The Oakland store’s pro-union vote is “a huge deal” that energizes a mostly grassroots, worker-led movement for higher pay at large corporations staunchly opposed to unions, like Starbucks and Amazon, said John Logan, who chairs the Labor and Employment Studies Department at San Francisco State University.
Given the often liberal-leaning customer base at Trader Joe’s, he said, the company risks a hit to its business if it were to be perceived as unlawfully quashing workers’ attempts to improve conditions.
“There’s a huge amount of reputational risk involved if they seem to be committing dozens or even hundreds — in the case of Starbucks — of unlawful labor practices, if they seem to be deliberately refusing to bargain with the union,” Logan said.
For months now, the grocery chain has been negotiating with union representatives for its Hadley, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis locations, but no agreement has been reached, according to Maeg Yosef, a worker at the Massachusetts store with Trader Joe’s United. The Oakland location is expected to join the union at the bargaining table, she said.
In Oakland, employees said they started organizing last summer to gain a greater say at a company they see as growing financially while slashing retirement contributions and making it more difficult for part-timers to get full health benefits in recent years.
Workers are hopeful that the union can help make the process for promotions more transparent, and address health and safety concerns on the job, said Nava Rosenthal, 23, a crew member for nearly five years at the Rockridge location.
“We are trying to build something from scratch, and it’s something that we are all going to have a say in,” said Rosenthal. “And so making sure that the floor is open to everyone, no matter how they vote, is going to be super important moving forward.”
Some co-workers in Oakland were opposed to the campaign in part because they worried membership dues would be too costly, she said. But one of the goals of forming a union unaffiliated with established labor organizations is to keep dues as low as possible, Rosenthal added.
Hours before the polls closed at the Rockridge store, operations seemed as busy as usual, with dozens of shoppers cruising the aisles packed with fig jam jars, organic flaxseed granola boxes, frozen pizzas with uncured salami and other groceries. But several crew members told KQED their working environment felt tense in the weeks leading to the election.
A long-time employee pushing carts across the parking lot said he didn’t believe a union was needed, but declined to give his full name out of fear it would lead to more division among staffers. He said that working conditions at Trader Joe’s were better than at previous jobs he’d held.
“We’ve formed a community here,” he said. “I haven’t seen any catastrophic problems.”