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Wake-Up Call

Traitor Joe’s


What's with the play on words? What treachery could a grocery chain be guilty of: bar code mischief? No, prices are fair and reasonable. But they may have betrayed the principle of labor relations which embraces the pursuit of self-interest from the standpoints of labor and management, and concedes the reality that employees have rights no less than bosses have prerogatives, and agreements are always achievable when both parties have good faith.

The workers at Trader Joe's wine store on 14th Street were recently notified, at one minute after midnight, that the store was being permanently closed that same day. Even insomniacs didn't find out until they showed up for work. A spit in the face, knee to the groin and corporate "middle finger"?

The lowering of the boom was synchronized with what was to be their imminent public announcement of a months-long unionization campaign. If that was a coincidence, then it was also just serendipity that a person drops to the floor and dies after being shot, when the demise was actually due to allergic rhinitis.

More than two-thirds of the employees apparently were in favor of forming a union, and there were indications that the remainder were climbing off the fence. The United Food and Commercial Workers diagnosed the store collapse as acute "egregious and blatant union busting.” 

They are "ready to pursue all legal action" if there is no choice.  But they'd much rather there were another solution.

Dan Bane, the CEO of Trader Joe's for more than 20 years, seems to be a conspiracy theorist as regards unions. His reputation had not been that of a demonic entrepreneur. His company's soaring revenue, from an inauspicious start that was anything but spectacular, reflects business acumen driven by almost extravagant customer loyalty. 

But unfortunately he seems to have been self-inflicted with a negative epiphany, and cannot be exonerated for the dirty pool of slamming the door almost literally as his bright-eyed employees showed up. It was already symptomatic in March 2020, when he insinuated himself into an internal union matter by subtly warning them that management "has the right to express our opinion to crew members about the pros and cons of possible unionization.

That kind of finessed intimidation is the union-hall equivalent of witness tampering in court.

We all know the "pro" of belonging to a union. Anyone who doesn't is cognitively impaired and has led a sheltered life. But what does the CEO mean by the "cons"? Whatever they are, they would be inscribed with capital letters a thousand times on a single grain of rice.

And what's with the "crew members"? They, and "captains" and "mates," are part of the new generation of euphemisms unique to Trader Joe's. Some consultants probably advised them that language can be used to give employees a sense of belonging when they're being had. 

Telling workers they're "partners" or "part of the family" is patronizing and a crocodilian ploy.

The Daily News, among many others, is skeptical about whether Trader's Joe's closing its NYC wine shop passes "the smell test,” even though they have the legal right to make that business decision and employees have not yet been laid off.

Would this store have been abruptly spiked if Trader Joe's wasn’t getting antsy about unionization efforts nationwide?

Among their 530 stores, a couple have made labor news lately. Less than two months ago, their Hadley, Massachusetts, store was the first to unionize. Another, in Minneapolis, followed almost immediately thereafter. Venues in Colorado and elsewhere are comfortable in the coup queue.

According to Trader Joe's, their workers' benefits are "among the best in the grocery business.”  Whether or not that's the case, its workers have the right not to have to depend on the golden heart and charitable instincts of mercurial management.

They have earned their bounty. They don't need to apply for it.

They offered to use "any current union contract for a multi-state grocery company with stores in the area, selected by the  union representative, as a template to negotiate a new structure for the employees in this store, including pay, retirement, healthcare, and working conditions, such as scheduling and flexibility.”

Why won't they make the same offer to other stores in all states? 

Trader Joe's was founded in 1967 and until recently was totally non-unionized. Now there are rumblings everywhere and the spirit of solidarity among its employees is no abstraction. Almost overnight it is taking shape and taking over.

On the whole, it's historically been a decent corporate citizen, despite  its 2016 settlement with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Justice following allegations that it was violating the Clean Air Act in connection with its use of refrigeration equipment.

In its labor relations, Trader Joe's has a mixed reputation. According to The Washington Post, the company offered "a robust retirement plan for many years, contributing 15 percent of an employee's earnings, for employees 30 or older.” Health benefits, even for part-timers, were better than the industry average.

The Amsterdam News noted its "competitive pay with a 7 percent annual increase; a health plan; paid time off; a 401K retirement plan; and a store discount.” It doesn't square with complaints of stagnant wages and allegations of safety protections in the workplace being delinquent.

Employee reviews of Trader Joe's, whose 2020 revenue of $16.5 billion dwarfs that of most competitors, are largely complimentary. Of course they are unvetted and anecdotal and anyone with unverifiable identity, nudged or acting of their own free-will, could take the time to post them.

But Trader Joe's undeniably has a large and loyal clientele.

Still, there are sharply conflicting views of Trader Joe's magnanimity. Have they presented "constant disinformation" about unions, and have their workers in good standing not fallen from grace as soon as they became active union organizers? Mysterious? Coincidental?

There are "disconnects" of perception and fact and time and place. It sounds like a storied culture, but has the story changed? The workers and their union's narrative should be presumed to be definitive. CEO Dan Bane once said that unions' goal was to "drive discontent.”

Nonetheless, Trader Joe's management has been considered more enlightened than demonic.

They have a chance to clear up all doubt, assuage mass dismay, and restore public confidence: re-open their New York wine store!

A petition for them to do so is gaining signatures exponentially. "The company's decision to rent an empty space during their most profitable month, simply does not add up,” writes a Huffington Post contributor.

Vox, the news website, cites last year's Gallup Poll finding of "the highest approval rate for unions in nearly 60 years.” Jobcase, the job marketplace platform, reports that around 70 percent of non-unionized workers would join one, given the opportunity.

Trader Joe's and Starbucks are both long-established behemoths. Both have experienced the stirrings of unionization only recently. Both are gathering momentum fast. This is prophetic and heartening.

Trader Joe's is not hopelessly hostile to unions. That's what sentimentalists and perhaps some "in the know" would like to believe. They can prove it by self-correction. They must open their corporate arms to unionization and the United Food and Commercial Workers. And they must reopen their New York wine store now.

Otherwise they will do what their customers haven't: pay a high price!


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