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Why is this California Trader Joe pushing for a union? An infestation of rats is only part of the problem


Dominique Bernardo first noticed chewed bread.

“I think the rats chewed on this,” he recalls telling his manager in early 2021 at a Trader Joe’s store in Oakland. Weeks passed and Bernardo said that he would spend the first 30 to 40 minutes of his shift cleaning up rat feces at the College Avenue store.

It was only after the problem worsened and customers began returning damaged products that the company took more aggressive steps to deal with the infestation, said Bernardo, who has worked for the supermarket chain for 18 years.

Bernardo sees the rat infestation, which he said finally subsided nearly two years later around December, as a vivid example of how the company has ignored crew safety and prioritized profit at the expense of workers.

It’s one of the many reasons, Bernardo said, that she and other workers at her store are pushing to form a union. The group filed a petition Tuesday night with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election.

Workers involved in organizing the approximately 150 Store staff members said in interviews that they are seeking a union primarily to address what they see as Trader Joe’s disregard for their physical safety and financial security in the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area.

The Oakland store is the latest Trader Joe’s location and the first in California to join a national push that began in May.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to requests for comment about worker concerns about the rat infestation and other workplace issues.

like starbucks and REI — Companies that have long cultivated reputations as progressive brands with strong benefits for their service workers — Trader Joe’s has come under fire for its response to worker organizing. The companies have been accused of a variety of illegal union busting activities, with Starbucks leading the way, accused of hundreds of unfair labor practice counts of illegally policing, intimidating and firing workers involved in union organizing.

“I feel like at one time it was true that Trader Joe’s was an exceptional grocery store to work for,” said Maeg Yosef, communications director for the union, Trader Joe’s United. He works at a Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, which was the company’s first to unionize.

But that began to change as the company’s leadership has undermined benefits and worker morale, he said. The company’s response to union efforts “has been anything but progressive,” he said.

The group of workers met at the BART train station across the street from the store Wednesday afternoon, then went inside the store to present a letter to management announcing their campaign. The letter said that workers view a union as a structured way to advocate for benefits and requested that Trader Joe make the decision to voluntarily recognize his group.

“We intend to unionize because we care deeply about our work and the relationships we have built with customers, crewmates and management,” the letter stated. “As we move through this process, we ask that you act with the integrity expected of the crew every day.”

Three Trader Joe’s stores voted to join the independent Trader Joe’s United union.

Trader Joe’s has previously said the media is concerned about how a “rigid new legal relationship” created by a union will affect company culture.

The Oakland Trader Joe’s workers’ group has been working to organize a union drive since at least October.

Interviewed workers said they hope a union will help address a range of problems, frustrations and grievances that have accumulated over the years. Among them, they said: the company’s inconsistent pay scale leads to large wage discrepancies among workers; they feel uncomfortable raising issues of sexual harassment; The company has long refused to implement conveyor belts at the register that would help alleviate the repetitive strain on their bodies when unloading groceries, demonstrating a disregard for their safety.

Workers said the company during the pandemic slashed hazard pay, skipped raises and eroded its guaranteed retirement benefits over the past decade. Workers at other Trader Joe’s who have launched union campaigns They have voiced similar complaints.

Trader Joe’s offered a temporary $2-an-hour raise at the start of the pandemic called “Thank You” pay, but the company skipped merit raises for the coincident January-July 2020 review period, workers said. The temporary wage increase increased in 2021 after Oakland required large grocery stores to give a $5-an-hour wage increase, but it ended that summer, just as California was hit by a wave of infections from Delta and Omicron.

“It felt a bit like whiplash,” said Nava Rosenthal, 23, who has worked at Trader Joe’s for nearly five years. She said that when the safety shields were removed and Trader Joe’s dissolved its mask policy for customers, she felt like the company abandoned the workers.”

“Although we are putting our health at risk during the pandemic and the health of our families, they thanked us for it,” said Bernardo. “It’s so disrespectful. You feel so devalued as a crew member when you’re sacrificing so much to introduce yourself to the company. And how they pay you is by taking money out of your pockets.”

Bernardo said that Trader Joe’s past actions have had a chilling effect, making it difficult to organize the store.

In 2020, some of Bernardo’s co-workers who liked a social media post criticizing Trader Joe’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests were called into meetings and “debriefed” by a regional manager, he said. The company had been accused by Seattle employees of retaliating against them for participating in the protests, and one lawsuit alleged that a clerk at a Portland, Oregon, store was fired for criticizing the company’s messaging.

“I think our customers would be very upset to know that Trader Joe’s is not as progressive and tolerant as it likes to portray,” he said.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to questions about criticism of its handling of employee support for Black Lives Matter.

At the start of the COVID pandemic, Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane issued a company-wide statement memorandum calling union organizing efforts a “distraction” after some employees circulated a petition lobbying for Trader Joe’s to award a hazard pay. In the letter, Bane told workers that Trader Joe’s provides better wages and benefits than other grocery stores without the burden of union dues.

that note was aforementioned by workers at the Hadley, Massachusetts store, who launched the first union drive at Trader Joe’s last May. Massachusetts store workers won the election in July. Workers at a downtown Minneapolis store voted to join the union the following month.

In July, Trader Joe’s announced a list of compensation and benefit increases, which was criticized as a tactic to discourage other stores from seeking unionization. Among them was a commitment to correct pay disparities between long-term employees and new hires.

In August, Trader Joe’s abruptly closed its only wine store in New York state. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said workers at the store had come close to going public with a union campaign and accused the company of “egregious and flagrant union violence”.

The union suffered its first defeat in October, when workers at Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn voted against the union.

The union’s third victory, an election held in January at a store in Louisville, Kentucky, has not been certified. Last month, the company challenged the election results, alleging that pro-union workers “created an atmosphere of fear and coercion and interfered with laboratory conditions necessary to conduct free and fair elections.”

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