How Corporations Crush New Unions

THE NEW REPUBLIC, Steven Greenhouse, December 19, 2023

Bargaining-table negotiations over a first contract are never easy, but now they’re becoming excruciatingly slow and difficult. For companies like Trader Joe’s, that’s the goal.

The spacious second-floor conference room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, was an unlikely place for labor and management to face off, but there they were: eight Trader Joe’s workers at one row of tables, a Trader Joe’s official and two lawyers for the company at another. On the walls hung student paintings of brilliant, swirling flowers. They did little to cheer the atmosphere.

Three months earlier, in July 2022, employees at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, four miles from Smith, had voted to become the nation’s first unionized TJ’s, and now they were finally—and nervously—plunging into the bargaining process, in the hope of winning higher pay, better retirement benefits, and safer working conditions. Outside the conference center, several pro-union students carried signs saying “RESPECT WORKERS.” Inside, the workers turned negotiators admittedly felt uncomfortable; unlike the company’s high-paid Morgan Lewis attorneys, they were rookies at collective bargaining.

The union members opened the discussion. They complained about low pay, about the company moving too slowly to deal with employees who harassed co-workers, about a manager who used hourly workers to serve as “human shields” when confronting troublesome customers. Sarah Beth Ryther, who works in Minneapolis at the nation’s second unionized Trader Joe’s, described management’s “deep and insidious” disrespect toward the union. Managers, she said, boasted of Trader Joe’s as a “golden place to work” and belittled the union by asking over and over why people were complaining. “The ugly subtext of this question is, ‘Who are we to want more, who are we to dream of a better life?’”