A Fast Fall from Grace: Lessons from Trader Joe’s Labor Woes and the Power of Twitter

[Editor’s Note: This mini-case study shows how quickly organizations, even those with very good reputations, can find themselves in a PR mess, particularly when leadership seems out of touch with stakeholders and the forces of social media and public opinion become involved.]


The PR tide turned quickly for Trader Joe’s.

Its founder, Joe Coloumbe, died Feb. 28, 2020, aged 89. Obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post painted a rosy picture of a management mogul committed to fair compensation and a standout customer experience. The obits touted the grocery chain’s cult status.

An Associated Press story described Trader Joe’s’ employees as “among retail’s best compensated, with medical, dental, vision and retirement plans and annual salary increases the company says range from seven percent to 10 percent.” And retention’s high: Many workers stay for decades.

The pandemic tested the company’s worker-friendly reputation, though. In addition, perhaps the pandemic also tested the longevity of company values after the passing of its owner. At this point, it’s difficult to say.

Early in the pandemic, as supplies flew off shelves and grocery store staff were beginning to enjoy their newfound reputation as ‘essential workers,’ they were worrying about safety. On March 1, 2020, a Twitter account, @TraderJoesUnion, launched.

It remains unclear exactly who was responsible for the account and its content.

A few weeks later the Twitter account urged shoppers to email Trader Joe’s president of stores Jon Basalone to demand that it institute hazard pay, at time and a half.

In addition, it urged customers to call for employees to receive paid sick leave and paid quarantine. Shoppers should “avoid Trader Joe’s” until these demands are met, it said.

From Twitter to Bad Press

In mid-April 2020, the Twitter account’s content and uprising spurred media coverage and mounting questions.

A Daily Beast article was headlined:“‘Blood on Their Hands’: Trader Joe’s Workers Are Angry and Terrified.” It described “a climate of fear and confusion” after a worker died of COVID-19.

In response, Trader Joe’s scrambled to establish health guidelines while maintaining its friendly employee and customer image.

Still, the media coverage continued. Vox Media’s Eater ran an article, titled “What the Hell Is Going on at Trader Joe’s?” It chronicled workers’ health and safety issues, as well as hinting at counter-unionization measures, such as restricting employee group chats.

Earlier this year, with the pandemic’s toll on frontline workers undeniable, Trader Joe’s unveiled an employee-focused initiative.

In January 2021, the company said it would give workers two hours pay for each vaccine shot they received.

Sometimes Trader Joe’s needed nudging. For example, in February, the company acquiesced to a Seattle City Council mandate for grocery stores to raise pay by $4 per hour for front-line employees; however, Trader Joe’s said it will forgo its usual mid-year raises.

When faced with a similar law in California to raise pay $4 per hour, Kroger chose to close several stores.

A Termination Scandal Erupts

In late February 2021, employee Ben Bonnema shared a letter on social (see above) that he said got him fired. The letter listed suggestions for the safety of employees and shoppers during the pandemic. His suggestions included upgrading stores’ air filters to meet CDC guidelines and stricter action against mask-wearing noncompliance.

Support for Bonnema flooded social media, and health experts even wrote to the Biden administration in his defense, stating the former employee’s recommendations were valid.

Initially, Trader Joe’s dismissed Bonnema’s allegations. A spokesman told The Washington Post that “misinformation” was circulating about the circumstances of his termination.

The spokesperson claimed Bonnema showed “disrespect...toward our customers.” That’s why he was fired, the company spokesperson said, adding, “Nothing is more important at Trader Joe’s than the safety of our Crew Members and customers.”

Countering those claims on social, Bonnema shared his latest review, where a supervisor awarded him perfect marks, including in ‘Customer Experience.’

Rescinding and Repair

As we write in late April, things are better for Bonnema. He tweeted Apr. 26 that Trader Joe’s reinstated him—with back pay. Moreover, the brand rescinded its “misinformation” and “disrespect” media comments about him.

In addition, Trader Joe’s posted a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) notice in the break room at Bonnema’s store in NYC reminding employees of their right to unionize.

Lessons: Stop Playing Defense

Trader Joe’s PR team could have done several things better. Its first mistake was bad-mouthing Bonnema at time when the plight of frontline workers was a major issue.

“Don’t try to speak for the other side or ascribe motives to your adversary’s actions. It’s not perceived as credible, and it’s too negative” and sounds defensive, Gene Grabowski, principal at kglobal, says.

“Don’t tell employees what you stand against; tell them what you stand for.” This is especially true when speaking with younger workers, Grabowski says—an accurate descriptor of college-educated young staff who traditionally make up a large portion of store employees.

Who’s the Audience?

In addition, using anti-union language can seem rooted in outdated thinking and ideas.

“Companies need to be using language that speaks to those who influence employees—their friends, families and relatives—as much as to the employees themselves.”

For instance, looking at the comments section on Bonnema’s posts shows a number of supporters who the company might have done well to listen to before issuing comments.

Much like the influencer phenomenon, “Today’s workers care about what those around them think of their status [and] job conditions,” says Grabowski. He adds that workers have access to more information than their predecessors. In other words, even without the break-room notice, Bonnema knew his rights and did his homework before going public.

Spend Time in Employees’ Shoes

In employee-facing messages, “companies are looking through the wrong end of the telescope,” Grabowski argues. Rather than testing messages with employees or their networks, many employers play a guessing game. They launch messages they think will resonate, he says.

“I’d venture to say that almost no one in a white-collar position at most major companies today has worked even a week on the shop floor [at their brand],” he says.

“Some may have visited for a day or two, but almost none have actually worked there. If they did, their points of view and employee messaging would take on a different tenor,” he concludes.

Unions Should Get Employees Talking

For veteran union communicator Roger Kerson, creative director at RK Communications, the most powerful communication goal is “getting workers talking to each other.”

It’s crucial “to provide information and resources, so workers can have those important workplace conversations that [launch] action to improve working conditions,” he says. Today, those conversations might involve PPE or safety provisions, mirroring Bonnema’s concerns.

Much like the word-of-mouth approach Grabowski details, Kerson says that “what Jane on the loading dock says is more important” than messages from public figures like President Biden, who spoke in support of Amazon workers before the recent failed union vote in Alabama.

In an economy where only six percent of private sector workers have union representation, “employees have a lot more rights than they know about,” Kerson says.

It’s important for unions to communicate that workers have the right to talk to their peers about workplace issues onsite—though their employer is unlikely to post break-room notices about that right, he says.

Social Media as Meeting Place

Kerson sees the growth of social media as a great opportunity for peer-to-peer labor conversations.

“From Facebook groups to private chats on Instagram, [workers’] creativity knows no bounds,” he says.

When asked about workers’ rights to post their employers’ labor practices on social media, Kerson jests that some NLRB laws were written “before Bill Gates was born.” Still, in general, federal law protects posting public statements about workplace practices.

NLRB protections likely explain why Google parent Alphabet chose to settle a recent lawsuit with a contractor—who was fired for a pro-union statement on social media—rather than taking the case to court.

Ultimately, companies and labor would do well to continue heeding the crucial peer-to-peer missives happening online before terminating employees or speaking to the press.

And the @TraderJoesUnion Twitter handle that was started at the beginning of the pandemic? It’s a canary in the coal mine. The company will face more PR woes if it continues down the path of defensiveness and dismissal of employees’ concerns.