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Demonstrating that service industry workers continue to have a strong interest in the union after successfully voting at Starbucks, REI and Amazon, employees of a Trader Joe’s in western Massachusetts have filed for a union election. If they win, they will create Trader Joe’s only union, which has more than 500 locations and 50,000 employees nationwide.

Filing with the National Labor Relations Board late Tuesday aims for an election involving some 85 employees who would form an independent union, Trader Joe’s United, rather than joining an established union. This echoes the independent union created by Amazon workers in Staten Island and the worker-led organization of Starbucks.

“In recent years, although the changes have taken place without our consent,” said Maeg Yosef, an 18-year-old shop employee who is a union campaign leader. “We wanted to be responsible for the whole process, to be our union. So we decided to become independent. “

Ms. Yosef said the union had the support of more than 50 percent of the shop’s workers, known as crew members.

“We have always said that we welcome a fair vote and are ready to vote if more than 30 percent of the crew want it,” said a company spokesperson, Nakia Rohde, alluding to the NLRB threshold for elections. “We are not interested in delaying the process in any way.”

The company shared a similar statement with workers after announcing its intention to join the union in mid-May.

In explaining their decision, Ms. Yosef and four colleagues, all with the company for at least eight years, cited changes that had made their benefits less generous over time, as well as health and safety concerns, many of which were magnified during the pandemic.

“This is probably where we come to all these things coming together,” said Tony Falco, another worker involved in the union campaign, alluding to Covid-19.

Mr. Falco said the shop in Hadley took several reassuring steps during the first 12-15 months of the pandemic. Management imposed masking requirements and restrictions on the number of customers who could be in the store at the same time. It allowed workers to take leave while still receiving health insurance and gave workers an additional “thank you” pay up to $ 4 an hour.

But Mr. Falco and others said the company was too quick to reverse many of these measures, including the additional pay, as the vaccines became widely available last year and noted that the store had experienced Covid outbreaks in the past year. the last few weeks after masking had become more permissive. The shop followed the policy of the local health department, which changed its mandate on masks at various points, revoking it the last time in March.

Some employees were also upset that the company had not informed them that the state had passed a law requiring employers to provide up to five days of paid leave for workers who lost their jobs due to Covid.

“It had been in existence for seven months and they never announced it,” Ms. Yosef said. “I understood it in late December, early January”.

Ms. Rohde, the spokesperson, said this report was incorrect, but four other employees who support the union also said the company had not told them about the policy.

Credit…Benjamin Norman for the New York Times

Merchant Joe’s has generally resisted unionization over the years, even at the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, the chief executive, Dan Bane, sent employees a letter referring to “the current flurry of union activity that has been directed at Trader Joe’s” and complaining that union supporters “clearly believe it is now the moment in which some can create a kind of wedge in our company through which they can drive discontent ”.

The company’s response to the current campaign appears somewhat less hostile, although union organizers have recently filed allegations of unfair labor practices, such as asking employees to remove pro-union pins.

Several employees said a larger problem was behind their frustrations: what they saw as the company evolving from a niche retail outlet known for pampering customers and generously treating employees to a more focused industrial-scale chain. on profits.

The company’s employee handbook urges workers to provide a “Wow customer experience”, which it defines as “how a customer feels for our joy of shopping with us.” But longtime employees say the company, which is private, has gradually become more stingy with workers.

For years, the company has extensively offered health care to part-time workers. In the early 2010s, the company increased the average weekly hours required for employees to qualify for full health coverage to 30 from around 20, informing those who were no longer qualified that they could instead receive coverage under the Affordable Federal Care Act. (The company lowered the threshold to 28 hours more recently.)

“It was done under the pretext of ‘You can get these plans, they’re the same plans,’ but they weren’t the same plans,” said Sarah Yosef, then manager of Hadley store, who later retired from the role and now he is a frontline worker there.

“I had to sit there individually with the crew members saying you will lose health insurance,” added Ms. Yosef, who is married to Maeg Yosef.

Retirement benefits followed a similar trajectory: around the same time, Trader Joe’s lowered its pension contribution to 10% of an employee’s earnings from about 15%, for employees aged 30 and over. Starting with last year’s benefit, the company has again lowered the percentage for many workers, who have seen the contribution drop to 5 percent. The company no longer specifies any fixed amount.

Credit…Holly Lynton for the New York Times

Ms. Rohde, the spokesperson, said the change was in part a response to indications from many workers that they would prefer a bonus to a pension contribution.

Workers said the company’s determination to provide an intimate shopping experience has often come at their expense in a rapid increase in business over the past decade, and then again with the resumption of business with the lifting of restrictions. on the pandemic.

For example, Trader Joe’s has no conveyor belts at checkout lines and instructs cashiers to reach customer carts or baskets to unload items. This may seem like a service customization, but it has a physical impact on workers, who typically bend over hundreds of times during a shift.

(The company asks workers to do different tasks throughout the day so they don’t constantly call customers.)

Maeg Yosef and his colleagues began discussing the union campaign over the winter, angered by the shop’s inability to advertise state-imposed paid leave and the change in pension benefits, and some drew inspiration from the successful union election in Starbucks, Amazon and REI.

Their union campaign could also benefit from the same leverage that the workers of those companies enjoyed due to the relatively tight labor market.

“People keep leaving – I know they want to hire people now,” Maeg Yosef said. “It’s hard to keep people around.”

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