Unionization efforts in the U.S. are on the rise. According to the National Labor Relations Board, union election petitions jumped by 57 percent from October 2021 to March of this year, and a new Gallup poll finds Americans’ approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965. Even places that say they have favorable working conditions are seeing unionization efforts. Two Trader Joe’s stores, one in Massachusetts and another in Minneapolis, recently voted to unionize. With Labor Day around the corner, we speak with Sarah Beth Ryther, an employee and organizer from the Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis about the reasons she and many of her co-workers wanted an independent union. Then, Jason Greer , a labor relations expert and former board agent with the NLRB, tells us how the pandemic is playing into union drives. As a board agent, he worked with employees, employers and unions to investigate allegations of unfair labor practices.
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Trader Joe’s Workers Vote to Form Union at Massachusetts Store
How Union Efforts at Amazon and Starbucks Are Playing Out Differently
Starbucks Alleges Federal Labor Officials Improperly Handled Union Elections
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Tess Vigeland: Hi, I'm Tess Vigeland. And as we work, union ballots are dropping.
Speaker 2: Amazon workers in Staten Island, in the warehouse there, they have just voted to join a union.
Speaker 3: This weekend, workers at a Maryland Apple store voted to join a union.
Speaker 4: Workers at a San Francisco Starbucks have voted to join a union.
Speaker 5: The Trader Joe's in Massachusetts just became the very first in the country to officially unionize.
Tess Vigeland: This is As We Work from the Wall Street Journal, a show about the changing workplace and everything you need to know to navigate it. Union, yes. That's been the rallying cry from some employees at Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe's and Amazon, just to name a few of the companies that have faced unionization efforts over the last year. Union election petitions jumped by 57% from October 2021 to March of this year. That's according to the National Labor Relations Board. Coming up ahead of labor day, the federal holiday that grew out of the labor movement, we're going to explore what's prompting these union efforts and why it's happening at this point in history. Workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo voted to unionize last December. Since then, colleagues at more than 200 stores have done the same. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City did so this past April, becoming that company's first unionized workplace. At the end of July, employees at a Trader Joe's in Hadley, Massachusetts voted 45 to 31 in favor of forming a union. It was the first TJ's to do so. Employees at a second store, this time in Minneapolis, approved a union two weeks after Hadley. The union representing those two stores is independent, not affiliated with any major national union like United Food and Commercial Workers or the AFL-CIO. It calls itself Trader Joe's United. Trader Joe's responded to the vote of Minneapolis with a statement saying that it provides employees with an industry leading package of pay, benefits and flexible working conditions. Trader Joe's also said that it just raised pay because of inflation and the company had given workers a higher hourly rate for 15 months during the height of the pandemic. Trader Joe's is not alone in offering more pay and benefits in this tight labor market, but the unionization push continues there and elsewhere. Coming up, we'll talk with a former official at the NLRB about why this rise in union activity is happening now. But first, we're joined by Sarah Beth Ryther, who was one of the union organizers at the Minneapolis Trader Joe's store. Welcome.
Sarah Beth Ryther: Thank you so much for having me.
Tess Vigeland: So before organizing this union at Trader Joe's, you had already worked there for a bit. How did you come to work there and why did you want to work there?
Sarah Beth Ryther: So I finished an MFA in fiction in 2020, and then spent that year working on a novel project. I really wanted to work at Trader Joe's because I had heard from friends and other folks who had worked there in my acquaintance circle, that it was a really flexible place to work for artists and writers. So I was really excited to work there because I thought it was somewhere that I could work on my own projects while being in a really fun, flexible environment.
Tess Vigeland: When you were talking with other Trader Joe's employees there, what seemed to push them in the direction of wanting a union?
Sarah Beth Ryther: Pay, benefits and safety. Those are the three biggest things that everybody across the board has mentioned as issues. It's not just our two stores, we've been having conversations with folks across the nation about issues in each store that fall under each of these three categories.
Tess Vigeland: Can you explain a little bit what the safety issues are?
Sarah Beth Ryther: Yeah. So, pretty broadly on a day to day level at each Trader Joe's store, there's a lot of old fashioned equipment. I think the easiest example to use is at the registers we don't have conveyor belts, which means that a lot of the work of packing and unpacking groceries, which we also do, that is wear and tear in our bodies that happens all the time, every day, day after day. Trader Joe's is the only grocery store I can think of that doesn't have a conveyor belt. So we've asked for that, because over a long period of time, that leads to carpal tunnel, that leads to other wrist issues, back issues, just because we're handling so many products day in and day out.
Tess Vigeland: One note here, we reached out to Trader Joe's which told us it rotates staff through different tasks to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries and has "no current claims of repetitive stress injuries from running cash registers at that Minneapolis store." Now back to the interview. In response to the recent vote, the company said that they were worried about a rigid legal relationship hurting Trader Joe's culture. What's your response to that?
Sarah Beth Ryther: My response to that is that I think culture at each individual store level is what you make it, and each store obviously is made up of a bunch of different people from different backgrounds. So store culture is up to the folks in each store, so us trying together to get better conditions for workers doesn't necessarily erode culture on that level.
Tess Vigeland: So Sarah Beth, in Minneapolis, the vote was to create your own union, Trader Joe's United. Why'd you make that choice rather than join a larger union like United Food and Commercial Workers?
Sarah Beth Ryther: Right. So I think that while I was saying that culture is different according to each Trader Joe's store, it's also true that Trader Joe's is a different beast in the grocery store industry. So we actually were creating our own independent and autonomous union, but we've partnered with a store in Hadley, Massachusetts who won their first union election, and we will be together creating this independent and autonomous union. We're just interested in being able to talk to each other about what our jobs are like across the country and creating resources that match a little bit more of what our jobs actually look like rather than partnering with an established union.
Tess Vigeland: But why not that established union? What would've been the downside for that?
Sarah Beth Ryther: Yeah. I think that Trader Joe's has a reputation for a reason, and they have a lot of values that they purport to uphold and we were not interested in comparing them with other grocery stores.
Tess Vigeland: A few people in your store, five to be exact, ultimately voted. No. Have you spoken to them? What was their reasoning?
Sarah Beth Ryther: Yeah, so one person that I spoke to pretty extensively said that he's in retirement and looked at Trader Joe's as a fun way to spend his retirement, and a lot of the issues that we as a community in Minneapolis were having were not things that directly applied to him. That was one person who I talked to who just wasn't quite interested in what the union was trying to do.
Tess Vigeland: Sarah Beth, so the next steps are toward negotiating a contract. What are you planning to ask for?
Sarah Beth Ryther: I think that we are going to ask for some store specific things and we're also going to negotiate on a broader level to create some standards that we don't have right now. One big thing that I can speak to is that Trader Joe's is an at will company, and we've been very aware of that fact since our union drive started and we would like some more protections for workers. We would like workers to know exactly why they're receiving disciplinary action. If they are ultimately terminated, we would like to know more about that story and have chances to defend ourselves in that right.
Tess Vigeland: How do you expect the company to respond?
Sarah Beth Ryther: We are expecting that it will be difficult, but we are very open. We definitely are trying ourselves to negotiate in good faith. I just want to be really clear, this isn't about the managers that we work with day to day or the people that we see around us, this is much more about corporate policies that do not benefit workers.
Tess Vigeland: Union contract negotiations can take a really long time, months, sometimes a year or more for an initial contract. Will you be there long enough to see the contract finished? Will you be there when it's done?
Sarah Beth Ryther: Yes, absolutely. That is what's so exciting about this is that it gives us the chance to, day in, day out, work really hard at creating something new. I think many people in our store have worked there either for just a year like me or less than a year. So I think we built that into our union drive. We knew and understood that there's a lot of turnover just because of where our store is located and the type of worker that our store attracts. Our vision is everybody is working together to create something better for the future, even if they don't stick around for 5, 10, 15 years.
Tess Vigeland: Sarah Beth Ryther, thank you so much for joining us.
Sarah Beth Ryther: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Tess Vigeland: In response to Sarah Beth's comment that she expects negotiations will be difficult, Trader Joe's said it is ready to begin contract talks, but has "not yet heard from any union representatives at the Minneapolis store to start the process." Coming up, we'll talk with a former official at the National Labor Relations Board about the pandemic's role in union efforts at Trader Joe's and other employers. The union push of the last few years may surprise anyone who read headlines over the previous couple of decades that read like tombstones for organized labor. In fact, the number of union workers in the US now is only 10.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's almost half what it was at its peak in 1983. But this is not your parents' labor movement. For one thing, many of the high profile union efforts in recent years have been outside of traditional organized labor groups. For another, it's happening against the backdrop of a once in a lifetime event, the pandemic. These organizing efforts appear to have US public sentiment on their side. A new Gallup poll finds 71% of Americans approve of unions. Remaining, for the second straight year, at its highest percentage since 1965. Let's delve a little bit more into what's behind this union drive now, and what makes this labor movement different from previous generations. Jason Greer is a former board agent for the NLRB. In that role, he worked with employees, employers, and unions to investigate allegations of unfair labor practices. He now works with companies to help them resolve labor issues before they turn into a union drive. Welcome to the program.
Jason Greer: Thanks so much for having me.
Tess Vigeland: So in the first half of the year, more than 1400 workplaces file petitions to unionize. This summer, we've seen another Amazon warehouse do the same. This month, dancers at strip clubs in Los Angeles petitioned for a vote to join the Actor's Equity Association. Why is this happening? Give us some background.
Jason Greer: Yeah. I've been in this industry, the labor relations industry, for about 17 years. I think what I've seen more than anything else is that COVID was the ultimate reset. Also, when you look at the industries in which unions are organizing, you're talking about industries that, for the most part, had not been touched by unions. Really, you have employees who were out on the front lines and they are asking themselves a bigger question during COVID. First, am I getting paid enough? Second, is this worth my life? And COVID was the ultimate reset because all of a sudden you have people, I don't care if you're a 17 year old at Chipotle all the way to the 60 year old executive wondering, okay, what's next for my life? You have people actively asking the question what's left for me. And I think people want basic protections and that's why they're starting to look at potentially going to a union.
Tess Vigeland: So you had some of those early unionizing efforts earlier in the pandemic, and then what workers are looking around at other places unionizing, it's sort of contagious?
Jason Greer: I think it's contagious, but I think it also goes back to something else. It goes back to generational concerns. You consider that Apple unionized a month ago, two months ago. If you looked, multiple websites that covered it, what I saw was this group of young, diverse employees who were so happy in the fact that they brought in a union. Now the layman might say what good is bringing in a union if the average job tenure for someone working at an Apple store is a year? I think this is where the generational issue comes in, that they're not looking so much as how are we going to negotiate a contract for our retirement? As much as they're trying to make a statement. When you look at the millennials, you look at gen Zs, they're so smart. They are the most educated generations that we've ever seen in the history of generations. But at the same time, they are the generation that will literally have less when they retire than what their parents have. So I think for these folks, it's more about, we're trying to make a statement because we're tired of not being seen.
Tess Vigeland: So it really is a demographic change that you think is pushing a lot of this. Is that what we're seeing in the organizers?
Jason Greer: Definitely. When you consider too, you brought up Trader Joe's, Trader Joe's United is literally a union that was created by Trader Joe's employees. So they're not looking at the traditional Service Employees International Union or the Teamsters. You look at Amazon Labor Union, or even what's going on at Starbucks, these are union organizers that are literally employees who've banded together with their employees and said we want something different. We want something better for ourselves.
Tess Vigeland: Can you describe how that's different from how union pushes previously worked? When we look at how these efforts have begun in the grassroots, how is that different from what we've seen in previous generations?
Jason Greer: So, traditionally what you would see is organizers out in the field to basically look for any type of organizations or companies that are potentially vulnerable, meaning that maybe there was a change in wages, or a changed in benefits, or there's been some type of acquisition that has caused the employees to feel like, in some form or fashion, they're going to lose what they feel like they've worked so hard for. The traditional model of organizing was you would have these granddaddy unions, so to speak, and the average process would take maybe about a year to year and a half to successfully convince at least 30% of the employees to sign union authorization cards. Because with the National Labor Relations Board, that's what they need in terms of showing of interest. So we're seeing the speed of organizing that's happening faster than we've ever seen before, because they're not going through the traditional model of an organizer they've never met, an organizer they don't know, having to spend three or four months just convincing employees that they're trustworthy.
Tess Vigeland: Then what does that mean for the union effort itself? If it is not part of Teamsters, AFL-CIO, United Food and Commercial Workers, what is the difference for potential union members, whether it's an independent union or something that's larger like that, that's more traditional?
Jason Greer: I'll say that potentially the difference is, one, that they're able to organize faster and more aggressively and more importantly, smarter than someone trying to organize them from the outside. And I say smarter because employees know their company, they know their stores, so they know what to speak to, they know what the issues are. Where they might potentially suffer is we have yet to see a contract that's been negotiated. When you consider what happened in Staten Island with Amazon, it was historic. What Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union was able to do.
Tess Vigeland: And Chris Smalls was basically just an individual employee at Amazon who was able to garner enough support for a union vote.
Jason Greer: Absolutely. And my question is really, what are you going to do in terms of the contract? Because not only what is the contract going to look like, but negotiating a contract, there's a lot of costs that come with that. It's one thing to know what you do on a daily basis, as far as being an employee, it's another thing to know the dynamics of not just the company that you're negotiating with, but also the industry in which that company resides in.
Tess Vigeland: Let's talk about Starbucks for a moment. We have seen some recent opposition to the unionization votes in some of their stores. This month, they requested a suspension of mail-in ballots for unionization votes and accused some NLRB employees of misconduct in handling those votes. What does that do for Starbucks?
Jason Greer: Personally speaking, it's a bad look. I think what Starbucks is fundamentally attempting to do here is they're trying to put, if not a stop, they're trying to put a pause to all of the unionization efforts that are going on across the country, because it's almost gotten to the point where they can't keep up. So I say it's a bad look because what you're effectively doing is you are accusing the National Labor Relations Board of colluding with the union. I'm going to speak to this as a former board agent with the National Labor Relations board, over the course of campaigns, over the course of whatever the case might be, it is not uncommon for union organizers, union business agents, union officials, to correspond with board agents about various things. Maybe it has something to do with the voting location, whatever the case might be. That's common and it's not just happening from the union to the board, it's also happening from the company to the board. What Starbucks is really going to have to prove in some shape, form or fashion is that the National Labor Relations Board effectively has it out for them. They're saying that the National Labor Relations Board really wants these unionization efforts to take place across Starbucks and that Starbucks is the victim. Good luck convincing the populace. Good luck convincing the people that this is actually the case.
Tess Vigeland: I want to pick up on what you're saying about the look and how this looks to the general populace. What are some of the consequences, the potential consequences, for companies when they are pushing back? What do they have to lose, if anything?
Jason Greer: Sure. I share this with my clients. One of the things that you're going to have to dig into and accept is that the moment that you push back against union organizing activity, which is 100% your right, you are going to be called union busters. That's just par for the course. But when it comes down to it, you have a right to protect your store. You have a right to protect your business. Think on the other side of that is if you do it incorrectly, and when I say doing incorrectly, I'm talking about your efforts to defeat the union, even if you defeat the union and the vote, you risk the possibility of losing the relationship and the trust with your employees.
Tess Vigeland: So Jason, what comes next? The labor market might not stay as hot as it's been. Will we continue to see pushes for unionization at this pace, do you think?
Jason Greer: Yes. I think we'll continue to see pushes for unionization probably for the next two years or so, largely because it works. When I say it works, I'm talking about the activity through social media galvanizing people behind a message. I go back to my original statement though, that just because you can organize a group of people to form a union does not necessarily mean that you are going to have the bargaining capital that you need at the bargaining table to get what you need or to get what you want.
Tess Vigeland: What could an economic downturn mean for contract negotiations?
Jason Greer: It could be everything if you're sitting down to negotiate. So during a robust economy where jobs are plentiful, money's plentiful, the ask is greater. The company can consider giving over wage increases because the money is plentiful. But if you're looking at a recession, and the worst time to negotiate a contract for a union is during a recession, everything that you ask for, the company's looking at it from the lens of our business is down, the economy is down. You're coming here asking us to give you more, but we can barely afford to give you the same.
Tess Vigeland: Jason Greer, thank you so much for your time today.
Jason Greer: Thank you. This is so much fun. Thanks for having me on.
Tess Vigeland: So, being part of a union is one aspect of a job that some workers may be looking for as they search for the next step in their careers. Another one, remote work. If they start combing job listings, they'll find plenty with a work from home promise. But are those listings telling the truth? Coming up, we'll get some tips on how to tell if a remote gig is truly remote or just kind of sort of maybe remote. Stay with us. Finally, today, our pro tip, if you are on the job hunt and hoping for a position that will allow you to work from home, you might want to double check what the listings say about remote work, because sometimes remote work doesn't really mean remote work. Lindsay Ellis of our life and work team is here with some advice for what it really means and how to sift through the job listing language. Welcome. Thank
Lindsay Ellis: You for having me.
Tess Vigeland: So, obviously remote work has been a huge workplace topic and companies are now using it as a recruiting tool. Sign up with us and you too can stay remote.
Lindsay Ellis: It's something that a lot of applicants are really interested in. Job searchers are looking for jobs that are categorized as remote positions. It's something that maybe two and a half years ago they wouldn't have considered, but now it's a real draw for some people who are looking for a new position.
Tess Vigeland: But, the big but here is what are workers finding in terms of the fine print?
Lindsay Ellis: That's the real question. It's taken a lot of applicants by surprise. On a lot of popular job boards, the positions are categorized as in-person, hybrid or remote, but if you filter out just for the remote positions, you might find that some of these jobs actually require working a couple of days from the office, or it might be a remote position that you need to live in a very specific area of the country for. So, it's translating to some miscommunications and people are having to step out of the process when what they think that they're going for just isn't the job in reality.
Tess Vigeland: So where is that fine print? Is there a way to look for it in job listings?
Lindsay Ellis: So I think the big takeaway is don't take the remote tag, the remote designation up top, at face value. Make sure you're reading the full description, which often can be quite long, very carefully. Embedded in one of those bullet points might be you need to live in commuting distance from Austin, Texas, or Northern New Jersey. It might say while we're remote right now, we're figuring out our post-COVID return to office plan. That'll allow you as a job applicant to ask questions during a screening call. Or really maybe even double check whether you want to apply to a position in the first place.
Tess Vigeland: I'm curious, how are candidates responding to what might seem like a bait and switch?
Lindsay Ellis: So I talked to people who were at the applicant stage. Those individuals really were frustrated. They described it to me as click bait. When you click on an article based on the headline, and it's not quite what it says. Or even like catfishing, when you look at an online dating profile and you think this person could be a real winner and in reality they are not.
Tess Vigeland: So is the main advice here really just caveat (inaudible), buyer beware?
Lindsay Ellis: The main advice is ask questions, make sure you are fully aware of what the job is going to require. I think also job applicants are needing to be willing to walk away if something comes up in the vetting process on both sides.
Tess Vigeland: All right. Lindsay Ellis, thank you so much for your help today.
Lindsay Ellis: Thanks for having me.
Tess Vigeland: Next time, remote work, reshmote work. It's time to get back to the office. At least that's what a lot of US companies are telling their employees that the summer winds down. But that doesn't mean everyone wants to do it, especially those who feel less stressed when working from home. In fact, an index created by the Future Forum found that less than 3% of black knowledge workers want to return to the office full time. From microaggressions, to a deeply diminished sense of belonging, workers of color say the office is not the place they want to be. We'll explore what that means for workers and their employers. Like the show? Tell your friends to subscribe. Of course, give us a five star review on your favorite platform. As We Work is a production of the Wall Street Journal. Charlotte Gartenberg is our producer, Jonathan Sanders is our booking producer, Scott Saloway is our supervising producer. Jessica Fenton is a flannel shirt worn to the perfect softness, and our sound engineer. Our music was composed by Hansdale Hsu. Kateri Jochum is the Wall Street Journal's executive producer of audio. I'm Tess Vigeland, see you next time.
Erin Delmore is the host and senior producer of “As We Work,” a podcast about the changing workplace and everything you need to know to navigate it. She previously reported for The Wall Street Journal in Berlin as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow with the International Center for Journalists. Ms. Delmore is an Emmy award-winning journalist whose reporting has appeared on the BBC, NBC News, MSNBC, FOX, CNN, CBSN, Cheddar and Sky News.
Ms. Delmore graduated from Georgetown University where she is a founding member of The Pearl Project, an investigative reporting project that identified all 27 men involved in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan.
To contact Ms. Delmore, e-mail Erin.Delmore@wsj.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ErinDelmore.
Charlotte Gartenberg is the producer of WSJ’s “As We Work.” Prior to coming to WSJ, she was the senior producer and frequent voice on the daily show “Get the News with Gretchen Carlson.” She is also a writer and translator and holds a PhD in Latin American literature. She lives in New York and loves a good high-minded rant. To get in touch with the As We Work team, email AsWeWork@wsj.com or leave us a voicemail at 212-416-2394.