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  • Kylee Liabeuf

Workers' Rights: Trader Joe’s Shines a Light on Post-COVID-19 Working Conditons

On October 28, 2022, the Trader Joe’s Union saw its first loss. After Trader Joe’s stores in Minnesota and Massachusetts successfully unionized, a Brooklyn Trader Joe’s in New York City was hopeful of joining the movement - especially after COVID-19 when Trader Joe’s drastically cut workers’ healthcare and benefits. Seeking to restore their benefits, the Brooklyn store attempted to unionize with the Trader Joe's Union but was blocked with a 94 to 66 vote by workers.

Formed in 2022, the Trader Joe’s Union attempts to foster conversations between employees and Trader Joe’s management to secure workers' health and safety, stable jobs, a voice for the working class, living wages, and guaranteed employment raises. This is called collective bargaining, the primary purpose behind forming unions.

Since the pandemic, grocery store workers have been on the front lines. Employees faced health and safety hazards as all grocery stores remained open, ringing in a profit for parent companies while they remained underpaid and overworked. Because of the sudden onset of the pandemic, grocery stores were unequipped to deal with the health crises that followed. Two years into the pandemic, Trader Joe’s still has unpaid sick leave and improper healthcare benefits for a post-COVID-19 world.

Moreover, as the unionization movement has developed, Trader Joe’s has been firing union leaders and closing unionized stores. The first closure was Trader Joe’s Wine Shop in Manhattan. Trader Joe’s management closed this store on August 11, 2022, after reports that 22 members of the store’s 30 employees were about to vote “yes” to unionizing with United Food and Commercial Workers. Upper management’s closure of the store was very abrupt, without any prior warning. Many workers remarked that because the store was smaller and served niche interests, the company could close it without fear of bigger stores in the New York area unionizing. The second time Trader Joe’s management took union-busting action against employees occurred when the Brooklyn store attempted to unionize. After becoming aware of the store’s unionization, management posted a note telling employees they were aware of their attempt and fired a prominent union supporter a few days later. The notice that management posted drove a wedge between employees, potentially explaining why the company's vote on unionization was so split.

The first union, the National Labor Union, was created in 1866 and advocated for a minimum wage, a shorter workday, and safer physical working conditions. However, this union was long overdue - workers had advocated for rights from upper management since the 18th century. The earliest recorded workers’ strike in the United States occurred in 1768 when shoemakers protested lowering wages.

The United States has come a long way since the 18th and 19th centuries. However, Trader Joe’s attempt to organize – along with Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple – shines a light on modern workers' rights and unions, especially in an unprecedented time after the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, it shows how important unions are for workers when large monopolies dominate the marketplace. Today, data shows that unionized companies fared better than non-unionized companies during the pandemic because unions - who help shape company responses to crises through direct input and opinions garnered from workers’ collective bargaining rights - ensure better job security for their members.

In the November 8, 2022, Midterm elections, most Americans voted in favor of workers’ rights. For example, Illinois passed a Worker’s Rights Amendment ensuring a right to collective bargaining in the state. Also on the ballot, Nebraska voted to raise their minimum wage from $9.00/hour to $15.00/hour, Washington D.C. increased their minimum wage for tipped workers, and Nevada increased their minimum wage from $9.50/hour to $12.00/hour. Furthermore, voters in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont abolished forced prison labor, and new Senator-elect John Fetterman (D-PA) ran on a platform of worker’s rights, supporting unions and opposing the big, wealthy corporations.

The United States has come a long way since the 1700s in terms of how it views labor unions. Federal law has shifted from protecting large companies with legislation like the Clayton and Sherman antitrust acts of the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it is not enough. Unions remain a beneficial and crucial part of workers’ rights. They allow workers to be a part of bargaining and decision-making processes for their companies, and Trader Joe’s recent firing of union leaders and closing unionizing stores is further proof of the necessity of unions in the modern workplace. As proven through the recent Midterm elections, Americans value health care, job security, paid sick leave, safety regulations, and structures against wrongful termination: all concerns that unions have proven to help address. The future of unionization in America looks bright and depends on workers, like those at Trader Joe’s, who feel empowered to demand their rights from big corporations.


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