Workers at a Whole Foods Market in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood are demanding higher wages and the right to collective bargaining without being reprimanded by management. Specific demands include a $5 wage increase, better working conditions, a comprehensive health plan with affordable premiums and deductibles, and no retaliation for forming a union. Whole Foods — a company that has long preached a philosophy of corporate benevolence — is the second-largest non-union food retailer in the country.
Today is the workers’ deadline for a response by the store, and they have pledged take “job actions” if their demands are not met, one of the movement’s organizers told ThinkProgress. If management doesn’t comply by the end of today, employees will respond by holding a rally and a press conference at Whole Foods’ California headquarters on Monday. They will also demand to speak to the company’s regional president.
The Fortune 300 company is known for its anti-union stance. CEO John Mackey once compared unions to herpes. “It doesn’t kill you,” he told a reporter, “but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.” Mackey seems to have maintained this belief as his company grew from a single store in Austin, Texas into an $11 billion dollar empire.
There has been one previous attempt to unionize at a Whole Foods by employees in Madison, Wisconsin. That attempt failed. Whole Foods refused to recognize the union and workers who had led the organizing effort began being fired for allegedly trivial offenses, one of the employees involved in the incident claims. When asked about the events in Madison during an ABC News interview, co-CEO Walter Robb said employees in Wisconsin had voluntarily changed their minds and opted not to unionize.
According to current and former employees, Whole Foods subjects their staff to a “routine anti-union curriculum”, as one worker told ThinkProgress. Other employees who have attended these meetings claim they are told, among other things, that unions are greedy third party institutions that interfere in the relationship between employer and employee, that workers risk losing their benefits if they choose to organize, and that laws protecting workers have eliminated the need for unions. These fear-mongering tactics have failed in SoMa, where workers are being organized by Industrial Workers of the World, one of the most radical labor unions out there.
One of the people spearheading the effort is Michael Hellman, who left a low level position at Whole Foods in SoMa five years ago and later joined Industrial Workers of World. He has been deeply involved in organizing workers at his old job. During Hellman’s time at Whole Foods, he initially made $11.25 an hour and got two raises over the course of three years, the first for 30 cents and the second for 80 cents. A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition says a worker must earn $29.83 an hour to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Employees at the SoMa Whole Foods make between $11.25 and $19.25 an hour (San Francisco has just voted to raise the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour).
“It was really hard to make ends meet,” Hellman told ThinkProgress. He also echoed claims of worker mistreatment made by Whole Foods employees in other parts of the U.S. and Canada. “Inconsistent scheduling is rampant companywide,” he said. “Schedules are released once a week and change all the time. You basically have to orient your life around your job at Whole Foods.”
Starting salaries at Whole Foods are actually higher than those at other large retailers like Wall Mart and Target. But Hellman argues those shouldn’t be the industry standards. “Workers are hurting everywhere,” he said. Hellman also noted that wages at Whole Foods are kept low over time by limiting pay increases, which occur more frequently in other retailers.
The vision espoused by Mackey is one in which companies are willing to sacrifice short-term profit maximization for a higher purpose. He even wrote about in his book Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. According to the book, this conscious way of doing business is beneficial to all the stakeholders involved, from owners and consumers down to the cashier. Whole Foods’ renowned opposition to unionization then does not come from a place of corporate greed, Mackeys says, but is the result of a business philosophy that by default already has the best interests of employees at heart. “We’re not so much anti-union as beyond unions,” he said.
According to Hellman, Whole Foods has stepped up its anti-union curriculum in other locations as a response to the events in SoMa. He also said that there have been a few cases of intimidation in SoMa, where workers were brought in to one on one talks and “grilled for their involvement in the union.”
Over the past years, Whole Foods employees have been sounding off on the hypocrisy of the company’s idyllic image. Many have spoken out and taken action against what they see as unfair business practices throughout the U.S. and Canada, mostly protesting specific instances of abuse as opposed to taking a collective stance on the company’s practices in general. Whole Foods employees in Chicago walked off the job this February after a co-worker was wrongly fired. The employee in question stayed home during the polar vortex to take care of her special needs son when public schools closed, and was fired when she showed up to work next day. Similarly, the Whole Foods is SoMa was targeted by protests from labor groups in 2011 after they fired a woman who had worked there for 13 years allegedly because she had reached the top pay cap.
The Internet has become a venting chamber for disgruntled Whole Foods workers. A man who used to work at a Whole Foods in Toronto opened the floodgates when he quit his job and sent long letter to all Whole Foods employees in his area, calling the store a “faux hippy Wall-Mart”, among other things. Hundreds of employees came out in agreement, denouncing abusive policies, unaffordable healthcare co-pays, an emphasis on part-time, high turnover, low wages, and a blatant lack of regard by management for the well being of employees.
Despite Whole Foods’ history of strong opposition to organizing efforts, Hellman believes his movement has the potential to grow. He is in contact with Whole Foods workers countrywide and says people are responsive. “It puts pressure on other stores in general to raise the wage,” he said. “If we succeed there will be a ripple effect.”
Joaquim is an intern at ThinkProgress.