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Introducing Trader Joe’s United

Reports from the front

Sarah Beth Ryther introduces the independent union Trader Joe's United, during an August 6, 2022 community rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The downtown Minneapolis store recently became the second unionized Trader Joe's in the country.

We need to begin by acknowledging the land we’re on, which belongs first, last and always to the Dakota, Anishinaabe and other indiginous peoples who lived and continue to live here since time immemorial.

We are here today to introduce our brand new union, Trader Joe’s United to all of you. We’ve decided to take this enormous step together as employees because we deserve better pay, benefits, and working conditions. We believe a union will help us achieve all those things, and we also know our voices matter. We know because we’re really good at talking. All day long at our store, which is just a block away on Washington Ave., we talk to each other, and the customers who shop there. We learn from each other and offer small kindnesses, and ultimately, we build community. We all know that our coworker Iman, who is currently in the air on her way to Somaliland to visit her family, will give us a hug every time she sees us. We know that our coworker Michelle’s daughter is really into Animal Crossing right now, and that in addition to being in the middle of getting his PhD in Public Health, our coworker Ronnie is also a really dutiful grandson. We also know which residents of the apartments upstairs will wander down in pajamas and Crocs to tell us about what’s going on in their lives.

Graphic for “Trader Joe’s United” showing the first two words separated from the third word by a graphic of an aluminum food can, with the slogan, “UNION/ NATURALLY SWEET/ NO ADDED NONSENSE, and a different inset union graphic (the red “power fist”) graphic shown on the can.
Graphic for Trader Joe’s United.

Since we started organizing, early this spring, we’ve had a million and one conversations with each other and you, our community, about what we need to do in order to improve our workplace. We’ve talked to Jonny from the National Association of Letter Carriers and Jess from the United Food and Commercial Workers, Dan from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and Kathy from the Minnesota Nurses Association, among countless others. We’ve had conversations in coffee shops, backyards, and living rooms, outside of the store on nights after a long shift, and on walks by the Mississippi river. We’ve asked really basic questions, like, what is a union? And harder questions, like what, in granular and concrete terms, is our five-year vision for Trader Joe’s workers?

But this story and the circumstances that brought us here together in the rain today are so much larger than any of us. Before the land we’re standing on was stolen, the waterfall that was where the Stone Arch Bridge is now was as big as Niagara falls. There were so many grazing buffalo that you couldn’t see the ground. It’s humbling to imagine the way the landscape looked pre-manifest destiny, and a lesson in contrast to think about Downtown East during the height of the mill industry boom in the mid 1800’s. In 1903, flour workers at the Washburn Crosby Mill right over there, went on strike. They asked for eight hour work days and gender equitable pay. Ultimately, they didn’t get what they deserved, but their efforts remain an important part of Minneapolis labor history. A few decades later, workers sacrificed their lives during the Teamsters Strike of 1934, a sacrifice we just commemorated last month. The Teamsters stood on the shoulders of the pro-labor millworkers who came before them, just as all of us here stand indebted to their legacy.

The play in production at the Guthrie (Theater in Minneapolis) right now is called Sweat, written by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Lynn Nottage. It takes place in the early 2000’s, and it’s about a group of factory workers who struggle against the invisible and crushing economic forces that guide their lives.

“I remember the fire in your voice and how it made me feel.” Chris, one of the characters, says to his father, Brucie, as he remembers watching a strike at the plant as a child. “After school, me and my friends rode our bikes to the mill and watched you guys picketing. You looked like warriors, arms linked, standing together.”

The story unfolding on the stage next door is the same story we’re living in Minneapolis today, and indeed across the whole country. Practically speaking, it’s waiting in vain for the bus that never comes, and having to pay for an Uber that costs more than you make in an hour. It’s eating ramen three times a day even though you work at a grocery store. It’s donating blood plasma in order to make rent. And it’s the Starbucks workers over on 47th and Cedar striking because their company refuses to negotiate. This story, where everyday folks stand together on picket lines and at rallies and form brand new unions and struggle together — despite the fact that it is always difficult — this story will continue to be told, because we will continue to hold corporations accountable.

There is another story here. Trader Joe’s Corporate has convinced the public that a multibillion dollar company will put the interests of its workers before profit of its own accord. This week, we vote to dismantle this narrative. Behind the smokescreen of viral TikToks featuring Trader Joes’ latest novelty product, there are workers struggling to plan for the future because of cuts to their benefits, workers who have been kicked off their healthcare plans when they’re diagnosed with cancer, and workers who feel unsafe because Trader Joe’s Corporate has refused to enact simple safety measures. We need to trade this manufactured magic for reality. Because we know that no matter how hard a company tries to blame large structural problems on individuals, low-level management or single stores, no matter how much they dismiss safety issues because they claim a neighborhood is a “difficult” place, or how many times they say they treat their workers well, we know the true story. We reject their narrative. And we choose to write our own story. We’re proud to be standing here together with you in the neighborhood we love, advocating for our future and the future of millions of other workers across America.

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Sarah Beth Ryther View All

Sarah Beth Ryther is a workplace leader at the Downtown Minneapolis Trader Joe's, which recently became the second unionized Trader Joe's in the country, with the independent union Trader Joe's United.