Trader Joe’s Illegally Punished Pro-Union Workers, Feds Say

Prosecutors at the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Trader Joe’s on Friday, accusing the grocer of retaliating against pro-union workers and making illegal threats.

In the filing, a regional director for the federal labor board said that managers at a Massachusetts store punished workers who tried to wear union pins by ending their shifts, and told them they would lose out on raises and see their working conditions worsen if they unionized. The managers also provided “false and misleading information” about the union to workers, the complaint states.

Trader Joe’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The alleged legal violations occurred at the company’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, which became the California-based chain’s very first to unionize in a 45-31 vote last year — part of a burst of organizing at big-name U.S. companies including Starbucks and Amazon. Three other Trader Joe’s stores have since unionized in Minnesota, California and Kentucky, though the company has challenged the results of the Kentucky union election.

“It confirms what we’ve known from the beginning: that our employer, Trader Joe’s, has grossly violated our rights.”

– Trader Joe’s United, the workers’ union

The allegations facing the company in Massachusetts were first made by workers affiliated with Trader Joe’s United, the new union that has led the successful organizing drives. Friday’s complaint means labor board officials looked into the union’s claims and found merit in them. Barring a settlement between the board and Trader Joe’s, the allegations will be litigated in a trial.

The labor board’s regional director said Trader Joe’s retaliated against workers because they “formed, joined and assisted” the union effort, and because Trader Joe’s wanted to “discourage employees” from trying to bargain collectively.

Maeg Yosef, a spokesperson for the union and one of the workers named in the complaint, said in a statement that the board’s decision to pursue a case against Trader Joe’s was “incredibly vindicating.”

“It confirms what we’ve known from the beginning: that our employer, Trader Joe’s, has grossly violated our rights as workers, and must be held accountable,” Yosef said. “This historic complaint is the result of many brave crew members speaking truth to power and doing the hard work of holding Trader Joe’s to its own values.”

Part of the case revolves around Trader Joe’s rulebook for dress and personal appearance, which the regional director said was so “overly broad” as to be discriminatory. Trader Joe’s says that none of its branded clothes, hats, aprons or other gear can be “adorned with added logos, statements, décor, symbolism, or messages of any kind except as approved” by a manager, according to the complaint.

Trader Joe’s United has unionized four stores since last year.

John Greim via Getty Images

The regional director argued that the rulebook is illegal because it could forbid workers from showing their union support through pins and other insignia.

Workers had told HuffPost last year that managers were pointing to the rulebook when ordering them to remove union pins. As Jamie Edwards, who is now the president of Trader Joe’s United, told HuffPost at the time, “Initially, I complied, for the sake of not causing any more trouble.” Edwards is also one of the workers named in the complaint.

The complaint further alleges that Trader Joe’s violated the law by giving workers false information about the union and the bargaining process.

That information, which wasn’t detailed in the filing, was put in the Hadley store’s break room and on a Trader Joe’s employee website, according to the complaint. The regional director said Trader Joe’s should have to retract its “misleading and false statements” and notify workers around the country that it has done so.

This complaint is not the first the labor board has pursued against Trader Joe’s. In May, another regional director accused the grocer of illegally removing union literature from the break room of a Minneapolis store that organized. By doing so, that complaint alleged, Trader Joe’s was “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights” to organize.

HuffPost reported Friday that Trader Joe’s threatened to sue Trader Joe’s United over merchandise the union is selling to supporters through its online store.

The company claimed in a letter to union leadership that Trader Joe’s United T-shirts, mugs and tote bags violate the company’s trademarks, and that they are “likely to cause consumer confusion” and “dilute” its brand. The items cited in the letter bear the text “Trader Joe’s United” and show the union’s logo, a fist clenching a box cutter.

In a response, the union’s lawyers called the claims “frivolous” and part of the company’s “continuing attack against labor.”

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