Seattle Employees Accuse Trader Joe’s of Retaliating Against Protest Participation

On Friday, the Trader Joe’s on Capitol Hill closed unexpectedly, not long after dozens of its workers announced they would participate in the Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County march and general strike that day. The outpost remains closed indefinitely, according to a sign posted on the front of the store (as Capitol Hill Seattle first reported), and employees say the timing seems suspect. They are now organizing a petition to reopen the location.

In a statement sent out to the press Sunday, the workers from “Store 130,” as it’s known, claimed that the Trader Joe’s corporate office was unhappy about the reason the workers weren’t going to work Friday, and retaliated.

“Store management assured workers participating in the protest that [the march] would be considered an excused absence and would not result in any disciplinary measures,” the letter read, adding that store management had planned to close the store early that Friday to account for the anticipated staff absences. At the time the workers told management of their planned action, there appeared to be no indication the store would be closed beyond Friday.

“But on the morning of June 12, a representative from TJs corporate called the store to ask about the early closure. Unsatisfied with the rationale for the early closure, corporate informed store management that the store would be closed indefinitely, effective immediately,” the workers’ letter read.

Many businesses in the Seattle area — including dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes, and breweries — announced closures Friday in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but reopened later in the weekend, unlike Trader Joe’s. And though Capitol Hill has been a focal point of recent demonstrations, with the protest area around the East Precinct on 11th Ave receiving national attention, the East Madison Street store is several blocks away from that hub. Markets closer to that vicinity, like QFC and Central Co-op down the block, remain open.

But it’s possible this closure was a culmination of factors. In their letter, the workers cite a history of friction between Trader Joe’s and its workers at this location, particularly when it comes to protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The employees allege they have been met with resistance when organizing in the past to secure higher wages, health benefits, and protections against the novel coronavirus — something that has been a concern nationally with the store. Aside from some adjusted hours (closing at 7 p.m. rather than 10 p.m.), this location has remained open during the pandemic, with business robust from all accounts.

“The large majority of us were already living paycheck to paycheck, and many of us were working without health insurance while risking steady exposure to the public in the midst of a pandemic,” Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s worker Peter Strand tells Eater Seattle. “Our broad participation in the June 12 BLM actions was the tipping point in the decision to close our store. This particular labor struggle is about getting our jobs back, but more importantly it’s about loudly and unequivocally opposing corporate anti-Blackness. We all have a role in combating anti-Blackness inside of our workplaces and institutions, and we are committed to playing our role.”

On Monday morning, Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant expressed support for the workers.

Even though Trader Joe’s, as of Monday morning, still hadn’t publicly released a statement about the closure, the workers appeared to try to get ahead of any corporate reasoning. “We know that the company will try to avoid the appearance of being antagonistic to the movement,” they said in their statement. “They will likely cite ‘personnel issues,’ ‘safety concerns,’ or operating costs as rationale for the store closure. What they really mean when they cite ‘personnel issues’ is that they saw our store as a hot spot for worker organizing. TJs corporate has aggressively squashed worker organizing for years and has a long record of retaliation.”

On June 6, Trader Joe’s released a statement in support of their black employees and customers. But the Capitol Hill workers said that rings hollow, claiming “the company has done nothing to tangibly support the movement for Black lives, and they have penalized employees for supporting the movement. While the company insists that they value crew member feedback and support crew-led solutions, they have consistently disregarded our insights and requests.”

Calls and emails to Trader Joe’s were not returned before this piece was published. Strand says the workers had still have not heard from management on whether there has been a decision made to keep the store closed.

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