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Leon Kaye headshot

Another Retailer’s Employees Are Forming a Union: What’s Going On?

Count in another popular retailer facing unionizing efforts, as unions aren't limited to employees in heavy industry, transport or education anymore.
By Leon Kaye

A pro-union rally in San Francisco, CA, July 2021

If you've ever worked for a retailer or in food service, you know that the days can feel long, the work hours that generally pay low wages are both inconsistent and irregular, and of course, the customers can be insufferable. The pandemic exacerbated the inequities many retail, foodservice and warehouse workers had already experienced, as they were most at risk of getting sick from COVID-19 while the rest of us could work comfortably from home. For many, the response has been simple: unionizing.

“We all kick around between the same crappy retail jobs,” Sarah Pappin, a Starbucks organizer, recently told CNBC. “This is the moment where we’ve all realized that it actually kind of sucks everywhere, so let’s just make a stand at one place and prove it.”

Now, count in another popular retailer that is facing unionizing efforts.

Earlier this month, employees at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, notified the company that they planned to form a union. Citing slashed benefits, stagnant wages and ongoing safety concerns, the employees’ letter to the company’s CEO, Dan Bane, reads: “With the same instinctive teamwork we use every day to break pallets, work the load, bag groceries, and care for our customers, we joined together to look out for each other and improve our workplace together.”

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Last century’s labor movement was marked by the growth of established unions and the formation of new ones, including the AFL, CIO (which merged with the AFL in the 1950s), United Mine Workers, United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers of America. In contrast, many of today’s unionizing drives — including the one at the Hadley Trader Joe’s — are independent in nature. Such strategies are similar to the formation of the union at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, which also isn’t affiliated with any of the large nationwide unions. Other unionizing activities, including at some Apple, REI and Starbucks locations, are affiliated with larger unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Workers United. 

In the big picture, these unionizing efforts may appear to be relatively minor. But a recent NPR analysis of data from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government agency with which workers have an option to start the unionizing process, tells a different story. A decade ago, less than 4 percent of union election petitions came from the foodservice and accommodation sectors. This year, they comprise more than 27 percent of such NRLB petitions. It’s not necessarily blue-collar workers in heavy industries, nor educators with master’s degrees, who are seeking to form unions: Now, wage earners in the foodservice and retail sectors are also demanding a say in their compensation and working conditions.

“Workers have cited the pandemic as a major impetus for organizing, saying their companies did not do enough to protect them from the risks of COVID or reward them for carrying on with the work that has made their companies highly profitable over the past two years,” NPR labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu observed.

Many of these companies that are experiencing unionizing drives have sterling corporate citizenship reputations — and often rank high on various corporate responsibility, ESG (environmental, social and governance) and “best places to work” indices. Nevertheless, the checking of various boxes on these surveys and any resulting high scores do not necessarily explain the reality out on the floor, nor behind the scenes in a kitchen. It’s clear that at many companies, corporate “sustainability” isn’t carrying over to workers’ rights and their dignity — and many of them have quite simply had enough.

The companies within which these employees are unionizing certainly have the resources, including attorneys who are well-versed in bucking unionizing efforts. But that doesn’t mean the deployment of such tactics is a good look for big companies and their executives: Public sentiment is on these workers’ side. In 2009, when the U.S. was in the midst of the “Great Recession,” unions only scored the approval of 48 percent of Americans, according to Gallup. Last summer, that number stood at 68 percent, the highest in Gallup’s annual polls since 1965.    

Image credit: Patrick Perkins via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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