Workers at the Trader Joe’s Wine Shop in Union Square were getting ready to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board when the company abruptly closed its store last week, according to interviews with several employees on Thursday.
A group of employees had been working with The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union since April, meeting weekly to build an organizing strategy. Last Monday, the group found they had enough support – 22 verbal “yes” votes out of around 30 employees – to go public with their efforts the following week. But on the morning of August 11th, they woke up to news that the store had closed for good.
Loyal customers stopped outside the store to read a closure notice on the Trader Joe’s storefront, expressing confusion and disbelief. But workers told Gothamist they had an inkling as to what was behind the seemingly abrupt decision.
“My first thought was that they had found out that we were intending to submit cards [proving that a majority of employees wanted to unionize],” Robert “Rab” Bradlea told Gothamist.
Bradlea had woken up on August 11th to panicked calls and texts from coworkers, some of whom had gone straight to work in the morning without seeing the email that was sent to them at 12:01 a.m. notifying them of the closure.
“I believe that we were made an example of, because they can feel the momentum is growing within Trader Joe's ranks,” Bradlea said.
Workers at the store have since called on Trader Joe’s to reopen the Union Square location.
Last month, a Trader Joe’s supermarket in Massachusetts successfully unionized after a 45-31 vote.
In a statement on Thursday, Trader Joe’s said its decision to close the store has nothing to do with the unionizing efforts which were first reported by HuffPost. A spokeswoman referred to the location as an “underperforming wine shop” that needed to close as the company prepares for its busy holiday grocery season.
“Trader Joe’s respects our crew’s right to support a union – or not,” Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Nakia Rohde told Gothamist in an email. “Our decision to close the Union Square wine shop resulted from a long-term review of how best to optimize our one and only license to sell wine in New York state, and to best meet the needs of our grocery customers in the neighborhood.”
But workers like Jonathan Reuning, a full-time employee who was also part of the unionizing efforts, said the abrupt closure had angered his regular customers, and can’t be explained by the need to relocate.
“It's just counterintuitive, isn't it?” said Reuning, who had a scheduled wine-tasting training at the shop the night before the closure. “It's nonsensical, and people are furious. It's a daily touchstone for a lot of people.”
Dave Young, a spokesperson for the UFCW, said the union is ready to pursue legal action against the store.
“We are certainly not hiding the fact that the workers are firmly under the belief that this happened as a result of their union organizing activity, which is a violation of law in this country,” Young said.
Bradlea and Reuning both said working at the wine shop was a positive experience with a tight-knit staff and friendly customers. Their desire to unionize had come out of frustrations over how the company handled operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the workers said, citing issues with insufficient work hours as well as how long it took the store to require face masks and install sneeze guards.
Both Bradlea and Reuning are still employed with Trader Joe’s, though only Reuning said he had heard about being relocated to another store as of Thursday. Bradlea said he planned to continue working with UFCW.
“What we are looking for in a union is a voice and a place at the bargaining table and a way to get the things that we deserve for how hard we work,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional information.