Another trader Joe formed a syndicate.  Hopefully it will be like Starbucks.

Another trader Joe formed a syndicate. Hopefully it will be like Starbucks.

Trader Joe’s in downtown Minneapolis has become other union location in the US on Friday, less than a month after the Massachusetts location became the first. One in Boulder, Colorado, could be next, bringing grocery chain unionization efforts across the country. There will probably be many more in between.

This could be the start of a massive union effort at Trader Joe’s where a win leads to a win and unions become a reality for America’s lowest paid retail and food service workers.

In other words, Trader Joe’s could be next Starbucks.

After a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first company-owned location to join last December, more than 215 other stores across the country followed suit. That initial victory set off a chain reaction of Starbucks workers working together to share notes on how more locations could be organized. Workers explained the unionization process, shared tips with their colleagues, and told prospective union members what anti-union tactics to expect from the company. The strategy seems to be paying off, as more and more Starbucks workers join the union ranks every week.

“That is our vision. That’s what we want,” Sarah Beth Ryther, a worker at a Minneapolis Trader Joe’s, told Recode last week ahead of the union vote. “We’re really, really interested in creating a bigger movement because we’re all going through the same things.”

Trader Joe’s, the California-based grocery chain known for training employees in Hawaiian shirts and offering high-end merchandise at lower prices, has more than 500 locations in more than 40 US states. Workers at the two new unionized locations say they have heard from colleagues interested in unionizing in every state where Trader Joe’s operates.

There’s a reason, workers say, that more than 50 years after Trader Joe’s was founded, three separate stores got the idea to merge pretty much at once. The company’s retail employees across the country face the same issues of worker safety, wages that are no longer competitive and benefits that aren’t as good as they used to be.

“Trader Joe’s earned the reputation they have as a good place to work by taking care of us and listening to us,” said Woody Hoagland, who has been with Trader Joe’s for 14 years and whose Massachusetts store was the first to unionize . “Then it started slowly falling apart and it really took a pretty steep fall during the pandemic.”

Hoagland explained that making $24 an hour, which is close to the maximum he can make at a Trader Joe’s store in his area, still makes it difficult to pay rent an apartment for yourself and your two children. Because the cost of goods has risen much faster than wages, he says, Trader Joe’s no longer offers a living wage. Meanwhile, in recent years, the company has minimized its pensions and increased eligibility for health care, while their jobs have become more dangerous thanks to the pandemic.

The other big reason Trader Joe’s is uniting now, of course, is the organizational activity at Starbucks. A recent string of successful unions at the coffee giant showed workers at Trader Joe’s that it was possible for them, too. And there are many similarities between the two companies.

As people did at Starbucks in the past, many came to work at Trader Joe’s because of its reputation as a good place to work. Like Starbucks workers, Trader Joe’s employees have become unwitting frontline workers, forming strong bonds with colleagues over shared experiences working in person during the pandemic. Organizers of Trader Joe’s and Starbucks say they are trying to hold their companies to higher standards set by the companies themselves, so they don’t become as bad as other retailers. Even their demands are similar: better pay, better benefits, more safety measures and more influence over how the business is run.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment.

Workers at Trader Joe’s and Starbucks also say they need unions to restore worker protections that have eroded as a highly unionized manufacturing economy has given way to a low-wage service industry. The pandemic brought an already bad situation to a boiling point and encouraged workers to fight back. A strong labor market means that workers have more leverage now than they had in recent history. And with pro-union sentiment, now is as good a time as any to change things.

About 70 percent of non-union workers said they would join a union at their primary job in the new one survey on the Jobcase career services website. Of these skilled and hourly workers, 41 percent said they would do so more now than they would have three years ago. A Gallup poll last year saw the highest union approval rate in nearly 60 years. And union filings rose 57 percent in the first half of fiscal 2022 compared to 2021, according to the data National Labor Relations Board.

However, it is a long way from applying for membership to actually forming a union. First, the majority of workers in a particular shop need to vote for the union, which in itself is not an easy task because the company can use workers’ time on the job to convince them otherwise. And if the organizing workers do win the vote, the union and the company must then negotiate a contract, which both must agree to – and a process that can be time-consuming if it happens at all.

And while Trader Joe’s has many similarities to Starbucks — both progressive companies that have resorted to union-busting tactics, their employees say — there are also differences. Trader Joe’s stores tend to be much larger than Starbucks. Trader Joe’s union locations, for example, have about 80 employees, while a typical Starbucks has about 25. Union organizers say it’s much easier to organize small groups because it’s more intimate and easier to connect one-on-one.

The first two Trader Joe’s unions organized under an independent union, Trader Joe’s United, similar to the Staten Island Amazon workers have formed their own union. This independent status helps to avoid criticism that these trade union movements are forced from outside. (The Trader Joe’s location in Boulder has joined forces with a much larger existing union, the United Food and Commercial Workers). Meanwhile, Starbucks stores are unionizing under the umbrella of Workers United, a branch of the Service Employees International Union. Still, these Starbucks employees say their union is largely worker-led, even if it relies on the help of another union.

The differences, however, don’t stop Trader Joe’s and Starbucks workers from trying to support each other’s efforts. Union workers at a nearby Starbucks showed up to support Minneapolis Trader Joe’s workers at theirs rally last weekand Trader Joe’s United has been a major supporter of Starbucks’ organizing efforts.

“They showed up for us, and we’re going to show up for them,” Ryther said.

More importantly, Trader Joe’s workers across the country are reaching out to each other, offering advice, exchanging tips and hoping that their union efforts will be as successful as they were at Starbucks.

These Trader Joe’s victories are one of several high-profile union victories this year in places where people don’t normally expect unions. Shops even further Apple stores or outdoor clothing retailer REI they are seizing a unique moment to create better conditions for American workers.

Of course, their influence can only last as long as employment is tight and the economy is good. But so far it looks strong.

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