The Trader Joe’s grocery store in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood made history late last week, as the first California location of the chain to agree to unionize. The vote, held on Thursday April 20, makes the store at 5727 College Ave. the fourth in the company to join independent, worker-founded union Trader Joe’s United (TJU), which was founded in 2022.
According to a press release sent by TJU, workers at the Oakland store voted 73-53 to join stores in Hadley, Massachusetts, Minneapolis, and Louisville, Kentucky as members of the newly-formed group, which is not affiliated with any other established labor union.
And depending on a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision, it might end up as the third. That’s because Trader Joe’s has disputed the results of the Louisville vote, which was held in January. According to Grocery Business, the company claims organizers “created an atmosphere of fear and coercion” prior to the vote, casting its results into question. The NLRB convened a hearing on the allegations last month, but has yet to issue a ruling. A fifth unionization vote, held in Manhattan on the same day as the Oakland vote, resulted in a 76-76 tie, which means the effort to unionize that that location failed.
According to the TJU, the Louisville objection is just one of the union-busting tactics employed by the Monrovia-based grocery chain. As SF Gate reported earlier this month, two workers at the Rockridge store claimed the company had violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, and had threatened to “retaliate against employees if they joined or supported a union.” In addition, the Rockridge workers said in a complaint filed with the NLRB, Trader Joe’s allegedly engaged in “surveillance or creating impression of surveillance of employees’ union activities,” which is also a violation.
Those claims weren’t the first workplace quality complaints made by Rockridge workers. As the Los Angeles Times reported in March, the grocery store had allegedly been infested with rats since early 2021, with worker Dominique Bernardo — one of the leaders of the local effort to organize — saying that she regularly spent “the first 30 to 40 minutes of her shift” cleaning rat feces at the store. According to Bernardo, who has worked for Trader Joe’s for 18 years, the rodent situation wasn’t abated until December 2022, nearly two years later.
Bernardo also told the LAT that some Rockridge staffers “who liked a social media post critical of the response by Trader Joe’s to Black Lives Matter protests were called into meetings and ‘grilled’ by a regional manager.” Another issue that spurred organization, a TJU spokesperson said, were cuts to its guaranteed retirement plan contribution, reportedly slashed from 15.4% to zero in 2021.
Meanwhile, the company also faced criticism for benefits provided to Rockridge workers: in May 2021, as the SF Chronicle reported at the time, employees at the Rockridge location of the chain received a city-level hazard pay bump of $5 per hour, a reaction to the ongoing pandemic. Employees at a smaller TJ’s at 3250 Lakeshore Ave. in Oakland only received a $4 bump, “which was reduced to $2 on May 1 and eliminated on May 17.”
The disparity prompted questions about the company’s pay equity, with Oakland Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas saying then that “Trader Joe’s, as one of the largest grocery corporations in the country, should share some of the incredible wealth they’ve accumulated during this pandemic with their frontline workers who are still risking their lives at work day in and day out.”
That pandemic-era frustration with the company is what prompted the formation of the TJU, Hadley worker and TJU spokesperson Maeg Yosef said. “There had been previous attempts to organize in Hadley and in other stores across the country,” Yosef said, but the company’s “handling of the pandemic and the steady erosion of benefits and wages over the past decade” set the stage for the most successful drive to unionize in the company’s history.
Founded in 1967 in Pasadena, the Trader Joe’s chain was sold to German grocery giant Aldi in 1979. Over the years, various Aldi-owned businesses have faced numerous claims of labor violations, including fair work rules in the U.K. and wage theft allegations in California, among other headline-grabbing claims. Neither Aldi nor Trader Joe’s has responded to Nosh’s requests for comment for this story.
The Trader Joe’s unionization effort reflects the current (often pandemic-driven) wave of unionization across the country — and it also reflects an increasing interest in organization across the East Bay. Workers at one Berkeley Starbucks have already voted to unionize, and employees at another in Oakland have also announced the intent to organize. Staffers at Berkeley’s Ecology Center (which operates the city’s farmers markets) are also organizing, as are staffers at a local REI, salvage store Urban Ore, and the publication you are reading right now.
According to NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado, Trader Joe’s now has five business days to dispute the results of the Rockridge vote. If no disputes are made, the results will be certified and, per NLRB requirements, TJ’s muct agree to meet with the union and begin good faith contract negotiations. But right now, Rockridge workers like Bernardo are just basking in the presumed win.
“This union campaign has changed me and my store for the better. It has not only been the most fun I’ve had at my workplace in years, it has also been the most meaningful and connective for many of us,” Bernardo said in a written statement. “I am incredibly proud to be part of this courageous crew. Because of them we have a seat at the bargaining table and our voices can finally be heard by Trader Joe’s Corporate.”