Trader Joe’s workers in the Western Massachusetts town of Hadley were thrilled when they voted to unionize in July — the first of the national grocery chain’s stores to do so. Stores in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Oakland soon followed.
But then came the long slog of negotiating a contract. The company has refused to bargain if anyone attends a session virtually, the union says, and when Trader Joe’s negotiators do engage, they offer up unrealistic proposals, such as waiving the union’s ability to intervene when an employee files a grievance.
“Obviously that defeats the entire purpose of having a union,” said Jamie Edwards, who has worked for a decade at the Hadley store and is president of the independent union Trader Joe’s United.
Amid a wave of union formation unseen in decades, stories like the one in Hadley are increasingly common.
When workers organize a new union, the fight to win an election is typically what generates the most headlines. Then comes the hard part: negotiating that first contract, which can devolve into a protracted standoff between expensive lawyers in sterile conference rooms. And as brand-name, deep-pocketed employers such as Amazon and Starbucks square off with nascent unions formed by their workers in recent years, the bargaining process to hammer out a contract is attracting more attention.
Agreeing on a first contract can take years. A third of new unions don’t reach an agreement for more than three years after winning an election, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. This is up from a quarter of new contracts taking that long in a 2009 study.
A drawn-out process often benefits employers. Pay raises and improved benefits aren’t granted until a contract is approved. In high-turnover industries — such as coffee shops and warehouses — workers who originally backed the union may move on before a contract is approved, perhaps replaced by people with less appetite for the fight. And there are few penalties for companies that drag out the process, and few rules beyond a requirement that both sides bargain “in good faith.” But for workers, and the labor movement in general, the stakes are much higher.
Collective bargaining agreements are vital for unions, not just because they lock in higher wages and worker protections, but as a “sales pitch” for future organizing, said Seth Harris, a professor at Northeastern University and former labor adviser to President Biden. For employers, delaying these agreements sends a demoralizing message, he said: “We’re never going to come to an agreement, you’re wasting your time organizing a union, and you’re going to war with us if you do.”
For some employers, keeping a union at bay is about more than avoiding giving workers better pay or benefits, Harris noted, it’s about maintaining control over their workforce. They also know if no contract is reached one year after a union vote, workers who didn’t support the effort to begin with — or have been swayed by management’s anti-union arguments, or are new and aren’t interested in joining the fight — can file a petition to decertify the union, which recently happened at one of the first union Starbucks stores, in Buffalo.
At the Hyatt Centric hotel in downtown Boston, where workers voted to join Unite Here Local 26 in March 2021, talks have dragged on well past the one-year mark.
More than two years in, none of the main issues have been resolved, which is frustrating for workers like room attendant Zaira Marroquin, who makes $23.79 an hour, $4 less than fellow union members at other hotels, and can’t access the union’s low-cost health insurance plan or job security protections.
“They can follow the rules, more or less, and never reach an agreement,” said Local 26 president Carlos Aramayo. “If an employer cynically decides to undermine the bargaining process, they will succeed. ... It’s completely undemocratic.”
Magna Hospitality Group, the owner and operator of the hotel, did not respond to a request for comment.
First contracts are tricky to negotiate because of the dynamics involved, said Arthur Telegen, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Boston who represents employers at the bargaining table. Unions are looking to make big changes, such as higher wages, while employers already paying employees market rate see no reason to do so just because they voted in the union.
And while bargaining in good faith is required, there is no legal obligation to get to a contract.
“The law gives both sides the right to stick to its guns,” Telegen said. “Therefore it sort of breeds long, difficult negotiations.”
Not all employers put up a fight. At the Ben & Jerry’s store in Burlington, Vt., where workers recently announced they were organizing, the company has agreed to seek mediation or arbitration if a contract isn’t settled within six months.
But Amazon and Starbucks haven’t been nearly as accommodating.
Amazon challenged the validity of a March 2022 election at its Staten Island warehouse — the first of its giant warehouses to unionize — and the National Labor Relations Board certified the union in January. But Amazon is appealing, and more than a year after the historic, headline-making vote, bargaining has yet to begin.
“Everyone says, ‘Where’s the contract?’” Chris Smalls, president of the independent Amazon Labor Union, said at the Boston Labor Conference last month. “Our clock hasn’t even started yet.”
Meanwhile, bargaining has been underway for more than a year at some of the 300-plus Starbucks stores around the country, including 15 in Massachusetts, where workers have unionized. But little progress has been made.
One point of contention has been workers’ ability to attend sessions over Zoom, which makes the meetings much more accessible. Starbucks agreed to this early on, in keeping with COVID protocols, a company spokesman said. But once those restrictions were lifted, Starbucks has insisted on traditional in-person bargaining, noting that videoconferencing opens up the possibility for the contract negotiations to be recorded — which has historically been prohibited.
So far, bargaining sessions have largely consisted of the company making a few introductions and walking out without saying much, if anything, about contract details, according to union organizers — and refusing to return unless the workers attending on Zoom log off; at one meeting, the Starbucks lawyers didn’t even stay long enough to sit down.
In late March, the general counsel of the NLRB determined that Starbucks violated labor law by refusing to bargain when workers attended via videoconference. A spokesman for Starbucks said the general counsel’s disregard for “decades of NLRB precedent” is “inappropriate.” NLRB prosecutors allege that the coffee chain has illegally “failed and refused” to bargain in good faith at 144 union cafes.
Encouraged by the NLRB finding, the Trader Joe’s union has started attempting hybrid bargaining, too — and has been met with similar resistance. In Minneapolis last week, company negotiators refused to enter the room when they learned several union bargaining committee members were joining virtually, the union said. The union waited in the conference room for six hours — until they saw several of the company representatives leaving the hotel with their luggage.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Likewise, when bargaining sessions do take place with Starbucks, the company doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously, said Julie Langevin, an organizer for Workers United, which represents workers at the coffee giant.
“There haven’t been any ... tentative agreements on even a single sentence, and it’s clear that they are not there to bargain,” said Langevin, a Stoneham resident and former Starbucks employee who led the union drive at the Reading store. “They are there to fulfill their requirement to show up so that it looks like they’re there to bargain.”
Of course, the fingers point both ways. Starbucks, too, told the Globe that Workers United isn’t playing by the rules; the company has filed more than 110 unfair labor practice charges of its own with the NLRB. If the union insists on including anyone on Zoom during negotiations, company representatives leave for an on-site “caucus room” and remain there for the duration of the session, a spokesman said, or until the remote participants log off. The union has broken off or refused to respond to more than three-quarters of the sessions proposed by Starbucks over the issue, the spokesman said, including nine for Boston-area stores.
Either way, it’s been a long, slow process, and that’s taking a toll on brand-new unions. Rafi McCoy, a Boston Starbucks employee and member of the national bargaining committee, said some union stores have experienced 100 percent turnover since they voted, and many new employees don’t even understand what a union is.
And that’s just how Starbucks wants it.
“They want the union to die,” Langevin said. “Time is on their side.”