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Workers Start Union Vote at Lower East Side Trader Joe’s

The Essex Crossing location is poised to be the grocery chain’s first in the city to organize, following failed campaigns at two other NYC locations.

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Trader Joe’s worker Diego Ramirez speaks at a union rally on the Lower East Side, April 18, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Workers at the region’s largest Trader Joe’s are about to cast ballots that could make it the company’s first unionized store in New York.

Beginning Wednesday, nearly 200 workers from Trader Joe’s Essex Crossing, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, will cast ballots to decide whether to join Trader Joe’s United, an independent union that has successfully organized locations in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Kentucky. 

“Crew members” at the Grand Street store, which opened in July 2019, claim the company — despite its reputation for being-worker friendly — has been slashing benefits, keeping wages stagnant amid rising inflation, and ignoring worker concerns around COVID safety.

The union effort at the Grand Street location began nearly two years ago when the company began rolling back its pandemic safety efforts: lifting mask mandates for customers and getting rid of plastic barriers “overnight,” workers there said.

“It was just a scary time when everybody was fearful not only for their job, but for their health,” said Diego Ramirez, 24, a crew member at Essex Crossing since its opening who sits on the union’s organizing committee.

Trader Joe’s United is calling on the company to increase wages to $30 an hour from a current starting point of about $18, and also to increase health care access, improve health and safety measures, and make guaranteed contributions to employees’ retirement plans. The company has a cult following for its reputation as a cheerful “neighborhood grocery store,” albeit one owned by one of the wealthiest families in the world.

Trader Joe’s workers and supporters filled the sidewalk outside the store’s Lower East Side location, April 18, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the unionization vote.

Company spokesperson Nakia Rohde said in a statement to Hell Gate last month that crew members “get to decide if they want to be a part of this UFCW-backed effort,” referring to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. 

UFCW Local 1500 was behind an effort last year to organize workers at a different location, the Trader Joe’s wine store near Union Square, which abruptly closed amid the campaign. The company denied at the time that the closure was related to the union effort.

UFCW is not involved in the Essex Crossing petition by the independent union, but issued a statement in solidarity: “The UFCW proudly supports all workers, including those at Trader Joe’s across the country, who are standing up to fight for each other and build a better life at work by unionizing.”

Additionally, workers at a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, store voted 94-66 last year against joining Trader Joe’s United, the union organizing the Essex Crossing vote. 

‘We Deserve Better’

Trader Joe’s was once renowned for generous employee benefits that included corporate contributions of as much as 15% of wages to employee benefit plans. But the reality more recently has been bleaker, and workers lost a hazard-pay bump of as much as $4 an hour that had been put in place during COVID lockdown. 

When the company rolled back hazard pay in May 2021, Ramirez recalled, his coworkers were “really struggling to pay their bills and to support their families, and were also fearful of their health at the same time.”

It was around that same time that the company also lifted its mask mandates for customers, and workers began quietly discussing unionizing efforts among themselves. 

The workers were aided in their efforts by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a volunteer-powered project of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Volunteers host free webinars workers can join to learn how to organize their workplaces, get in touch with unions organizing in their industries, and provide support during organizing and union election campaigns.

Trader Joe’s employees rally ahead of a union vote at the company’s Lower East Side location.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Gabriel Medrano, 29, joined Trader Joe’s as a “crew member” six and a half years ago and transferred to the Essex Crossing location when it opened in 2019.

Medrano said he first reached out to an EWOC volunteer two years ago. That volunteer then connected him with an organizer of the union that would eventually become Trader Joe’s United.

“I really care about Trader Joe’s. I got this job right out of college,” he said. “And I like the people I work with too much, and thought about all of my coworkers and how we deserve better, so I decided I had to get into it.”

The union filed a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board last month, with about 65% of workers signing union cards indicating they support being represented by the union.

Trader Joe’s has been in the headlines for alleged mistreatment of its workers in New York: In 2016, a former employee at its Upper West Side location filed a formal complaint with the NLRB after he was fired, allegedly for not smiling enough; the company denied the worker’s claims at the time. Last year, the company fired a union organizer at the same Williamsburg store that eventually voted against the union; the worker submitted a complaint to the NLRB, which dismissed her charge in January. 

The NLRB is still considering unfair labor practice charges related to the Union Square wine shop closure, a person familiar with the matter said.

Dozens of workers and supporters gathered outside the Grand Street store on Tuesday morning to show support ahead of the vote. The group included baristas with Starbucks Workers United and workers from Laborer’s Local 79, Amazon Labor Union, REI Union Soho and Teamsters Local 804 — the local union representing UPS workers who are in the midst of nationwide contract talks ahead of a potential strike this summer.

As Ramirez and others leafleted outside the store’s entrance, one customer stopped to ask them what the commotion was about. “We’re having a rally for our union efforts,” Ramirez said.

“Oh! All right!” the elderly woman cheered, raising her fist. 

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