Last year, the independent, fledgling union Trader Joe’s United accomplished what had never been done before: It formed the chain’s first unionized store, in Massachusetts, then its second, in Minnesota. Once the celebrations were over, workers got down to the less glamorous business of negotiating a first contract.
But Trader Joe’s insisted everyone participate in person, with no virtual option, according to the union. The company’s stance meant grocery store workers from Hadley, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, had to travel to one another’s bargaining sessions if they wanted to take part ― a great expense for a brand-new labor group that was still crowdfunding.
Maeg Yosef, a Trader Joe’s worker and union leader in Massachusetts, once flew to Minnesota for what she described as two unproductive days of bargaining with the company and its attorneys from Morgan Lewis, a firm well known for its legal battles with labor unions.
“I was like, ‘I can’t believe I left my kid for this,’” said Yosef, who has a 12-year-old son.
She said the company dropped its insistence on in-person bargaining several months later.
“They just wanted to stall,” Yosef said.
A Trader Joe’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Over the past two years, U.S. workers have notched breakthrough organizing victories at highly recognizable companies, including Trader Joe’s, Amazon, Starbucks, Chipotle and the outdoor retailer REI. But in some ways, those election victories, however improbable they seemed in the face of employer resistance and history, were really just the easy part.
Workers are now locked in bitter bargaining fights that can take years to produce first contracts.
The unions at Trader Joe’s, Amazon, Starbucks and REI have all accused those companies of bargaining in bad faith and have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that referees labor disputes. None of those companies appear close to agreeing to their first U.S. collective bargaining agreements, including Starbucks, where the first workers organized nearly two years ago.
Unions have recently delivered big contract gains by striking or threatening to strike at UPS, the Hollywood studios and the “Big Three” automakers (Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis). But those are legacy unions that have been around for decades, squaring off with corporate leaders who generally don’t question the unions’ legitimacy. Even as he criticized the United Auto Workers’ strike, Ford Chairman Bill Ford declared himself “pro-union” and called the UAW “vital” to the automaker’s long-term success.
The union is at its most perilous when it’s first organizing. If you think about what it takes now, it just shouldn’t be this hard.Sharon Block, Harvard Law School
By contrast, Starbucks co-founder Howard Schultz has flatly said he could never embrace a union workforce at the coffee chain.
Sharon Block, a labor law professor at Harvard University, said this year’s successful strikes and organizing campaigns can mask how “broken” the collective bargaining system is, particularly for neophyte unions trying to get their first contractual commitments from the employer.
“The union is at its most perilous when it’s first organizing. If you think about what it takes now, it just shouldn’t be this hard,” Block said. “There’s just nothing in the law that pushes [a company] in getting to a first contract.”
‘Amazon does not want to bargain with us.’
It has been 19 months since the Amazon Labor Union won its historic election, on a vote of 2,654 to 2,131, at a warehouse in New York City, and Amazon has yet to bargain at all with the group. The company alleged the union and federal officials acted improperly during the campaign, claims that an NLRB official rejected in January. But Amazon has appealed that determination for review in Washington, where the case awaits a decision.
Even if the board rules against Amazon, the company could extend the legal fight by appealing to federal court – potentially tying the union up in years of litigation before sitting down for a single bargaining session.
Seth Goldstein, a lawyer for both Trader Joe’s United and the Amazon Labor Union, credited Trader Joe’s for at least meeting with its union.
Amazon has faced a number of union drives over the past two years, from warehouse workers as well as delivery drivers.
“The bottom line is Amazon does not want to bargain with us,” Goldstein said. “Amazon thinks they’re more powerful than everybody else and don’t have to obey federal labor law.”
An Amazon spokesperson said in an email that the company still maintains that “both the NLRB and the ALU improperly influenced the outcome” of the election, and “we don’t believe it represents what the majority of our team wants.”
Workers at REI’s flagship store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City formed the retailer’s first union last March, voting to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union by a count of 88 to 14. They have now been bargaining for more than a year.
“To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t feel like we’re close to a contract,” said Graham Gale, a member of the bargaining committee who has worked for the retailer for four years.
Amazon thinks they’re more powerful than everybody else and don’t have to obey federal labor law.Seth Goldstein, attorney for the Amazon Labor Union
Gale said the union seemed to make headway on a contract early on, when the law firm Perkins Coie represented REI at the bargaining table and the two sides agreed to several tentative articles. But the union says REI switched to a different firm: Morgan Lewis, the same one representing Trader Joe’s. Then progress seemed to stall.
“Since we’ve been negotiating with Morgan Lewis… I don’t think we’ve [tentatively agreed to] a single article. It’s been at a snail’s pace,” Gale said. “I think that REI has realized its identity as an anti-union company. So my perception is that they wanted a more aggressive set of tactics than they were getting from Perkins Coie.”
Asked about the switch in lawyers at the table, REI said it “retains a variety of firms to advise the co-op on legal matters.”
“We are committed and engaged in good-faith bargaining with stores that have chosen union representation and will continue to participate fully in the negotiating process,” the company said.
Employers have strong incentives to slow-walk bargaining once a union gains a toehold, since a favorable contract could encourage workers elsewhere to organize. A company might hope to stall the overall union campaign by making the bargaining process look unpleasant or even futile.
Employees at REI march to a Chicago store to announce their intention to file for a union election on March 31.
“I think that’s absolutely part of their strategy,” said Yosef, the Trader Joe’s employee. “By dragging their feet, bargaining in bad faith and by slowing down the process, they make it seem like [workers] aren’t going to have gains by having a union.”
A February study in the Industrial Relations Journal found that only 37% of new bargaining units secure a contract within 12 months of being certified, and only 57% within 24 months. The authors cited the “deleterious effect” that companies have on the process by refusing to bargain in good faith or retaliating against union supporters. Employers committed unfair labor practices during the bargaining phase in about one-third of the cases the study examined.
Johnnie Kallas, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, described the strategy as “litigate litigate litigate, delay delay delay.”
“In these [industries] where unions aren’t as strong or have no density at all, you can have this deeply entrenched employer opposition, to where you almost forget what century you’re in,” Kallas said in an interview.
If they can delay progress on a contract for at least a year, a company can also hope for a decertification campaign to take root. That’s when a group of workers petitions for a fresh vote to purge the union from the workplace. Last week, a group of Trader Joe’s workers went public with a decertification campaign at the company’s Hadley store, saying union support was far from unanimous and “our side of the story wasn’t being heard.”
You can have this deeply entrenched employer opposition, to where you almost forget what century you’re in.Johnnie Kallas, Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations
It is illegal for management to assist in such a campaign, but not for outside anti-union groups like the National Right to Work Foundation. The Virginia-based group has recently taken credit for helping workers submit decertification petitions at Starbucks as well as at Medieval Times, the dinner theater chain that saw two castles unionize last year.
‘Whatever we propose, Starbucks will propose the opposite.’
Starbucks workers at more than 350 of the coffee chain’s 9,000 corporate-owned U.S. stores have joined the union Workers United since late 2021. In dozens of cases so far, labor board judges have ruled that Starbucks illegally fired union activists, shuttered stores that were organizing and refused to bargain in good faith. They ordered the company to negotiate with the union in certain cases, but Starbucks has appealed those decisions.
One of the biggest obstacles to negotiations has been the company’s insistence that workers bargain exclusively in person, as opposed to via Zoom, said Dmitri Iglitzin, an attorney for the union. He said Starbucks’ position makes it close to impossible for members of the union’s national bargaining committee to participate in far-away talks. The NLRB’s general counsel filed a complaint against Starbucks earlier this year saying it violated workers’ rights by refusing to partake in “hybrid” bargaining. The case has not yet been ruled on.
Members and supporters of Starbucks Workers United protest outside of a Starbucks store in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 16. The group held a series of rallies on Starbuck's holiday promotional Red Cup Day to demand Starbucks respect union rights.
Starbucks has maintained that a Zoom option would open the talks up to being recorded and disseminated by workers employed at other stores. The company claims it is the union holding things up by insisting on hybrid negotiations. A spokesperson said in an email that the union has “refused to meaningfully engage with the company” on setting bargaining dates.
“We believe that in-person bargaining is not only required by federal law, but it will achieve the best outcomes for our partners,” the Starbucks spokesperson said, adding that “we maintain that our approach to good faith bargaining has been consistent with decades of NLRB precedent.”
Iglitzin said he doesn’t take the company’s arguments at face value.
“They’re just using this as an excuse not to bargain,” he said. “Whatever we propose, Starbucks will propose the opposite, because they don’t want this process to move forward.”
“If we were saying everything should be at the table in person, it wouldn’t surprise me if Starbucks said, ‘We want our people to participate by Zoom,’” he added.
Meanwhile, Starbucks has doled out raises to non-union workers while withholding them from those who organized, claiming it cannot extend the pay hikes or other new benefits to union stores amid bargaining. The labor board’s general counsel has filed complaints arguing Starbucks is punishing union members in an effort to chill the broader campaign.
“It takes a tremendous personal toll on the workers,” Iglitzin said. “But the flipside is they [Starbucks] have destroyed the good will and reputation that most people think Starbucks built up over 50 years of being in business.”
Facing accusations of bad-faith bargaining, Starbucks has pointed to its productive negotiations with the Teamsters, which unionized a single Starbucks store in western Pennsylvania in June. But the union just filed an unfair labor practice charge against Starbucks, according to board records. The claim: refusing to bargain.
The Starbucks spokesperson said the company and the Teamsters continue to schedule bargaining dates despite that charge.
The Teamsters also organized a Chipotle in Michigan last year, forming the first union among the burrito chain’s roughly 3,000 U.S. stores. Workers on the negotiating committee there say they’ve seen some encouraging signs.
I think they realized... that there’s always going to be mass support for the union because the conditions are never going to improve by themselves.Atulya Dora-Laskey, Chipotle employee and Teamster
Employee Harper McNamara described some of the company’s offers as unserious. But he said Chipotle has at least engaged on core issues, like workers’ demand that they be guaranteed a minimum number of hours per week. He said both sides have traded proposals on the hours issue that include actual numbers, a welcome development.
“That’s not to say they’re where we want them to be,” McNamara said. “But when we’re sitting at the table, it feels pretty remarkable looking at their proposals because they’re closing in, it seems, on some of them.”
Employee Atulya Dora-Laskey said the company seems to have “come to terms with the fact that we aren’t going anywhere.” McNamara and Dora-Laskey, along with a third worker, Sam Smith, led the union organizing effort in 2022, and they are all still working at the store and bargaining.
Trader Joe’s employees and union activists hold a rally April 18 at a Trader Joe’s in lower Manhattan in support of forming a union at the store.
“They were hoping that a turnover situation would erase union support,” Dora-Laskey said. “I think they realized, or are starting to realize, that there’s always going to be mass support for the union because the conditions are never going to improve by themselves.”
The study in the Industrial Relations Journal found that new unions were more likely to succeed if they pressured the employer through public protests and enlisted community groups in their contract fights. Workers at both Starbucks and REI have gone on strike to try to change the companies’ stances. Starbucks employees at more than 200 stores walked out on the chain’s big Red Cup Day promotion in mid-November to call attention to their fight.
Yosef, of Trader Joe’s United, said she thinks her union will eventually secure a contract, but she expects the company to hold out for as long as it can. The union has won elections at four stores so far, and Yosef said they are talking to workers about organizing at a dozen other locations at any time. She sees growing the union as key to the contract fight.
“I think we’re going to get closer in the next several months to a year, but I don’t think we’re going to win at the negotiating table,” she said. “We’re going to win with our organizing.”