Dominique Bernardo first noticed chewed up bread.
“I think rats chewed on this,” she recalls telling her manager in early 2021 at a Trader Joe’s store in Oakland, California. Weeks passed, and Bernardo said she would spend the first 30 to 40 minutes of her shift cleaning rat feces at the College Avenue store.
It was only after the problem snowballed and customers began returning damaged products that the company took more aggressive measures to deal with the infestation, said Bernardo, who has worked for the grocery chain for 18 years.
Bernardo sees the rat infestation — which she said finally abated nearly two years later, around December — as a vivid example of how the company has disregarded crew safety and prioritized profit at workers’ expense.
It’s one of many reasons, Bernardo said, she and other workers at her store are pushing for a union. The group filed a petition late Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election.
Workers involved in organizing the approximately 150 staff members at the store said in interviews they are seeking a union primarily to address what they see as Trader Joe’s disregard for their physical safety and financial security in the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area.
The Oakland store is the latest Trader Joe’s location and the first in California to join a national push that began in May.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to requests for comment about workers’ concerns about the rat infestation and other workplace issues.
Like Starbucks and REI — companies that have long cultivated reputations as progressive brands with robust benefits for their service workers — Trader Joe’s has been criticized for its response to worker organizing. The companies have been accused of a range of unlawful anti-union activity, with Starbucks at the head of pack, accused in hundreds of unfair labor practice charges of unlawfully surveilling, intimidating and firing workers involved in union organizing.
“I feel like it was true at one point that Trader Joe’s was an exceptional grocery store to work at,” said Maeg Yosef, communications director for the union, Trader Joe’s United. She works at a Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, which was the first in the company to unionize.
But that began to change as company leadership has chipped away at worker benefits and morale, she said. The company’s response to union efforts “has been anything but progressive,” she said.
The group of workers rallied at the BART train station across the street from the store Wednesday afternoon, then walked into the store to present a letter to management announcing their campaign. The letter said workers see a union as a structured way to advocate for benefits and requested that Trader Joe’s move to voluntarily recognize their group.
“We intend to unionize because we care so deeply about our work and the relationships we have built with customers, fellow crew and management,” the letter said. “As we move forward in this process, we ask that you act with the integrity expected from crew every day.”
Three Trader Joe’s stores have voted to join independent union Trader Joe’s United.
Trader Joe’s has previously told news outlets it is concerned at how a “new rigid legal relationship” created by a union will affect the company’s culture.
The group of workers at the Oakland Trader Joe’s has been working to organize a union campaign since at least October.
Workers interviewed said they hope a union will help to address a slew of problems, frustrations and grievances that have accumulated over the years. Among them, they said: the company’s inconsistent wage scale leads to major pay discrepancies among workers; they feel uncomfortable raising issues of sexual harassment; the company has long refused to implement conveyor belts at the register that would help to ease repetitive strain on their bodies from unloading groceries — demonstrating a disregard for their safety.
Workers said the company during the pandemic slashed hazard pay, skipped raises and eroded its guaranteed retirement benefits over the last decade. Workers at other Trader Joe’s that have launched union campaigns have voiced similar grievances.
Trader Joe’s offered a $2-an-hour temporary bump at the beginning of the pandemic called “Thank You” pay, but the company skipped merit raises for the coinciding review period from January to July 2020, the workers said. The temporary pay bump rose in 2021 after Oakland required that large grocery stores give a $5-an-hour hazard pay raise, but it ended that summer, just as California was battered with a waves of the Delta and Omicron infections.
“It felt a little bit like whiplash,” said Nava Rosenthal, 23, who’s worked at Trader Joe’s for nearly five years. She said that when safety shields were taken down and Trader Joe’s dissolved its mask policy for customers it felt like the company abandoned workers.”
“While we’re putting our health at risk during the pandemic, and our families’ health at risk, that’s how they thanked us,” Bernardo said. “It’s just so disrespectful. You feel so devalued as a crew member when you’re sacrificing so much to show up for the company. And how they repay you is to take money out of your pockets.”
Bernardo said past actions by Trader Joe’s have had a chilling effect, making it more difficult to organize the store.
In 2020, some of Bernardo’s co-workers who liked a social media post critical of Trader Joe’s response to Black Lives Matter protests were called into meetings and “grilled” by a regional manager, she said. The company had been accused by Seattle employees of retaliating against them for participating in protests, and a lawsuit alleged an employee in a Portland, Oregon, store was fired for criticizing the company’s messaging.
“I think our customers would be so bummed to learn Trader Joe’s isn’t as progressive and accepting as it likes to project,” she said.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to questions about criticism of its handling of employee support for Black Lives Matter.
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trader Joe’s Chief Executive Dan Bane issued a company-wide memo calling union organizing efforts a “distraction” after some employees circulated a petition pushing for Trader Joe’s to award hazard pay. In the letter, Bane told workers Trader Joe’s provides better wages and benefits than other grocery stores without the burden of union dues.
That memo was cited by workers at the Hadley, Massachusetts, store, who launched the first union campaign at Trader Joe’s last May. The Massachussets store workers won their election in July. Workers at a store in downtown Minneapolis voted to join the union the following month.
In July, Trader Joe’s announced a slate of increases to compensation and benefits, which was criticized as a tactic to dissuade other stores from pursuing unionization. Among them was a pledge to fix pay disparities between longer-term employees and new hires.
In August, Trader Joe’s abruptly closed its only wine store in New York state. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said workers at the store had been about to go public with a union drive, and accused the company of “egregious and blatant union busting.”
The union sustained its first loss in October, when workers at a Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn rejected the union in their vote.
The third victory for the union, an election held in January at a store in Louisville, Kentucky, has not been certified. The company last month challenged election results, alleging that pro-union workers “created an atmosphere of fear and coercion and interfered with the laboratory conditions necessary to conduct a free and fair election.”