Trader Joes Storefront

From “Hero Pay” to Pay Cuts for Essential Workers at Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s has announced it will cut employee wages by $2 per hour on May 1. The cut, aimed at lining the bosses’ pockets, is a direct attack on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of essential workers. Trader Joe’s workers must fight to unionize all stores nationwide, organizing with class-struggle tactics to take back what’s ours!

In 2020, the world’s billionaires made upwards of $3.9 trillion in profits, while the world’s working class lost $3.7 trillion. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of workers have contracted COVID-19, and over 3 million people have died worldwide—nearly 600,000 in the US alone. From nurses to check-out clerks, front-line workers across the country were praised as “essential” at the beginning of the pandemic. They were given pats on the back and applauded for their courage—forced to work to pay the bills while risking infection and death. But now that vaccinations are ramping up and the dust is beginning to settle, Trader Joe’s has decided to slash $2 per hour from their “hero pay.”

This “hero pay”—also referred to as “thank-you pay”—was first won by the workers amidst Trader Joe’s unprecedented sales increase at the beginning of the pandemic. The Twitter page “Trader Joe’s Union” called on Trader Joe’s to provide a hazard pay through an online petition. Although the company denied that they were increasing wages due to the threat of unionization, they reached the decision one day after the Tweet went viral. The CEO later sent out a union-busting letter to all employees, calling unionization efforts “a distraction.”

So it is clear that Trader Joe’s granted the extra pay precisely to avoid having to face off with a unionized workforce. The bosses only know one language, the language of profits, and they will not voluntarily give them up without a fight. The threat of a PR scandal and rank-and-file murmurs of unionization at their stores compelled them to temporarily concede the miserly $2 per hour in hazard pay.

In February of this year, the city of Seattle announced a temporary hazard pay ordinance that requires all grocery stores with over 500 employees worldwide to pay an additional $4 per hour during the COVID-19 emergency. In response, Trader Joe’s announced a week later that it would bump its hazard pay from $2 to $4 per hour nationwide. However, the grocery chain also canceled the summer raises that its workers count on every year. Paying workers an extra $2 for a handful of months will actually end up saving Trader Joe’s money in the long run, as they cut the $0.45–$0.75 per hour raises that all workers typically receive each year. The company jumped on this opportunity to appear as being more “progressive.” In reality, they give with one hand and take with the other.

Trader Joe’s had sales of over $13 billion in 2017, and in 2019 they had projected sales of nearly $14 billion. Trader Joe’s and Aldi’s owners, the Albrecht family, have an estimated net worth of $53.2 billion as of 2019. When the company says it can’t afford to continue paying an additional $2 per hour to its employees, it means that it is not willing to give up the obscene salary of its CEO and the profits of its billionaire owners. In other words, wages are cut so the rich can become even richer. Meanwhile, for many workers, a pay cut of $2, which adds up to hundred of dollars per month can make a world of difference in making rent, affording groceries, or paying off medical bills.

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Marx explained that the working class creates all value in society. Through their productive labor, workers transform raw materials into commodities to be sold at a profit on the market. The bosses do none of the actual labor in this process. The surplus value created by the workers, over and above what they receive in wages, is the source of capitalist profits. Whether they refer to the workers’ share as “salary,” “wages,” “extra pay,” “bonuses,” or something else altogether is ultimately semantic.

The class struggle is nothing more nor less than the struggle over this surplus: should it go to the workers who created this wealth in the first place, or should it go to the capitalists? Since workers only receive back a minuscule portion of the total value we create, we have a clear right to the small pay raises we are offered—and much more!

The mood for struggle is brewing around the world, as we can see in the recent examples of Molson Brewing in Canada, Amazon strikes in Italy, farmer strikes in India, and more. In the US, we have also seen increased labor ferment over the last period. In Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon workers led a high-profile attempt to unionize their workplace, and the Brook Coal Miners are still on strike. In Minnesota, Marathon Oil workers have been picketing for over two months against Marathon’s job cuts.

In Minnesota, Marathon Oil workers have been picketing for over two months against Marathon’s job cuts. / Image: Socialist Revolution

Before the pandemic, labor struggles had been increasing at an accelerated rate. On average, 2018 and 2019 combined saw the highest number of strike actions in 35 years. And according to PayDay Report, there have been over 1,000 strike actions and work stoppages nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of these occurred during the historic Black Lives Matter movement, which saw 10% of the adult population on the streets. Throughout 2020, UAW workers forced GM, Ford, and Fiat-Chrysler to stop production to protect workers from COVID; 4,000 workers went on strike at the University of Illinois; and there were strikes and sick-outs at McDonalds, Whole Foods, Target, and a myriad of other companies across the country.

For its part, “Trader Joe’s Union” was able to tap into the mood of the workers when it initially put out the petition for hazard pay. However, unionizing a large workplace like Trader Joe’s will require much more than a Twitter page that provides helpful tips about how to unionize. The “Trader Joe’s Union” Twitter page, despite its name, is not a union—nor do they claim this—but a loose grouping of Trader Joe’s workers and other activists.

To organize Trader Joe’s, workers need the help of an established union with the resources to mobilize a campaign across all 530 stores nationwide—including a plan to spread these efforts to Aldi stores, owned by the same parent company. The unionization campaign should include concrete demands that can rally all workers to the struggle, including, but not limited to: maintaining all raises and “thank-you” pay, increased wages for all workers, better benefits, and more.

Shows Aldi and Trader Joe's
To organize Trader Joe’s, workers need the help of an established union with the resources to mobilize a campaign across all 530 stores nationwide—including a plan to spread these efforts to Aldi stores, owned by the same parent company. / Images: Mike Mozart, Flickr. Composited from originals.

In leading these efforts, the union should build solidarity support from the broader working class and be prepared to put up a fight against the bosses and the many anti-union laws in place in the US. If necessary, the union should make preparations for a militant strike. Stopping production is crucial to winning significant demands, because it directly threatens the bosses’ profits—all while showing that the workers hold keys to production in their hands.

At the current stage of the class struggle, the labor leadership of the grocery unions and the AFL-CIO have not chosen to take this class-struggle route to build the labor movement, limiting their tactics to what is legal and “acceptable” within the narrow limits of bourgeois legality. But the law and the state are not neutral—they serve the interests of the capitalist class. The labor laws exist for the benefit of the bosses. Only class-struggle, fighting tactics like those utilized during the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike of 1934 can get the goods. A decisive workplace struggle must be paired with an understanding that, as long as they are in power, the capitalists will always try to claw back the gains of the workers. That is why we need a mass socialist party of the working class to help us fight on the political arena.

As Trader Joe’s workers, we cannot take this pay cut and raise cancellation sitting down. To win the fight, we need to go on the offensive and build a powerful union. At the same time, workers need to take on the centralized power of the state politically, and for this, a revolutionary Marxist leadership is necessary. We must build up the forces of Marxism in the labor movement and bring back the militant tactics that built our movement in the first place. Socialist Revolution has that very aim in mind, and we invite other workers to join us in our collective fight.

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