‘They Collapsed Into My Arms’: Safety Concerns Led a Trader Joe’s to Fight for a Union

“Our concerns have fallen on deaf ears.”

Sarah Beth Ryther had only been working at Trader Joe’s for a few months when someone she describes as “looking distressed” walked into the store’s vestibule last November. “I asked if they needed help, and they collapsed into my arms,” Ryther told VICE News. 

The person did need help. They’d been shot in the head.

An ambulance arrived quickly and took the gunshot victim away, and Ryther says it “didn’t take a super long time to resolve the situation.” (She says the person survived.) But during that time, she said, the store stayed open, and management didn’t adequately communicate to workers what was going on. 

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“At the very least employees felt that [management] should touch base and say that this is a serious situation, let’s address it right now, instead of continuing to have shoppers,” she said. “I was directly involved, but other workers didn’t know what happened. It was not communicated to us.”

Ryther said the incident is emblematic of why Trader Joe’s employees need more training and increased safety measures. But she says complaints from workers demanding both have gone unaddressed, which is why some workers organized a union drive that culminated with a successful National Labor Relations Board election on Friday. The pro-union vote won in a landslide 55-5 victory, out of 72 eligible voters. 

The Minneapolis Trader Joe’s is now the second unionized location in the U.S., following a successful effort at a store in Hadley, Massachusetts last month (The Minneapolis news website Racket first reported the union at this location). Like the Hadley store, the store in Minneapolis is organizing under the banner of Trader Joe’s United, part of a surge of new organizing in food and retail at companies like Starbucks, REI, and Apple. 

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Like Starbucks, Trader Joe’s has retained Littler Mendelson, one of the biggest management-side law firms in the country, according to National Labor Relations Board records. But Ryther said the urgency to unionize only came after workers felt like management wouldn’t—or couldn’t—address their concerns. 

“We’ve asked multiple times in different ways for policy changes, and have really gotten nowhere,” Ryther said. “That was really the impetus for us to unionize in the first place. Our concerns have fallen on deaf ears.”

Trader Joe’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the unionization drive and safety issues at the store. 

Kimberly Thompson began working at Trader Joe’s 13 years ago and worked at three different locations in the Minneapolis area. “After having several jobs, when I landed that job in 2009, I thought it was the best thing ever,” she recalled. “It seemed like I could be myself and have more freedom. I wasn’t pushed to rush constantly and do the work of 10 people.” 

Over time, however, turnover began to increase. Thompson said a wave of people began leaving the company when it stopped providing healthcare to part-time employees in 2013, saying they could get coverage through the Obamacare marketplace. “There’s so much turnover that people never really learned how to do the job well or stay long enough care,” Thompson said. “And then the crew just kept getting younger and leaving quicker… I feel like if you work there for more than a year, you’re a veteran.”

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It was the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that really damaged workers’ perceptions of the company Thompson said. “It showed that the company didn’t know how to handle things,” she said. “They didn’t want to provide us with safety gear, they didn’t want to do cleaning.” 

Thompson said at her store in the early days of the pandemic, managers told employees they weren’t allowed to wear gloves because it would scare the customers—a claim echoed by workers at other stores—and said her store “captain” at the time told employees they were lucky to even have jobs. 

Workers said safety has been an issue even beyond the pandemic, however. Ryther said that in addition to the shooting, there have been incidents where fire alarms and tornado sirens have gone off—but because the store does not have a loudspeaker that’s on during store hours, store employees have to be informed individually to evacuate. 

“We’ve asked for a loudspeaker, we’ve asked for evacuation drills, and we haven’t been given them, despite our management trying to work with us,” Ryther said. 

In early 2021, Thompson began receiving bad performance reviews, as she was struggling with depression, which she said she communicated to a manager. But even after she was able to get on medication and her mood began improving, she continued to receive bad reviews—which she attributes to a willingness to directly speak up about problems at the store which left her doing more work. 

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She said that before her coworkers began talking about unionizing, she’d read about grocery store unions and said “they didn’t seem very good, or that they would do us any good.” When the effort at her store began, however, she came around to the idea of unionizing as a way for her and her coworkers to better advocate for themselves. 

But on June 8, before the store’s workers went public with the union, she was fired from her job; she’d had two bad performance reviews in which the store claimed she didn’t “meet expectations,” she says. Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment on why the company fired Thompson.

A photo of Thompson’s termination letter, which she shared with VICE News, however, says that supervisors “made it clear that you needed to improve your communication while at work,” and cited two incidents in which the store claimed “your action and communication style had a negative impact on your team.” Thompson said she was raising concerns about the back room being “messy and crowded and hard to work in,” and told VICE News she “refused to sign the letter because I didn’t think I did anything wrong.”

She also said a manager had told her that her complaints could negatively impact her coworkers. “I think their ‘negative impact’ is me being too honest and saying what most of the crew was already thinking.”

A photo of Thompson’s termination letter she shared with VICE News, however, says that supervisors “made it clear that you needed to improve your communication while at work,” and cited two incidents where the store claimed “your action and communication style had a negative impact on your team.” Thompson said she was raising concerns about the back room being “messy and crowded and hard to work in,” and told VICE News she “refused to sign the letter because I didn’t think I did anything wrong.”

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She also said a manager had told her that her complaints could negatively impact  her coworkers. “I think their ‘negative impact’ is me being too honest and saying what most of the crew was already thinking.”

Since then, Thompson said she’s been forced to take on three jobs in order to make up the lost income from her job at Trader Joe’s. “Being fired was not anything I ever expected in my lifetime, and I don’t think anyone who has ever worked with me expected it,” she said. “I’ve always been a rule-follower, I’m always there on time, I work hard, and I guess that wasn’t enough. They want you to be fake happy more than anything.”

Ryther said that she and her coworkers went public with the union drive early in direct response to Thompson’s firing, as well as another employee who was let go early after giving a two-week notice. 

“It’s been in the air that Trader Joe’s is an at-will company, they can fire you for tying your shoes wrong,” Ryther said. “And we all know that they are not afraid to look at what they perceive as bad apples, who are speaking out against problems they would like to fix.”

Ryther said that since employees filed for the union, the company has used “the classic union-busting playbook,” such as 1-on-1 meetings with managers, to dissuade employees from unionizing. “We asked our CEO [Dan Bane] to let us have a free and fair election. And I guess that was a pretty big ask but that’s just not been the case,” she said. 

But despite the problems, Ryther says, she and her coworkers are organizing rather than quitting because they want to keep working at the store.

“I really like Trader Joe’s, I love my coworkers, I like my managers, I don’t want to go anywhere and I’m not trying to quit,” Ryther said. “But most of us see a vision of the future where it feels like a safer and better place for employees.”

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Tagged:

trader joe's, unions, Starbucks, Apple, union busting, minneapolis

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