Trader Joe’s United, a union representing Trader Joe’s workers, has accused the grocer of unlawfully firing an employee for being an outspoken union supporter to improve working conditions at its shop.
The employee, Stephen Andrade, worked for Trader Joe’s for nearly 18 years and posted signs at the shop in Hadley, Massachusetts, the company’s first shop to be organized. Trader Joe’s United filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday over his dismissal.
“We believe this baseless firing is a blatant act of retaliation, and we call on Trader Joe’s to do the right thing: reinstate Steve immediately,” said Maeg Yosef, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s United and an employee at the Hadley branch.
A Trader Joe’s spokesman did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Friday.
“I was the most vocal in pushing back and saying we need the time to do the work.”
– Stephen Andrade, fired Trader Joe’s worker and union member
In an interview, Andrade said his supervisor told him he was being fired for not removing a jigsaw from the back of the shop as he was instructed to do. Andrade said the tool actually belonged to the shop and had been there before he was transferred to the Hadley location nine years ago. He had been asked to remove it in October last year, but said he forgot because it was during the shop’s peak season.
“In the period between October and now, the saw was used several times by managers,” Andrade said.
Andrade is one of the shop’s employees who make Trader Joe’s famous custom signage. The jigsaw was there because employees sometimes sawed wood, he explained. However, it had mostly fallen into disuse and was in the back of the shop.
The “employee incident report” detailing Andrade’s termination said he was fired because “employees are not allowed to have power tools in the shop” and that he had shown a “disregard for the company’s safety practices” by not removing the saw. “This follows a continuing pattern of not following instructions,” the incident report said.
However, Andrade said he did not buy the tool and did not understand why it was his job to remove it. He estimated that it had been in the shop for 15 years.
“I don’t know why I was the person designated to possess the saw,” he said.
Andrade said he was a union supporter who expressed concern that Trader Joe’s was investing less and less in its individual signs. He said managers were directing sign makers to other work, such as stocking products, and making it harder for them to take time to design and build signs.
Many of the staff responsible for the signage have a background in the arts, including Andrade, who is an illustrator.
“If you’re going to do handmade signs, you have to have the time to do it,” said Andrade, whose wife also makes signs at Trader Joe’s in Hadley. “I feel like part of it was the fact that I was the loudest and said we need the time to do the work. I also think part of it has to do with the union. I am one of the pro-union [employees].
It is illegal to dismiss a worker because they are union activists or because they are trying to improve working conditions for their colleagues. Labour Department officials will now investigate whether the union’s allegations regarding Andrade’s dismissal are true, and then may initiate proceedings against the company.
The Hadley shop is one of four Trader Joe’s United shops that have unionised since last year, part of a wave of organising that has hit big-name companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Apple.
Late last month, prosecutors with the Labour Department filed a complaint against Trader Joe’s accusing the company of violating workers’ rights at a Minneapolis union shop. Officials said managers unlawfully removed union literature from the break room and prohibited workers from posting union leaflets on the noticeboard.
“The store in Hadley is one of four that have unionized with Trader Joe’s United since last year.”
Trader Joe’s United was formed by workers in Hadley and is not affiliated with any established trade union group. The union is trying to negotiate initial contracts for the shops it organises.
Last year, the company abruptly closed the company’s wine store in New York, where workers considered joining another union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. Workers told HuffPost that they believed the company had closed the shop because of their union activities, a claim the company denied.
Trader Joe’s has actively opposed the union effort, and Andrade said some workers in Hadley circulated a decertification petition – an attempt to remove the union from the shop. He said he suspects this could be another reason for his dismissal, as it would mean one less vote for the union if it came to another election.
He said he had to find new health insurance for himself, his wife and their 8-year-old daughter because his wife was not working enough hours at Trader Joe’s to qualify for company health insurance.
“I’m trying to look at this as an opportunity. I was already doing illustrations and galleries, and this is a chance to expand on that and see if I can do it full time,” he said of his dismissal. “At the same time, I’m very disappointed…. They’ve cost my family a living, and now we have to look for medical care.”