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‘Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s are a totally banal part of American life’: opinion

A new op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle says the public needs to reckon what grocery workers, once lauded as “essential,” really deserve

Last week, workers at the Rockridge Trader Joe’s in Oakland, Calif., made a declaration of their intent to unionize. The San Francisco Chronicle responded with an op-ed examining some of the challenges grocery workers face (and specifically workers at TJ’s) and what shoppers can do to be a part of the solution and not the problem.

The author, Soleil Ho, writes: 

“[At Rockridge], workers allege safety issues, a lack of wage transparency, unfair disciplinary practices, and cuts to benefits. A worker at the Rockridge Trader Joe’s told the Los Angeles Times that one reason for the union push was management’s mishandling of a rat infestation that had employees spending part of their shifts cleaning up rat feces in the store. In 2021, the company downgraded its guaranteed retirement plan contributions from 15.4% to zero, according to documents provided … by Maeg Yosef, an 18-year Trader Joe’s worker at the unionized Massachusetts store and the union’s communications director.

“Despite being lauded as heroes during the beginning of the pandemic, frontline workers performing “essential” labor faced a hostile and sometimes violent public, higher risks of coronavirus infection and increased workloads. Trader Joe’s recently came under fire for ending pandemic hazard pay at one Oakland store but maintaining it at another just three miles away.”

“Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s are a totally banal part of American life that also succinctly captures everything that’s wrong with it. In “The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket,” author Benjamin Lorr describes the compounding human and environmental sorrows concentrated into every apple and every sweaty filet of fish that our eyes alight upon at our local market. The supermarket is a carefully constructed vision of abundance, complete with brightly colored and Polynesian-accented polo shirts in Trader Joe’s case. 

When the focus is on the products, you don’t notice the people putting them on the shelves.”

The op-ed then offers up a call to action for shoppers:

“Talking with staff is already part of the Trader Joe’s experience, so make asking about worker treatment part of your routine. Managers always hang out in that little open office by the registers, making them easy to approach with concerns. If you’re nervous, think about every time you’ve spoken up about a product you liked that was discontinued; but in this case, pretend the discontinued thing was worker’s rights and retirement benefits.”

To bring the piece home, this was the big swing:

“We’re in this moment when the federal government and, frankly, many in the public, would prefer to roll back the clock to February 2020, a time before we joined together to support large-scale public health initiatives and anti-poverty funding, and before the spotlight was put on the low-wage restaurant and grocery store labor that sustains many of us. 

“According to a Bloomberg Second Measure report, Trader Joe’s grew 14% from July 2021 to July 2022. From a purely economic standpoint, it seems rational for workers, especially those who helped ferry their stores through the often-violent storms of pandemic panic-buying and masking conflicts, to use this moment to press for better conditions.”

As a grocery retailer or store manager, does this op-ed have merit? One of the points of this essay is the idea that workers were on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they continue to be the face of the store when interacting with customers. Should that position translate to more benefits and protections for store workers? 

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