Workers at Trader Joe’s Wine Shop in Manhattan have spent the last four months laying the groundwork to unionize their store. A small organizing committee met regularly to discuss strategy around building support to join the Food and commercial workers united union, and planned to make their effort public the week of August 15.
But in the early morning hours of August 11, Trader Joe’s abruptly informed them that it was closing the popular wine shop, the only one in New York City.
Robert “Rab” Bradlea, a store worker and committee member, was shocked when he woke up to text messages about the closure last Thursday. Like three other store workers interviewed by HuffPost, Bradlea said he only sees one logical reason for it.
“They’re hoping this will deter other workers from doing what we’ve done,” the five-year Trader Joe’s veteran said.
Bradlea said conversations with co-workers had led the committee to believe there were at least 22 votes in favor among the 30 or so workers they hoped would be eligible to unionize. They planned to have supporters sign union cards this week and rush them to the National Labor Relations Board on Friday to request an election.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to inquiries from HuffPost on Wednesday about the closure.
In a notice posted through its internal human resources portal at 12:01 a.m. last Thursday, the company said it was “time for us to explore another location” where it could use its one license to sell wine in the state of New York. York. The company said the newly closed space would be “used to improve the overall operations” of its adjacent grocery store. Last week, Gothamist reported that the wine shop suddenly closed. took his loyal clientele by surprise.
“They hope this will dissuade other workers from doing what we have done.”
– Robert “Rab” Bradlea, Employee at Trader Joe’s Wine Shop
Jonathan Reuning, another worker active in the union effort who has been at Trader Joe’s for five years, described the store’s hasty demise as “completely out of character” for the company.
“It’s totally to stop the union effort before it can start,” Reuning, 63, said. “My regular customers are angry. It makes us look very bad. Does [the company] it looks wrong to put your employees out of work without notice.”
The UFCW told HuffPost it was “ready to take all legal action,” including filing unfair labor practice charges against the company for its “shameless union busting.”
“If the company retaliates further against workers involved in organizing efforts, the UFCW will aggressively pursue all available legal remedies, and if Trader Joe’s fails to live up to its commitments to these workers, the UFCW will do everything possible to help workers get jobs at union shops,” the union said in a statement.
The company’s notice to “crew members,” which is Trader Joe’s parlance for workers, said they would be paid through August 28 and that management would be in touch regarding “the opportunity to transfer” to other stores. But store workers said they expect more than that.
They demand that Trader Joe’s reopen the store. in a petition they’ve created, workers say the store was heading into what they describe as its busiest stretch: the return of students and staff to the store’s owner, New York University, followed by the holidays.
“The company’s decision to rent empty space during its most profitable months just doesn’t add up,” the workers wrote.
“I guess they found out what we were doing,” said Anthony Small, another worker and union supporter. “I think they knew a lot more about what we were doing than we thought. The abruptness of this doesn’t make good business sense.”
Small said he enjoyed his nearly eight years at the wine shop and was deeply disappointed in how the closure was handled, with some workers finding out when they got to work.
“They try to foster this family atmosphere, but it’s really not there when it comes down to it,” he said.
Maura McHugh has worked at the wine shop for three years, preceded by a separate three-year stint at another Trader Joe’s location in New York. In an interview with HuffPost about the closure, Ella McHugh said that she “was done with the crying phase,” but her voice began to crack as she spoke of the shock of what happened.
“Let’s talk about transparency and best practices for closing a store, and the number one value: integrity,” McHugh said, citing a company line. “I just do not get it. Even if it’s not about busting unions, someone made a very, very bad decision with this.”
McHugh, 53, said she was first approached by organizers about the union campaign just weeks ago: They had correctly assumed she was a Trader Joe’s loyalist and had “drank Kool-Aid.” But she surprised them by saying that she would vote “yes” for the union. She said the closure has only reinforced that intent.
“If we had been in a union, this would never have happened,” McHugh said.
Although a company can shut down your entire business to avoid a union, you cannot legally close a workplace or division because of union activity there. But it can be extremely difficult to prove that anti-union animosity was a motivating factor behind the decision, if at all. Such a case could take years to work its way through the legal process, with workers moving on to other jobs in the meantime.
“If we had been in a union, this would never have happened.”
– Maura McHugh, Employee at Trader Joe’s Wine Shop
Meanwhile, the closure of one workplace may be enough to make workers elsewhere reluctant to unionize if they believe it was a factor in the company’s decision. Workers United, the union that has been organizing Starbucks locations across the country, accused the coffee chain of temporarily and permanently closing stores to cool workers in unions. Starbucks has denied the allegations, but labor board officials found merit in some cases and filed complaints against the company for them.
Like other retailers, Trader Joe’s faces a burst of union organizing this year. Stores in Hadley, Massachusetts and Minneapolis recently voted decisively to join Trader Joe’s United, a new union not affiliated with an established labor group, creating the chain’s first organized stores. The UFCW, which represents hundreds of thousands of grocery store workers across the country, recently filed a petition for an election at a Trader Joe’s location in Boulder, Colo..
Trader Joe’s has not closed those stores despite active union campaigns there. When asked why the Union Square location would be any different, Bradlea said he believes it would be less disruptive to the company’s business to close a wine store rather than one of its grocery stores. He also surmised that the company would fear a wave of organizing in the New York metropolitan area, one of its strongest markets.
“It would make sense that they would have a specific interest in this region not starting to unionize, and they were afraid of a chain reaction of other stores feeling empowered,” he said.
The closure has left many store workers unsure about their future with the company. Bradlea said he cut his hours to part time when he started organizing in the spring and would get by without his Trader Joe job. Both Reuning and McHugh had full-time positions and hope to find transfers to other stores.
Reuning is optimistic that his manager will help land him elsewhere. He said the closure has only reaffirmed his desire to form a union at the company.
“The solution is really to have to listen to the people below,” he said. “Trader Joe loves being run by just the top. I think they lose sight of the humanity of the people who work there and the effects that their small decisions have on a family, on health, on a paycheck… these things that are minuscule in the boardroom.”