On Saturday, workers at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts – a small rural town in the western region of the state – joined the growing legion of service workers organizing in highly visible retailers and industries by announcing their intent to form a union in an open letter to Dan Bane, the CEO of Trader Joe’s. The letter, sent by the Trader Joe’s United Organizing Committee, states that a majority of workers at the location support the formation of a union and outlines a litany of employee grievances with Trader Joe’s’ management, including stagnant wages, declining benefits, and unaddressed safety concerns. It also cites previous attempts by the company – specifically, in March 2020, the beginning of the pandemic – to suppress worker unionization efforts, including a letter sent by Bane to Trader Joe’s workers, in which he pledged that, if 30 percent of employees wanted a union election, the store would hold one (of course, as the workers point out, that is simply a promise to comply with current labor law). The letter concludes by calling on Bane to permit the workers to vote “without interference or obstruction” or “any attempts at union busting.” According to the organization’s Twitter account, it is an independent union, unaffiliated with any existing union, in the vein of Amazon Labor Union (ALU).
With this letter, Trader Joe’s workers have added their voices to the chorus of workers organizing in low-wage industries that had previously proven nearly impervious to unionization efforts. This movement is spearheaded, of course, by workers at Amazon and Starbucks, two of the largest success stories in the history of the modern labor movement in the U.S. But it also includes workers at Apple, REI, and, as Tascha wrote for OnLabor last week, now Target in Virginia. The common strand weaving together these diverse narratives has invariably been the pandemic, with all its attendant downstream consequences for service workers – overwork, abuse, deteriorating working conditions, and downward wage pressures at a minimum, and often the abject dangers precipitated by unprotected exposure to a deadly virus at worst. While this incipient organizing wave has not been without its share of setbacks (which are certainly to be expected), its ongoing successes have been remarkable, and it is an exciting harbinger of a renewed twenty-first century labor movement. Organizers at Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts and Target in Virginia will surely hope that their example will inspire similar efforts at other locations, following in the mold of Starbucks and Amazon.
In other weekend news, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the first federal bill aiming to protect American garment workers on Friday, the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act. The bill would offer federal incentives to encourage the fashion industry to move production to the U.S. and prohibit wage theft against domestic garment workers at the federal level for the first time. Aiming to redress the horrendous and exploitative working conditions that currently characterize the industry – and the numerous loopholes in labor and employment laws that facilitate these practices – the bill would extend the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to include garment workers, eliminating the current piece-rate pay system, which permits employers to pay garment workers per piece they assemble, a rate that often leaves them below the minimum wage. Moreover, in response to the dwindling number of domestic garment industry jobs, it contemplates the use of tax credits and federal grants to revitalize the domestic garment manufacturing industry by encouraging companies to relocate outsourced production to domestic locations. The bill mimics the recently passed SB 62 bill in California, which also prohibited piece-rate pay and expanded retailer liability for wage violations. Sen. Gillibrand claims that the bill will have bipartisan support, but its likelihood of ultimately clearing the chamber remains unclear.