On Aug. 5, workers at the Aurora Village Petco store in Shoreline filed to unionize, making them the first workers at the multi-billion-dollar national pet retail and grooming chain to petition for a union.
If successful, at least 15 workers will be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 3000, a local branch of the North American union that represents grocery store, healthcare and retail employees, among others.
The union drive comes amid an uptick in labor organizing across the country. Spearheaded by workers at Starbucks, Amazon and other private-sector corporations, union filings have increased significantly in the past year. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the federal agency that governs union elections — petitions for representation have increased by 58 percent between October 2021 and June 2022 compared to the same time period the year prior. Unfair labor practice complaints have also risen by 16 percent.
Olivia O’Neill, a pet stylist professional at the Aurora Village Petco, said that she’s had to take on extra tasks due to understaffing despite not seeing a meaningful pay increase.
“So with me working there for two and a half years, I've only gotten a 70-cent raise,” O’Neill said.
“Petco has raised their prices on grooming at least four times since I started working there. But every time they raise the price of grooming, they also make it harder for me to make money,” O’Neill said. That’s because O’Neill and other groomers get paid commissions based on the dollar amount of sales that they bring in — a figure that rises along with price increases.
O’Neill said that the store raised the prices of their grooming services further in response to rising inflation, yet the workers haven’t seen the benefits.
“That extra money just goes to their pocket. It doesn't go to the groomers; it doesn't go to the people who are actually providing the services,” she said. “And you know, we're dealing with the short end of the stick, because we have the customers getting upset with us that the prices are going up, and it's harder for them to get their dog taken care of.”
Merchandise Operating Specialist Mason Cross shared additional concerns around working conditions at Petco. He has worked at the store for almost a year and says he didn’t receive a predictable schedule the whole time he’s been employed there.
“I would find out sometimes the day like right before, and other people like the same day that they're working,” Cross said. “It's just really stressful for a lot of us because, you know, not knowing when you're working, you can't plan ahead.”
Cross also said that there has been a lack of meaningful and regular pay raises and there has been inequality between workers. For example, a couple of months after he got hired on part time, another worker was hired and got paid a couple of dollars more than Cross for the same position.
Aside from wages and benefits, Petco workers also wanted a greater say in addressing workplace issues.
“What sparked [the desire to unionize] for me was mostly, like, concern about not only worker safety, but the animals in our store,” O’Neill said.
“You know, as a pet company, I feel like we should be holding really high standards for care. And I feel personally that maybe we aren't reaching standards that we should be. And that's why, you know, the idea of unionizing came about, so we can have a voice at the table to make a difference maybe for workers and the pets, especially in the grooming salon,” she said.
Cross and O’Neill said they were thrilled with the outpouring of public support from community members since they went public with the union drive. As of Aug. 12, their announcement tweet received more than 1,700 likes and 400 retweets. They said that Petco workers at other locations have asked about their unionization effort.
“We want to inspire people and definitely get them excited about unionizing,” Cross said. “Because once we win our union, and just kind of like set it in stone that this is something that can be done that other Petcos ... I feel like it's just gonna take off from there.”
So far, the workers said that Petco management has not yet directly responded to their union petition. They requested voluntary recognition but expect to go to a vote, which they are confident that they will win.
In an email, a spokeperson for Petco wrote, “We received notice of the petition on Friday, August 5. As always, we value the diverse perspective and opinions of all of our Petco partners and remain committed to engaging in meaningful dialogue with them.”
The unionizing effort has seen some success in working conditions already, however. After filing for a union, Cross said that management had started providing more predictable working schedules ahead of time and hired someone to fix an AC unit in the building.
As the cost of living crisis in the region continues to worsen, workers like O’Neill and Cross are determined to fight back and organize to ensure that the burden of inflation doesn’t fall on the workers.
The Petco employees were inspired by recent efforts by Starbucks Workers United to unionize cafes. O’Neill hopes that their organizing efforts in the Aurora Village store will spread to other Petco shops and galvanize lasting change for workers across the company.
“So, especially in the pet care industry, I think it's important that the workers who are taking care of these animals every day and doing the hard work get a say,” she said. “And I feel like the more people are at the table, the better it is going to be for the industry as a whole.”
Read more of the Aug. 17-23, 2022 issue.