Trader Joe’s Unionizing: A Look At Internal Unions & Advice For Employers

Trader Joe's unionizing started when workers voted for a union in a single store, and did it as an independent union. What does this mean for the other 499 stores in the chain? What are the implications for your business that this is yet another addition to internal unions?  

You've heard of the UFCW, UAW, and SEIU, but are you familiar with Trader Joe's United, Amazonians United, and Starbucks Workers United? The first three are national labor unions, and the second three are internal unions, also called employee unions and independent unions. They may get advice from national labor unions, but internal unions are workers who decide to come together and use strength in numbers to negotiate with employers.  

This approach to unionizing has been an increasing trend over the last few years, but it is different in more ways than one. Internal unions now frequently focus on more than wages, benefits, and working conditions. They want to address matters like environmental justice, gender and racial inequality, social justice, and civil rights. The Google Alphabet Workers Union, another independent union, negotiated on the topics of fair pay and work schedule for contracted workers because they saw it as a topic of inequality.   

The stories of employee unions can guide employers like you into the future by providing more insights into changing employee perspectives as employees eschew traditional unions. They also highlight the challenge of balancing labor law with employee empowerment in today's workplace.  

starbucks internal union

What Makes an Internal Employee Union Different? 

The traditional labor union is at risk of becoming an anachronism over the coming years despite the recent increase in membership. The reasons vary, but one of the most important is that the workforce demographics are changing. Millennials and Gen Z account for ever larger percentages of the workforce, and they are bringing new perspectives on topics like employee engagement and organizing.   

The internal unions forming across industries consist of mostly youthful people, but anyone joining these unions believes the workers should control the unionizing process and not a large labor union that dictates what to say and do. Employees feel empowered to negotiate for their well-being, so they decide to organize independently. The employees at the Hadley, Massachusetts' Trader Joe's store began organizing in January. They sent the CEO a letter in mid-May 2022 that let him know they had organized as Trader Joe's United, filed to hold an election in June, and voted to form a union in July.  

Internal union organizing can be stealthy and quick. But what makes the internal union different from the traditional labor union? 

  • It is deeply personal organizing by people employees know, like, and trust
  • Employers can't call them an "outside" or "third" party. 
  • Employees take action on their own without being pushed by an outside organization which increases the feeling of empowerment. 
  • Employees perceive internal unions as creators of a culture of workplace democracy in which employees can manage the unionizing process in their own way, which may include unorthodox methods (like those used to unionize the first Amazon facility) 
  • Employees define the internal union themselves. 
  • Organizing funding is available through crowdfunding, so there is no reliance needed on traditional labor unions. 

Why and How Do Internal Organizing Efforts Begin?  

Trader Joe's unionizing initially rose from frustration with management's communication about things impacting their health and safety but came to embrace concern over the direction the company was taking as it grew. This is a familiar theme among independent unions. Employees begin to unite over one issue and then conclude two things. First, there is more than one aspect of the workplace culture or workplace conditions causing frustrations. Second, they can have a louder, more effective employee voice in company operations.  

The Trader Joe's wedge issue began when employees said the company had not informed employees of a new state law that said they could get up to five paid days off due to COVID sickness. That issue grew into concerns over the rollback of COVID-related safety measures and healthcare and retirement benefits. Then employees began claiming they had a broader issue. Employees didn't like how the company acted more like a chain store focused on the bottom line rather than the customer experience. This echoes the Starbucks Workers United issue that Starbucks was letting customer service decline due to management decisions about things such as work schedules.  

Trader Joe's unionizing effort began over traditional union issues of benefits and workplace conditions and became one of gaining employee voice in how the business is operated. This is a difficult employee need for employers to address because it means finding the dividing line between often difficult decisions for the good of business sustainability and participatory decision-making that satisfies employees. 

Instead of a simple, "pay us more," employees are saying, "Ask me when making decisions." This is a huge development with implications for how you can maintain a direct connection with employees while making the difficult decisions and changes that aren't likely to please everyone. First, you must understand the deeper and broader issues than compensation and benefits that mostly drive younger workers to conduct internal union organizing. What are they feeling, and how are they acting?  

  • They feel a lack of belonging and fulfillment. 
  • Employees feel they cannot provide feedback
  • They believe their employer takes little or no action on things important to employees and focuses mostly on the bottom line. 
  • They know they are critical to delivering high-quality customer service and feel unappreciated. 
  • Employees overcome the lack of belonging by nurturing feelings of empowerment by speaking out on social media: Reddit, Twitter, TikTok, etc. 

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Trader Joe's has a brand of fun and customer service that goes above and beyond. Trader Joe's crew member Maeg Yosef said: "Part of why we're organizing is because we want the company to continue to match up to that perception. It used to be a lot closer. It used to be more the reality. We care about our jobs. We don't hate the company — we care about our jobs, and we want them to continue to be great jobs for people. A union was really the only way to protect what we still had and make improvements in our workplace, and actually have a real voice and real power."  

Union organizing has changed over the past few years, but it has become as disruptive as traditional labor unions, with protests, walkouts, and boycotts in some cases. In fact, in 2020, the Crew for a Trader Joe's Union used Twitter to call for customers to boycott stores over COVID safety practices. The independent union organizing began in January 2022, but the thoughts of unionizing began long before among store workers. Now, there is a union election being held at Trader Joe's Minneapolis store, making it the second location. Employees want better wages, improved safety protections, and a greater voice concerning store operations. Will more follow as they did at Amazon and Starbucks?   

How to Address or Respond to an Internal Organizing Effort like Trader Joe's Unionizing

Traditional union organizing is big business in many ways. They are huge organizations with a business plan and a game plan for step-by-step organizing. 

The worker-led unions are different on many levels, including the fact the employee organizers can follow their own path for motivating and recruiting coworkers and communicating with management. People are so connected today, too, thanks to technology. As an employer, you must assume that union organizing could take place in all business locations at the same time or one by one. Employers must change their mindset and communicate with employees on issues of importance to the employees. This is a shift towards developing a more human-centered workplace.  

  • Communicate openly and regularly and don't "hope issues will go away." 
  • Use familiar digital communications platforms - texting, employee app, video, website, intranet social media, etc. 
  • Recognize that employee activism is common, and the issues may involve more than just working conditions, wages, or benefits. 
  • Recognize younger workers are entering the workforce already feeling empowered and are influencing existing workers 

There are mandatory and permissive topics concerning union bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does give employers rights, and there is some leeway on what they can voluntarily talk about. You do not have to bargain collectively over every issue an employee may choose to base organizing on.  

Employers must bargain mandatory topics because they directly impact wages, hours, and working conditions. Following is a short list of examples.   

  • Wages 
  • Benefits 
  • Holidays 
  • Bonuses 
  • Incentive pay 
  • Hours 
  • Layoffs 
  • Grievance procedure 
  • Working conditions, including work schedules, work rules, job duties, health, safety, etc.  

However, bargaining requirements don't include a requirement the employer has to agree to a union's proposal. The employer is only required to bargain in good faith. This is why it usually takes more than a year or longer(average is 409 days) to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, and sometimes agreement is never reached.  

There are also permissive or voluntary topics employers can refuse to bargain and not fear incurring an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge:

  • Wages, benefits, bonuses, hours, and working conditions for supervisors or employees not in the bargaining unit 
  • Settlement of a ULP charge 
  • New store locations 
  • Products, product pricing, marketing 
  • Financial business decisions concerning suppliers, strategic goals, changes in the direction of the business, etc.  
  • The makeup of the Board of Directors 
  • The makeup of the negotiations team   

Finally, there are also illegal topics that can't be entered into a collective bargaining agreement. They include:  

  • Discrimination against a group of employees based on sex, race, age, disability, veteran's status, religion, sexual orientation, etc. 
  • Hot cargo clauses, or language that prohibits one employer from dealing with another employer  
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What Do We Need to Do to Make Sure Workers Don't Feel Like They Have No Recourse But to Form a Union? 

The old model of union avoidance is updated now. For example, you are not legally required to discuss your company's carbon footprint, one of the many topics of employee activism. But if you choose to ignore the employee activists, employee engagement is harmed, employees go public and harm your company's reputation as socially and environmentally irresponsible, and employees expand their needs, as discussed earlier. Some employees will join the Great Resignation, but activists will begin internal union organizing. 

Forming a union and bargaining is not necessary when you meet employee needs. Bargaining is a dialogue over issues, and too many employees believe it means they get what they want to meet their needs. Employees need to understand that labor unions, even employee unions, make promises they may not be able to keep.   

One of the goals of communication about union representation and collective bargaining is to convey the truth. People get emotional during organizing and make false assumptions about the process, the results, and the day-to-day impact of being in a union.  

For example, exclusive representation means the union has the right to speak for employees, and employees have to deal directly with the union on matters concerning wages, benefits, and working conditions. This includes employees who didn't vote to join a union. There is some irony in this truth because the people voting for the union, like at Trader Joe's, believe that forming a union will enhance their ability to get faster responses from management when it is more likely to slow down responses to ensure the correct legal process is used.   

Building Energy for Internal Unions 

Traditional labor unions are facing a new world of organizing, just like employers. There is little doubt that more and more union organizing will begin inside the workplace. This is an excellent time for employers to change their mindset and realize they do have rights, but they must be exercised with the understanding that employees are exercising their rights to organize in new and effective ways. It's no longer about being "anti-union." It's about being pro-employee and developing strong and effective communication systems and human-centered leadership skills. If you are uncertain as to how to develop and maintain a direct connection with employees in the new age of labor relations in the proactive era, a wise strategy is to get management consultant assistance.  

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