Trader Joe’s has threatened to file a federal lawsuit against its workers’ new union, accusing Trader Joe’s United of infringing on its trademark with the merchandise it’s selling in the union’s online store.
The California-based grocer recently sent a letter to the union’s president, store worker Jamie Edwards, arguing that Trader Joe’s United’s T-shirts, mugs and tote bags are “likely to cause consumer confusion” and “dilute” the company’s brand. The letter, dated June 27 and obtained by HuffPost, referred specifically to items that say “Trader Joe’s United” and show the union’s logo, a fist clenching a box cutter.
Trader Joe’s claims that the items infringe on its trademarks, design and “trade dress” — a legal term that basically refers to a product’s general look and feel. The company said that if the union didn’t stop selling the merch, it might seek an injunction and monetary damages, including “all profits” the union has made from the items’ sale.
“This latest threat to the Union is just another in your continuing attack against labor.”
The union’s lawyers fired back a letter of their own, accusing the company of bullying workers and trying to muzzle them through the threat of litigation. They said it was “disappointing, but not surprising” that the company would “seek to weaponize” trademark law against employees.
“This latest threat to the Union is just another in your continuing attack against labor,” the union’s attorneys wrote.
Trader Joe’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The union’s online store is administered by Bright Blue Ink, a union print shop based in Austin, Texas. Maeg Yosef, a Trader Joe’s worker and spokesperson for the union, said Bright Blue Ink handles all the printing and shipping and gets a portion of the sales, while the union receives the rest of the proceeds. When supporters buy the merch, it helps fund the union’s organizing efforts.
The legal threat is part of a broader battle between the grocer and Trader Joe’s United, which has unionized four stores in a little over a year. (The company has challenged the results of one of those elections.) None of Trader Joe’s more than 500 stores previously had union representation. The union is in the middle of trying to bargain first contracts for the stores that have organized.
Trader Joe’s United has accused the company of violating labor law on several occasions during the organizing drive – claims Trader Joe’s has denied. The union recently filed an unfair labor practice charge over the firing of Stephen Andrade, a Massachusetts worker the union claims was targeted because of his union support.
In a different case, prosecutors at the National Labor Relations Board are pursuing a complaint against the company alleging that it illegally removed union literature from the break room at a store in Minneapolis.
Trader Joe’s is not the first employer to go after its workers’ union by alleging trademark infringement.
As HuffPost reported last year, Medieval Times filed a trademark lawsuit against its workers’ new union, which goes by the name Medieval Times Performers United. The dinner-theater chain accused the union of creating “consumer confusion” through its name and logo, which includes a castle and swords. Two of Medieval Times’ nine U.S. castles have formed unions since last year.
In the case of Trader Joe’s, the company said it does not object to the union using the name Trader Joe’s “for purposes of identifying the union or discussing your cause,” according to another letter its attorney sent on July 5. “Rather, our demand is directly solely at [the union’s] use of Trader Joe’s famous trademarks on merchandise sold to the general public.”
The union said it would seek sanctions against Trader Joe’s for “bad faith and frivolous claims” if the company chooses to sue.
“Should you still move forward with any such legal action, you do so at your own peril,” the union’s attorneys wrote.