As essential workers, Trader Joe’s employees have worked throughout the pandemic. Many locations are supplying workers with some level of personal protective equipment, but that does not change the fact that these workers are still at a high risk of exposure and many of them do not have the option to take voluntary sick leave. In order to protect themselves and their coworkers, Trader Joe’s workers around the country have reenergized efforts to form unions and to organize themselves. Meanwhile, management has ramped up its anti-union efforts. Left Voice spoke with a Trader Joe’s worker about their experience. For fear of retaliation, they have asked to remain anonymous.
What are the conditions like at work right now? Do you feel safe? Do you have PPE?
Work has been weird. One one hand, they give us cloth masks, gloves, plexiglass shields at our registers, and sanitizer. On the other hand, customers still come into our personal space, and we still handle cash and the like. We’ve been given PPE, but as long as we’re working with people and taking the train, there’s only so much protection it can offer. Lots of the protective measures work has taken feel almost performative. It just seems like too little, too late.
How are your coworkers feeling?
My friends at work are pretty freaked out. No one feels safe, even with the masks and the gloves. We’re all so happy to see each other each day though, the solidarity really keeps us going. Every person I’ve talked to has something different to say about company practices. Some people think the company needs to do more, like provide hazard pay. Some people are perfectly happy with what we’ve been given as far as protection and compensation. Either way, my coworkers don’t feel safe — whether they agree with what the company’s doing or not.
How has your work changed since the onset of the crisis?
I feel a lot closer to my coworkers. It feels like no one outside of work really understands how difficult the decision is to keep working. My coworkers understand that deciding to stay home amid all this is not easy. The ethics of working vs staying home are so confusing right now. On one hand, going in to work means providing support for my coworkers, and giving myself an excuse to get out of the house. On the other hand, staying at home would mean keeping my family safe, and giving them peace of mind. On top of all this is the rent and bills I need to pay each month. There is no ethical precedence to look to for guidance, and no preexisting support system in place for workers like us.
In his letter, Trader Joe’s CEO Dane Bane thanks Trader Joe’s workers and says that you inspire him, before then telling you not to organize. What do you make of that?
I honestly call bullshit. Dan Bane is so far removed from the reality of crew members and mates at this point, that the idea of us “inspiring” him is fantastical at best. He’s an old, rich, white Republican — not apt to listen to the everyday struggles of the working class. I see this as a disingenuous attempt to empathize with us, in order to get his warning across.
Have there been any efforts at your workplace to discourage organizing?
Other than the letter Dan Bane sent out, I haven’t noticed any obvious anti-union efforts. However, the anti-union attitude is so ingrained in our managers that tons of my coworkers seem to dismiss the benefits of unionizing automatically. I think the anti-union message has been very subtle. It’s been fed to us in bits and pieces over time, and seems to have taken hold on a practically subconscious level.
Dan Bane referred to unions as ‘capitalizing on the pandemic.’ Meanwhile, business is booming for grocery stores. Corporations are trying to figure out how best to profit off of the crisis. Why do you think Dan Bane is framing unions in this way?
I mean, to Dan Bane this is probably one of the scariest arguments against unions. God forbid someone else capitalize on a tragedy before he does! What is there to capitalize on? More people to pay union dues? This take is stupid. But it’s well written, and sounds scary, so it’s probably effective in frightening a lot of people.
Dan Bane also described unions as ‘a distraction.’ What would unionizing actually mean to you?
Unionizing would mean renouncing the company culture of total trust in TJs ethics, and taking a step toward collective autonomy. The coworkers I’ve spoken to who are anti-union largely argue that since TJs provides for us and offers us such great benefits, a union would be unnecessary at best and detrimental at worst. However, we don’t know that company policies won’t change. Dan Bane might reduce our benefits, or cut our hours, or lay us off for bullshit reasons. We can’t protect ourselves from stuff like that if we put blind faith in the ethics of the company instead of taking steps to protect ourselves.
I think in general this is an opportunity for us as a society to really take matters into our own hands. I’ve been doing a lot of mutual aid, and the power of our community never fails to amaze me. I strongly encourage everyone to join a local mutual aid network. I’m a part of The End is Queer: NYC Mutual Aid, and it’s been a fantastic resource for both supplies and solidarity. If you’re not sure where to start in building a collective community, mutual aid orgs are the way to go!
Things like mutual aid in our geographical community and unionizing in our workplace are the first steps to taking back the power capitalism stole from us. Taking these steps is terrifying and difficult, but the time is now.
Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane’s letter to TJ’s employees: