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Oakland Rockridge Trader Joe's Workers Vote to Unionize Amid Unfair Labor Practices Complaints

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The view of a Trader Joe's store and the parking lot in front.
The Trader Joe's grocery store in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland on April 19, 2023, during a union vote. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A Trader Joe’s store in Oakland became the chain’s first in California to choose to unionize in a 73–53 vote, according to federal regulators who supervised the two-day election that closed Thursday evening.

Several employees, also known as “crew members,” reacted to the tally results by cheering in the parking lot of the Rockridge neighborhood supermarket, as others jumped with joy and pumped their fists on videos posted on social media.

“It plants a seed not only in our state but everywhere in the country that you can do this,” Dominique Bernardo, 39, a Trader Joe’s Rockridge worker who pushed for the union campaign, told KQED. “Just regular old crew members who never organized a day in their life could still manage to pull it off against a huge company.”

But even as pro-union workers in Oakland celebrated, some lamented an election outcome at another Trader Joe’s store, this one in New York City, on the same day. Employees at the Manhattan location tied on a 76–76 vote, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed, which means that store narrowly missed the majority required to opt for representation by Trader Joe’s United, an independent union founded by workers at the grocery store giant.

“That was heartbreaking,” said Bernardo, who has worked at the chain for 18 years. “But it’s clear how close the vote was in New York, and I think the company knows that the path they are going on is unsustainable and they need to start listening to their employees.”

Both parties have up to five business days to file any objections to the vote. If none are received, the NLRB certifies the results. And if the results are in favor of union representation, “the employer must begin bargaining in good faith after the results are certified,” said Kayla Blado, spokesperson with the agency.

The votes in Oakland and New York come amid several complaints of unfair labor practices filed with regulators, alleging that managers surveilled and threatened employees with negative consequences, including the loss of flexible schedules, if they joined the union.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from interfering with, restraining or coercing employees to prevent them from joining a union. But even when regulators find that employers break labor laws, the agency does not have the ability to issue fines and is limited to sending a “cease and desist” letter in most cases.

Workers have filed dozens of cases of unfair labor practice cases related to Trader Joe’s with the NLRB, most of which remain open, according to Blado. Last month, an agency administrative judge found that the company unlawfully disciplined and fired a worker in Houston, who had raised concerns about workplace conditions, and ordered reinstatement and backpay.

The Oakland Trader Joe’s is the fourth location of six nationwide to vote for union representation. Last summer, two stores — one in western Massachusetts and the other in Minneapolis — were the first to successfully join Trader Joe’s United. The third location, in Louisville, Kentucky, is awaiting certification by the NLRB, while another store in Brooklyn turned down union representation.

The company, which is headquartered in Monrovia, in Southern California, did not return requests for comment on the recent union votes or on the charges of union-busting tactics. But the chain, which has cultivated a values-based progressive brand, has said its package of pay, benefits and working conditions is “among the best in the grocery business.”

“We are dedicated to doing the work, every single day, to make sure Trader Joe’s is an environment that is safe, welcoming, inclusive, and respectful for all Crew Members and customers,” says the chain on its website.

Since opening its first branded store in Pasadena in 1967, the subsequently German-owned company has grown to more than 535 locations nationwide, with sales reaching an estimated $16.5 billion in 2021.

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The Oakland store’s pro-union vote is “a huge deal” that energizes a mostly grassroots, worker-led movement for higher pay at large corporations staunchly opposed to unions, like Starbucks and Amazon, said John Logan, who chairs the Labor and Employment Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

Given the often liberal-leaning customer base at Trader Joe’s, he said, the company risks a hit to its business if it were to be perceived as unlawfully quashing workers’ attempts to improve conditions.

“There’s a huge amount of reputational risk involved if they seem to be committing dozens or even hundreds — in the case of Starbucks — of unlawful labor practices, if they seem to be deliberately refusing to bargain with the union,” Logan said.

For months now, the grocery chain has been negotiating with union representatives for its Hadley, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis locations, but no agreement has been reached, according to Maeg Yosef, a worker at the Massachusetts store with Trader Joe’s United. The Oakland location is expected to join the union at the bargaining table, she said.

A crowd of protesters gathered outside a Trader Joe's store on a city street.
Trader Joe’s employees and union activists hold a rally at a Trader Joe’s in lower Manhattan in support of forming a union at the grocery store, on April 18, 2023, in New York City. Workers at the store have complained of slashed benefits, stagnant wages and a lack of concern for health and safety. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In Oakland, employees said they started organizing last summer to gain a greater say at a company they see as growing financially while slashing retirement contributions and making it more difficult for part-timers to get full health benefits in recent years.

Workers are hopeful that the union can help make the process for promotions more transparent, and address health and safety concerns on the job, said Nava Rosenthal, 23, a crew member for nearly five years at the Rockridge location.

“We are trying to build something from scratch, and it’s something that we are all going to have a say in,” said Rosenthal. “And so making sure that the floor is open to everyone, no matter how they vote, is going to be super important moving forward.”

Some co-workers in Oakland were opposed to the campaign in part because they worried membership dues would be too costly, she said. But one of the goals of forming a union unaffiliated with established labor organizations is to keep dues as low as possible, Rosenthal added.

A sign up in a window that says "Voting Place"
Trader Joe’s grocery store in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland on April 19, 2023, during a union vote. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Hours before the polls closed at the Rockridge store, operations seemed as busy as usual, with dozens of shoppers cruising the aisles packed with fig jam jars, organic flaxseed granola boxes, frozen pizzas with uncured salami and other groceries. But several crew members told KQED their working environment felt tense in the weeks leading to the election.

A long-time employee pushing carts across the parking lot said he didn’t believe a union was needed, but declined to give his full name out of fear it would lead to more division among staffers. He said that working conditions at Trader Joe’s were better than at previous jobs he’d held.

“We’ve formed a community here,” he said. “I haven’t seen any catastrophic problems.”

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