On March 23, as the coronavirus pandemic put grocery workers on the front lines of a public health crisis, Trader Joe’s sent a memo to store managers encouraging them to relay a message to employees: Joining a union might be a bad idea.
“It’s not like buying toothpaste you don’t end up liking,” said the email, which listed a series of anti-union talking points, including a warning about the size of dues. “It’s like buying a house … you’re in for the long term.”
The pandemic has led to a wave of worker activism in recent weeks, as employees at Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods have gone on strike and demanded increased protections. At Trader Joe’s, a chain known for its outwardly cheerful work force, employees have criticized what they describe as the company’s haphazard response to the crisis, reigniting a debate about union organizing that has simmered for years.
Workers hoping to form a union recently circulated a petition calling for Trader Joe’s to offer “hazard pay,” or an hourly rate of time and a half. And over the last few weeks, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has held talks with employees.
That nascent organizing effort seems to have alarmed Trader Joe’s. At the end of March, store managers gave anti-union lectures during regularly scheduled “huddles” with staff, using talking points from the email. In one case, a regional manager visited stores to argue that the hazard pay petition was an opportunistic attempt to seduce workers into joining a union.
At a store in Philadelphia, the manager told a group of about 30 employees that “a union is a business and they’re trying to take your money,” according to two employees who attended the meeting. A store manager at a Trader Joe’s in Maryland said that joining a union was like getting married and that “once you’re in, it’s very hard to get out,” according to an employee who heard the comment.
Managers at stores across the United States held similar discussions as worker unrest intensified, according to nearly 20 current and former employees. Most of the workers spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company. But in interviews, they said it felt as though the chain was taking advantage of a moment of anxiety to drive home an anti-union message.
“They are sitting around there worried about it because they are anti-union and this is the perfect time for us to unionize,” said Kris King, a longtime Trader Joe’s employee in Louisville, Ky. “They feel vulnerable.”
A company spokeswoman, Kenya Friend-Daniel, said in a statement that Trader Joe’s has “the right to express our opinion to crew members about the pros and cons of possible unionization.” Trader Joe’s is hardly the only retailer to actively oppose unionization. While workers at the grocery chain Kroger are unionized, Walmart has moved aggressively to squelch organizing efforts over the years.
“Because a union has chosen to inject itself into the lives of our crew members during this time of crisis,” Ms. Friend-Daniel said, “we have no alternative but to remind and share with our crew members the facts.”
Like many grocery chains, Trader Joe’s has taken a range of steps to protect employees during the pandemic, including cutting hours and closing stores. The company already has a reputation for generous pay and benefits, and it has offered bonuses to employees working during the pandemic, as well as a week of paid sick time to workers dealing with respiratory ailments.
But workers said the week of paid leave was insufficient, and noted that many of the bonuses distributed so far have amounted to only a couple of hundred dollars or less. They also expressed misgivings about the inconsistent safety measures across stores, where some managers have banned gloves and face masks, saying they frighten customers.
Juan Boria, an employee at a Trader Joe’s in the East Village in Manhattan, said he went to work last week wearing a mask made with fabric cut from a Hawaiian shirt so it would resemble the rest of the company uniform.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times I’d had customers coughing on their way up to me, touching their faces and grabbing items off the cart,” Mr. Boria said.
A manager told him not to wear the mask in front of customers and sent him to the stockroom, where he found it difficult to stay six feet away from his co-workers. Mr. Boria left in the middle of the shift, fearing for his safety.
At various times, Trader Joe’s has said employees are allowed to wear masks and gloves. But individual stores have adopted different protocols, and some of the chain’s messages have confused employees.
“It is necessary to eliminate all lingering questions or confusion and set the record straight,” a company official wrote in an email to employees last month. “Trader Joe’s official policy on gloves is that we don’t have a policy. We never have.”
Now, however, medical experts are beginning to recommend protective equipment for retail workers. Ms. Friend-Daniel said Trader Joe’s planned to supply masks for its stores, as other chains, like Walmart, have begun to do.
Employees have also complained about delays in closing stores where workers test positive for the virus. At a meeting on March 20, a manager at the Trader Joe’s in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan told employees that a co-worker was infected, according to interviews with employees and social media messages about the meeting. But the store did not officially close for a deep clean until six days later, when Trader Joe’s announced that multiple employees had tested positive.
The spokeswoman, Ms. Friend-Daniel, did not explain that delay. But the measures Trader Joe’s takes in response to infections “vary with the circumstances of the potential exposure,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic is not the first time employees at Trader Joe’s have mobilized to change company policy or that executives have pushed back. Over the years, company officials have aggressively opposed unionization, employees said, taking workers aside to track down rumors about efforts to organize staff.
Last spring, a transgender employee at a store in Albuquerque was told they could not wear a pin showing their preferred pronouns because the regional manager believed pronoun pins “do not reflect the values of our neighborhood stores,” the employee, Ezra Greene, wrote in a Facebook group for Trader Joe’s workers.
After other workers protested, the chain started allowing pins, as long as they were only an inch in diameter. Mx. Greene left Trader Joe’s last summer.
The incident helped re-energize discussions about unionization that had simmered since 2016, when an employee in Manhattan complained to federal authorities that he was fired after managers judged his smile to be insufficiently “genuine.”
In Louisville, Mr. King said Trader Joe’s had mostly treated him well. But last week, he started a Facebook group for workers to discuss how the store was handling the pandemic. On Saturday, he was fired.
Mr. King had already been written up twice over the last year, he said, including for playfully tossing quinoa in the direction of a co-worker. The Facebook page was the final straw.
“This is not how we operate,” he said his manager told him. “We don’t operate by letting crew talk amongst themselves.”
Ms. Friend-Daniel did not dispute the details of Mr. King’s firing, though she said the company allowed employees to communicate on Facebook. The store manager in Louisville did not respond to a request for comment.
For his part, Mr. King said he would continue helping his former co-workers, who plan to submit a proposal to Trader Joe’s requesting greater protections during the pandemic.
“They’re family to me,” he said, “and I’ll do whatever I can.”
Noam Scheiber and Michael Corkery contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.