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‘One more act of union-busting’: Trader Joe’s sues union of its own workers over reusable tote bags


A Trader Joe’s store is shown. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Grocery store chain Trader Joe’s has filed a federal lawsuit against a union of its own employees, accusing the “Crew Members” of illegally using the store’s distinctive logo — and in particular its well-known reusable tote bags — to sell unauthorized merchandise.

Trader Joe’s United is an independent labor union that represents Trader Joe’s workers. The union explains on its website that all of its leadership roles are filled by Trader Joe’s crew members: “We are bagging groceries and stocking shelves while building a movement, writing contract proposals, and helping other stores organize.”

Despite the union being made up entirely of Trader Joe’s employees, the grocery chain filed a 20-page complaint in federal court accusing the union of trademark infringement and dilution and unfair competition under both federal and California state law.

Trader Joe’s argues in its complaint that the labor union sells apparel, home goods, and reusable tote bags featuring the company’s trademark for profit and without permission.

The complaint provides a bit of background on the grocery company’s brand:

Since 1972, Trader Joe’s stores have stocked Trader Joe’s-brand products that feature globally inspired flavors, high quality, and excellent value, and that are not available anywhere else. Trader Joe’s Crew Members are knowledgeable and friendly. The stores encourage face-to-face interaction; self checkout is not available, nor is “click-and-collect” curbside service. The Crew Members and the frequently updated product selection transform grocery shopping from a chore into an exciting experience full of new discoveries each visit.

The company went on to describe for the court the “neighborhood feel” maintained in its stores, the “Fearless Flyer” newsletter that is mailed to customers, and the company’s popular website and podcast. The plaintiff business says the success of its brand is due to its tireless and methodical work to create a close association between customers and the Trader Joe’s brand of “innovative, high-quality products at the best prices and with the rewarding, eventful, and fun shopping experience inside Trader Joe’s stores.”

The branded tote bags are a key part of the experience, noted the complaint, which included photos of some of the bags.

Trader Joe’s tote bags are shown. Images via court documents.

“Trader Joe’s-branded tote bags in particular have garnered tremendous consumer attention and serve as a valuable source of organic marketing for Trader Joe’s,” the complaint said. “Trader Joe’s vast tote bag offerings range from traditional canvas totes to a city-and-state series that Trader Joe’s enthusiasts are known to collect.”

Left: Trader Joe’s tote bag. Right: Tote bag designed by Trader Joe’s United workers’ union (via court filing).

The company argued in its lawsuit that the red Trader Joe’s logo and related branding “have come to symbolize extraordinary goodwill and have achieved great fame both within the United States and around the world.”

The complaint did not mention what connection, if any, the company’s branding has to the unionized employees who work at its stores. Rather, it alleges that the union’s use of the red circular logo and similar typeface shown holding a box cutter is “likely to cause consumer confusion.”

Product designs used by Trader Joe’s United (via court filing).

Trader Joe’s asked the court for a permanent injunction against the union to stop it from using any of the Trader Joe’s family of trademarks as well as unspecified monetary damages to recover profits and compensate for harm suffered.

The case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Margo A. Rocconi and U.S. District Judge Hernán Diego Vera, a Joe Biden appointee.

In an email to Law&Crime, Maeg Yosef, the communications director for Trader Joe’s United, called the lawsuit “simply one more act of union-busting from Trader Joe’s, along with the captive audience meetings, retaliatory firings, and bad-faith bargaining we’ve seen since the moment we announced our first union drive last year.”

“This is another feeble attempt from our employer to silence our worker-led union and discourage workers from organizing for a better workplace,” Yosef added.

Law&Crime reached out to Trader Joe’s counsel, but did not immediately receive a response.

You can read the full complaint here.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos