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Trader Joe's workers set to vote on forming a union

Workers at a Trader Joe's in Hadley, Massachusetts, are scheduled to vote this week on whether to form the first union at the nationwide grocery chain.

The vote comes as a wave of organizing sweeps the retail sector, with thousands of workers at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and other large employers voting to form unions.

A union election at the Trader Joe's store in Western Massachusetts' bucolic Pioneer Valley is set for Wednesday and Thursday, with 88 employees at the store eligible to vote. A win for the union could set a precedent for the chain's more than 500 locations across the U.S. 

"We've had a majority of support since the time we went public, that hasn't changed," said Maeg Yosef, a worker of 18 years at the store who is one of the key organizers in the drive. She added that employees were "incredibly excited and ready to vote."

Employees were spurred to organize after the company slashed its contribution to workers' retirement accounts, Yosef said. The company has long contributed about 15% of workers' pay, but recently dropped the contribution to 10% and made it at the company's discretion.

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

A second union election is set for a Trader Joe's in Minneapolis on August 11 and 12.

Ahead of the Hadley vote this week, Trader Joe's has been flying in senior managers to hold mandatory meetings with workers and urging them to vote against the union, according to Yosef and a report in HuffPost.

Yosef said managers have told workers that if they unionize, their pay would be cut, they would be forced to strike and lose their job and they won't receive raises or retirement contributions until their first contract is negotiated — a process that could take months or years. Managers, she added, haven't allowed workers to wear pins showing support for the union.

"They've pulled out all the stops to intimidate, discourage people from supporting the union," Yosef said.

"Captive audience" meetings draw scrutiny

Employers often hold so-called captive audience meetings during an organizing campaign to pressure workers not to unionize. These meetings, which are mandatory and held during working hours, can involve threats about what could happen if workers unionize or promises to improve working conditions.

While the National Labor Relations Board has long tolerated these meetings, that could soon change. The NLRB's general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, said in April that these meetings are inherently illegal because of their coercive nature.

"Forcing employees to attend captive audience meetings under threat of discipline discourages employees from exercising their right to refrain from listening to this speech," Abruzzo said in an agency memo.

Trader Joe's recently announced it was boosting workers' pay on Sundays and holidays, increasing paid time off and sweetening the employee discount, as well as promising more improvements to come, according to a letter obtained by the labor publication More Perfect Union.

Multiple U.S. Apple stores push to unionize 03:09

Workers in favor of unionizing, operating under the banner of Trader Joe's United, called the move a "classic union-busting effort," noting that, without a contract, the company can take away benefits as quickly as it adds them.

"In the past, Trader Joe's has slashed retirement and health care benefits, and took away extra COVID pay, claiming they coudn't afford it. And for years, they have refused raises that would reflect the cost of living for all employees," the group said on Twitter.

"Changes like these can be taken away as easily as they are given, and we are excited to win our union election so that together the crew can protect our compensation and benefits with a union contract," the group said.

The vote in Hadley concludes at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 28, with votes set to be counted immediately afterwards.

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