aisle.

Trader Joe’s Essex Crossing (Hell Gate)

On Wednesday afternoon, Trader Joe's shoppers on the Lower East Side were filling their carts with cheap almond milk and delightful candies they probably didn't need when cheers rang out near the cash registers.

"Thank you for being here, friends and supporters," Trader Joe's worker and organizer Gabriel Medrano said. "We're here to announce our union!"

Medrano's colleagues then ticked through a list of reasons why they want to be a part of a union—better pay, better benefits, a safer work environment—and noted that they had filed union cards and submitted them to the National Labor Relations Board. The manager on duty—or "captain" in Trader Joe's parlance—listened to the announcement while he leaned against the raised platform desk that is a feature at many of the stores, his stoic expression an amusing contrast to his bright Hawaiian shirt.

The LES employees are hoping to become the first in the City to unionize with Trader Joe's United, the worker-organized, independent group that has recently led successful campaigns in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Kentucky. (The Massachusetts location was the first of the chain's 500 stores to organize.) To join the union, half of the voting employees, plus one, must vote in favor. The store has close to 200 staffers.

Bridget Arend, one of the workers and organizers at the LES Trader Joe's, told Hell Gate that most workers start at around $18/hour, but that there is currently very little salary transparency; some longtime workers who started at $15/hour make the same amount as those who started last month. "It might be slightly better than minimum wage, but $18, $19 right now in the city doesn't get you very far," Arend said. The workers also lost their temporary pandemic pay bumps, and the company has cut back on its health and retirement benefits.

Trader Joe's, which is a subsidiary of the German grocer Aldi (both are controlled by a billionaire) had an estimated $16 billion in sales in 2020—putting it on par with Whole Foods.

"They tell us, oh, we're raking in record profits these days," Diego Ramirez, another worker-organizer at the LES store, told us. "And it's like, how is that supposed to make us feel when you're telling us how much money you're making, and we're not seeing a cent of it?"

Arend explained that the New York City stores also present unique challenges to staff. "It's these basement stores. They have a lot of maintenance problems. We had sewage dripping down the ceilings," Arend said. "There's plumbing issues. We only have two bathrooms, two toilets for the whole crew of 190, they're always going out of order."

These stores are consistently packed, as any Trader Joe's shopper knows. The LES Trader Joe's is also the largest on the east coast. "It's a really high volume store. It can get really crazy. All the registers are open and the line is still really long," Arend said. 

Through it all, Trader Joe's employees continue to receive high marks for their customer service—from finding out when they are going to restock your favorite seasonal cookie to hand-painting custom signage.

"All of our art work is specific to our store. All of our templates are specific to this Trader Joe's," Kayla McDonald, a two-year worker who creates a lot of the store's sign art, told Hell Gate. "I do price-changing. I make sure everything looks aesthetically [pleasing]. If something is out on a shelf, I'll always go and look and check to see if that's something that's coming in that day."

Asked to explain the sewage leaks, and whether the company will voluntarily recognize a union, Trader Joe's spokesperson Nakia Rohde wrote in an email that "Trader Joe’s Crew Members get to decide if they want to be a part of this UFCW-backed effort." (No word on the sewage problems though.)

The spokesperson appeared to be referring to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which had been assisting staff at the Trader Joe's wine store on 14th Street when it was abruptly shuttered this past summer. 

"We are a completely worker-driven, independent and unaffiliated union," Trader Joe's United spokesperson Maeg Yosef told Hell Gate. "The two campaigns do get confused sometimes, though I’m surprised to hear the confusion is coming from Trader Joe’s Corporate."

Ramirez, the LES worker-organizer, said that management has started to dial up its anti-union rhetoric. 

"When they were giving out [performance] reviews to certain people, they were giving little spiels telling them, 'Oh listen, unions are bad.' And our manager was pulling out some [bargaining] contracts that he had previously as bad examples of what a union can be," Ramirez said. 

Ramirez added that not everyone at the store supported the organizing drive, and that some had legitimately bad experiences with other unions. "Their feedback is just as important to us as people who are very pro-union, because it'll help us learn what we can do better and improve upon," Ramirez said. "We're here to work with them just as much, not against them."

The Trader Joe's in Williamsburg voted on whether to join Trader Joe's United in October; the union votes lost, 94 to 66.

The NLRB has not set the date for the LES store's election, but the union expects it to happen very soon, in early April. 

"Of course they deserve to join a union," one shopper, Kelvin J., told Hell Gate. "And they deserve higher pay and benefits and all that. Especially because I've heard that the company is doing pretty well."

"I think they should have higher wages and better benefits," said another shopper, Michele, who added that she wouldn't hesitate to pay more for her groceries, if it meant the workers got paid more. "They're more than fairly priced as it is." 

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