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Whole Foods Market: The Wal-Mart of Natural Foods
By Debbie Rasmussen
Whole Foods Unionizing Committee


 AFTER BATTLING WORKERS FOR over two years, Whole Foods Market has finally succeeded in eliminating the first and only union formed within their company. Ignoring evidence of significant violations of labor law, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently ruled that the company legitimately un-recognized the union.
 Since the beginning of the organizing effort, Whole Foods has used illegal tactics to break the union, including stalling during negotiations, firing union leaders, changing work policies, and most recently, helping lead a decertification effort. And for the most part, the companyıs actions have gone unpunished-both by the NLRB and by the public, who in large part continues to buy into the companyıs greenwashing campaign.

Whole Foods Workers Unite
   In a victory hailed as a milestone for retail workers across the country, workers at the Madison, Wisconsin Whole Foods voted to unionize in July 2002. Organizing around issues of respect, fair compensation, and a call for Whole Foods to live up to its own values, a small group of workers, committed to worker control and rank and file democracy, led and carried out the campaign. Although workers fought for card-check recognition, the company refused to recognize their union and forced them to go through an NLRB election. Despite a hostile anti-union campaign carried out by the company, workers voted 65-54 in favor of union representation, affiliating with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1444.
 The workersı victory was both a surprise and a major blow to a company that has made no secret of its hatred of unions. "Here's the way I like to think of it," founder and CEO John Mackey once said. "The union is like having herpes. It doesn't kill you, but itıs unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover" (Business and Society Review, 6/22/92).
 In a lengthy right-wing libertarian diatribe entitled Beyond Unions, Mackey attacks unions as "parasites" and claims that one of Whole Foodsı most important missions is to change the widespread belief that management and workers are inherently adversarial. "Management and labor should work together as partners-with openness, trust, community, shared purpose, joy, and love-to fulfill their common goal of serving the customerıs needs and desires."
 Given such a duplicitous depiction of their work environment, workers knew they were up against fierce resistance for a first contract. Indeed, Whole Foods stretched and broke labor laws to fight the union, and relied on the law that allows workers to decertify the union if a contract is not reached within a year of the union being certified. Decertification efforts typically include the illegal involvement of management, and such was the case with Whole Foods. Following a year of fruitless negotiations, a handful of newly-hired workers eager to move up in the company began collecting signatures to get an election to vote out the union-with the assistance of managers organizing anti-union meetings and collecting signatures. When a majority of workers signed the petition, the company pulled their recognition of the union. The union objected, due to the many blatant labor law violations. But the government ruled that the petition was valid.
 Since Madison workers unionized, there have been several organizing attempts at other stores. Unfortunately, none of them has even made it to an election; Whole Foods promptly initiated a company-wide misinformation campaign, which included lying to workers about what happened in Madison, misinforming them of what it means to unionize, misrepresenting the situation to the public, and requiring managers to go through anti-union education training. Whole Foods has also increased the level of aggressiveness of union-busting tactics, even hiring armed guards as part of their campaign against workers trying to organize in Tysonıs Corner, West Virginia.

A Natural Foods Empire
   Particularly disturbing about Whole Foods is that its success stems from commodifying progressive values for profit-deceitfully creating a public image of social and environmental consciousness, the company targets people who want to feel politically aware without actually engaging in struggle for change. It may be the very pinnacle of co-opted politics: politics you can purchase.
 But as an unabashed free-market capitalist, Mackey has made no secret about his quest to build a natural foods empire. Now publicly-traded, there are over 166 Whole Foods stores in North America, a handful in the U.K., and another 50 in development as of January 2005. Since the companyıs beginnings, he sought expansion through aggressive acquisition and placed stores in areas where independent health food stores already existed. Given such an aggressive business model, itıs doubtful that the companyıs philosophical claims were ever put into practice.
 But even if those claims were a reality in the past, itıs socially and environmentally irresponsible to consider Whole Foods a progressive company today. As with any large corporation, their business practices have shifted as the company has grown, to the detriment of everyone but executives and stockholders. Decisions that were once made locally now are made centrally; local food webs have been dismantled as the company increasingly chooses agribusinesses over local farmers. Independent health food stores and cooperatives are being driven out of business, unable to compete with the enormous purchasing power of Whole Foods. Workers are now paying more for health insurance than they ever have. As the company has become more profitable, worker pay and benefits have decreased while work loads and expectations have increased. And yet the company still clings to the rhetoric of a work environment based on love, respect, free will, and democracy.

Future Organizing
    The future of the Whole Foods union movement remains unclear, but a group of activists remains dedicated to educating the public about the detrimental impact Whole Foods has on our social, environmental, and economic wellbeing and educating workers about the reality-and necessity-of unionizing. As former workers who helped lead the Madison campaign, they recently redesigned and relaunched the website that was started to support their drive: www.wholeworkersunite.org.

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