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Trader Joe’s Union Redo In Aisle Two

Trader Joe's employees on Essex Street are fearlessly flying into another attempt at a union.

Last night’s hazy super blue moon (Hell Gate)

Public opinion of unions in the United States is the highest it's been since 1965. But joining a union is often extremely difficult, due in no small part to the union-busting efforts of management. Bosses will hold captive audience meetings or mandatory anti-union work events, and even if union organizers manage to get a majority of workers to sign up for union recognition, an employer could still call for a vote to be held—a delay tactic during which management can engage in union-busting behavior. 

It's during this period that companies often ramp up their dirty tricks: ruthlessly culling pro-union employees, sending anti-union propaganda directly to workers through texts or posting it on bulletin boards, or even going so far as putting a mailbox onsite directly next to an anti-union pop-up stand on company grounds. Until recently, the only recourse for workers to fight this union-busting was to file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (which would take months to review the claim, with punishment usually coming in the form of asking employers to eventually put up a sign discouraging union harassment), and hope they still somehow won their election. And a lot of workers and unions did it! 

But now, workers seeking to organize their companies, have a new tool in hand—and one of the first possible beneficiaries is right here in New York City.

Last week, the NLRB issued a new rule, stemming from the case Cemex Construction Materials Pacific LLC, that would allow the NLRB to recognize a union if an employer broke labor laws while an election was taking place. The Cemex rule wouldn't allow a union to be formed with a simple majority "card check," something a lot of union groups have been pushing for for decades—but it's a huge step forward nonetheless. It means that employers would actually pay a price for anti-union activity, and their normal tomfoolery would land them with exactly what they didn't want—a union.

Of course, whether this rule actually discourages employers from union-busting will play out in the coming months, but there's an interesting and important wrinkle to the NLRB's rule—it's retroactive. Meaning, even if you lost your union election, if management broke the law during that process, you might still end up with a union. 

One of the first up to try out this new rule? The employees of the Essex Crossing Trader Joe's, who launched a union drive this past spring. At the time, workers told Hell Gate that they were unionizing because of low pay, limited benefits, and a store-wide sewage problem that was going unaddressed. 

In April, those workers, who were unionizing as part of Trader Joe's United, an independent union, lost their election in a tied vote, 76-76, with the tie going to the company. Following the Cemex decision, however, the union is going to try to gain recognition anyways, alleging in a complaint to the NLRB that the company coerced workers by promising better conditions if they voted against a union, engaged in surveillance of workers to determine how they planned to vote, and changed schedules to retaliate against union organizers. 

"Threats, coercion, interrogation, and blatant misinformation, along with pitting workers against each other, are all par for the course when an employer wants to stop worker power in its tracks," employees wrote in a press release following their complaint to the NLRB.  "These kinds of tactics were a significant factor in the Essex election, but Cemex has leveled the playing field and given Essex workers a new opportunity for unionization, despite the employer’s blatant union-busting."

If the NLRB follows its own rules here, 200 Trader Joe's workers will now be union members, and unions will finally have more of a level playing field—and it started, like a lot of great union activity, on the Lower East Side. 

Help us, Proskauer Rose! Our links are beginning to unionize: 

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