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Workers Fight to Organize Whole Foods (english)
by Workers World
Email: boston (nospam) workers.org
04 Jun 2003
END OF AN ILLUSION?
WORKERS FIGHT TO ORGANIZE WHOLE FOODS
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the June 5, 2003
issue of Workers World newspaper
END OF AN ILLUSION?
WORKERS FIGHT TO ORGANIZE WHOLE FOODS
By Deirdre Griswold
The Whole Foods Market is not a mom-and-pop establishment. Its web site
explains that it is "the world's largest retailer of natural and organic
foods, with 143 stores in North America."
Since it started in 1980 with one small store in Austin, Texas, the
company has grown into a retailing giant with assets of over $1 billion--
$97 million of that in cash, according to a May 7 company news release.
Its stock trades on the Nasdaq exchange.
Customers are attracted by its wide array of fresh fruits and
vegetables, organic meats and poultry, and environment-friendly
products. The company views itself as fulfilling a mission of "helping
to transform the diet of America, helping people live longer, healthier,
more pleasurable lives while responding positively to the challenge of
But who keep the shelves stocked with fresh produce? Who ring up and bag
the groceries? Who move crates of food and sundries in and out of the
stores? Who mop the floors and clean out the meat counters?
Workers. And many of them have made it clear that they need a union.
The company wants them to pay more for health benefits. Wages are not
pegged to seniority but to subjective evaluations made by management. A
new hire can earn more than a veteran worker.
STRUGGLING TO GET A UNION
So in July 2002 the employees at the Madison, Wis., store voted in a
union--the United Food and Commercial Workers. They are still waiting
for contract negotiations, however, which the company has been stalling--
apparently in an effort to force a new election after a year has
More recently, store workers in Falls Church, Va., have signed union
cards, but the National Labor Relations Board halted an election
scheduled for this April after the union charged that Whole Foods had
packed the store with workers from other locations to influence the
vote. Unions around the country have added Whole Foods to their boycott
The CEO and chair of Whole Foods, John Mackey, thinks his "team members"-
-he doesn't call them workers or even employees--reacted out of "fear"
instead of "love" when they voted in a union in Madison. This is what he
said about the pro-union vote: "We all make many mistakes in life. It is
all part of our growth process because that is how we learn, that is how
we grow. When confronted by great stress in life, we have but only 2
choices: 1. Contract into fear. 2. Expand into love."
The union members might respond, "Why don't you show some love for us
and loosen your grip on some of that $97 million in cash the company is
But that would be an exercise in futility.
MACKEY SAYS: 'THE UNION IS LIKE HAVING HERPES'
Mackey has been open about his anti-union stand for years. "Here's the
way I like to think of it. The union is like having herpes. It doesn't
kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of
people from becoming your lover," he said when workers in Austin first
raised the idea of a union. (Business and Society Review, June 22, 1992)
In November 1991, In These Times ran an article about Whole Foods by
James Raskin. "Whole Foods keeps up leafy green appearances but makes no
apologies for its single-minded devotion to profit and its fierce
determination to keep its wages low, its venture-capitalist investors
hidden and its workforce young, powerless, and union-free," he wrote. He
described the corporation as "pro-New Age in rhetoric, anti-New Deal in
The United Farm Workers say that Whole Foods refused to give them any
support when they campaigned to get a five-cents-a-pint increase for
strawberry pickers. Of the $2.50 or so that customers paid for a pint of
strawberries, only 10 cents went to the pickers.
In New York City, where a new Whole Foods store has been doing a booming
business in Chelsea, leaflets given out by UFCW informational pickets
explain that the company is one of the few chain stores in the city to
run a non-union shop.
Many of the people who shop at Whole Foods probably think they are doing
some good for the world while they cater to their picky palate. At
least, that's what the company wants them to believe.
Which raises an interesting question. Can the world be made a better
place by buying and/or investing in companies that claim to have a
BUSINESS IS BUSINESS
The struggle at Whole Foods should remind everyone that there are two
basic classes in society: the workers and the capitalists. Those who
stand in between these two classes hope to be able to soften the
conflict between them. They hope that capitalism can be modified to
improve its record of brutal disregard of the workers and of trampling
over everything in its addiction to profits.
Eating fresh, chemical-free foods may be good for the consumer who can
afford them, but this doesn't necessarily translate into better
conditions for the farm workers or the grocery workers. That's because
business is business, and any entrepreneur who wants to expand--and they
all do, because if they don't, someone else will take their market--
needs to attract capital. That means paying out generous dividends
and/or interest on loans. And where does this money come from? It comes
directly out of the labor performed by the company's workers.
At the most basic level, it is human labor that creates all value--
meaning value that commands a price. There is of course a different kind
of value in a beautiful sunset or a breath of fresh air. But unless
labor is applied to them--like building a device that compresses air for
industrial use, for example--these things are free. When you buy
something, you're paying for the labor that went into it in all its
various stages of manufacture.
Capitalism has a very destructive contradiction built right into it.
Workers have to compete to sell their labor power for wages. Bosses buy
their time at the going rate for that kind of labor. But what determines
how much the bosses will pay? Not the value of what the workers produce.
A farm worker may get paid only 10 cents for something that sells for
$2.50 or $3.00. The minimum wage is determined by how little the bosses
can pay and still be assured that the workers they need don't just die
of starvation and disease or go elsewhere. The one thing that pulls
wages up above subsistence is the organized resistance of the workers
Hospital workers in this country, especially those without technical
skills, used to be paid the barest minimum. In 1961, a janitor at Beth-
El Hospital in Brooklyn took home $36 for a 50-hour week. Now most of
them get a union wage. It took years of struggle, strikes, picket lines
and sit-ins to accomplish this.
It wasn't just a coincidence that Local 1199, the union that organized
hospital workers, used tactics borrowed from the civil rights movement.
U.S. bosses have long promoted racism to keep workers in the U.S.
divided and their organizations weakened. The super-exploitation of
people of color drags down the entire class while the bosses laugh all
the way to the bank.
Farm workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants and most of whom
are people of color, are still struggling to bring their wages above
subsistence level. The U.S. government's reactionary immigration laws
make it very difficult for them to organize.
DOING WHAT CAPITALISTS DO
Whole Foods is doing what all capitalist companies do--it is trying to
pay the lowest wages possible in order to produce profits for its invest
ors and keep its prices low enough to attract more business. This is not
unusual. It is how capitalism--green, blue or purple--works.
Maybe Mackey began his career as an organic food merchant with great
social ideals. Maybe he didn't, and his little speeches are just self-
serving rhetoric. In the long run, it doesn't make much difference. If
you're in business, you play by the rules of capitalism or you go under--
particularly in times like now, when merchants are finding it harder and
harder to sell their products.
When slavery was the prevailing mode of production in the South of this
country, there were "good" slave masters and "bad" slave masters.
Certainly, some were more brutal than others. But as Frederick Douglass
and all the Abolitionists pointed out, it didn't matter much. Slavery
was a cruel and brutal institution. If a "good" slave master didn't get
every ounce of work out of their human property, then eventually they'd
fall behind and have to sell their slaves to someone who would. Slavery
had to be abolished.
Capitalism is a system based upon wage slavery. The shrinking class of
owners of the economy exerts control over the vast majority by
determining whether they work or not. What once was the natural
occupation of all--working for one's livelihood--is now a "privilege"
granted by the bosses who monopolize land, industry, transportation,
communications, finance, even culture and science. Workers have been
alienated from the means of production.
For a long time, however, U.S. capitalism gave the appearance of
lessening the class contradictions. Everyone was going to become middle
U.S. capitalism expanded at a tremendous pace after World War II, when
its rivals were in ashes. After the scare that the corporate rulers got
from the great labor struggles of the 1930s, the rise of a bloc of
socialist countries, and the profound national liberation movements in
the Third World, they were ready to make concessions to the workers here-
-especially if they wanted them to fight for corporate interests in
places like Vietnam. The capitalist government intervened, too, with
anti-poverty programs aimed at keeping the peace at home in order to
better fight the wars abroad.
But now it's a whole new ballgame. The class struggle is deepening once
again. Capitalist competition is growing on a world scale. Any
corporation that can do so is scouring the globe for cheaper labor and
raw materials. Instead of creating a big new middle class, the system is
widening the chasm between rich and poor like never before.
All the utopian or New Age or whatever schemes for a kinder, gentler
market-based system are losing their allure. Workers and oppressed
peoples have to organize and fight, not just for better wages and
benefits, but for the end of wage slavery.
That's what a movement for socialism is all about--the right of the
working class to take over and run what they have created with their
sweat and blood. Want fresh, healthy food for everyone? And a good life
for the workers who pick, transport and market it? Fight for socialism.
- END -
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