Home » Union-busting with a smile: Is Trader Joe’s the next Starbucks?

Union-busting with a smile: Is Trader Joe’s the next Starbucks?

Since June 2022, Trader Joe’s United has filed 48 charges of unfair labor practices that remain open with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which range from firing union supporters to failing to bargain in good faith. These types of allegations, referred to as ULPs, are investigated by NLRB staff, who gather evidence and interview witnesses. If they find sufficient evidence to support the charge and the employer refuses to settle, the agency issues a formal complaint against the company that is heard before an administrative judge.

Trader Joe’s United has filed ULPs at all four union stores. That includes one filed in early September alleging the company had disciplined Bernardo, the longtime Rockridge employee, because she is a union activist.

Thus far, the NLRB has issued complaints against the company at union shops in Massachusetts and Minnesota. In Hadley, the agency cited the Trader Joe’s store for violations including illegally retaliating against and interrogating workers, threatening to freeze wages if workers unionized and suggesting their benefits could be taken away. In Minneapolis, the NLRB issued a complaint against the company for removing union materials from the break room. Separate hearings for each case are scheduled for October in front of NLRB judges. In Louisville, Kentucky, Trader Joe’s challenged the election results, citing six objections; the NLRB sided with the union in all six. (Trader Joe’s has appealed the decision.)

All of this, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, bears a noticeable resemblance to another name-brand store facing a wave of organizing workers: Starbucks. “They are absolutely the same,” Lichtenstein said. “They will use anything to break a union.” Indeed, during the initial union drive at Trader Joe’s, the company employed Littler Mendelson—the same law firm used by Starbucks to battle unions. Last year, the company switched to Morgan Lewis—the same firm used by Amazon. Both firms specialize in what is called the “union avoidance” industry.

In winning the four elections, Trader Joe’s United has had unusual success as an independent union staffed by workers without assistance from trained organizers at a long-standing union. But TJU has yet to achieve the ultimate goal: the signing of a contract that would transform workers’ aspirations into consistent wages, benefits, and working conditions. This is a status shared by many other workplaces that have voted for a union. That includes the more than 350 stores that have unionized since 2021 with Starbucks Workers United, which has received support from the Service Employees International Union.

At Trader Joe’s, organizers say negotiations have stalled because the company is refusing to use “hybrid bargaining.” The NLRB ruled last March that Starbucks needed to allow that model, which permits negotiations to take place with a mix of remote and in-person attendees. In April, TJU filed a charge of unfair labor practice with the NLRB, seeking use of hybrid bargaining, but the agency has yet to issue a decision.


October 2023