A Whole Load of Nonsense

December 11, 2009

Lettin' him out of the bag

The organic/boutique food retailer Wholefoods, under its Fresh and Wild guise, is particularly popular around these parts, with hoards of eager foodies populating its (extremely cramped) aisles, generally wielding very wide pushchairs and always paying over the odds for their produce. I suppose that they do this in pursuit of healthier food, with a lower environmental impact (although I notice that it’s vanishingly hard to find an organic apple at the place, for shame).

However, in America, where Wholefoods is based, people may feel differently. Over there, the firm retails not just eco-friendly and safer produce, but also sells a menu of values through which it seeks to differentiate itself from the broader herd of food stores. Aside from the fairly asinine “selling the highest quality organic produce available” (not too shocking for such an expensive shop) or the “Satisfying and delighting our customers” (well, of course) the firm also aspires to “[support] team member happiness and excellence” (meaning its employees) and “[cares] about our communities & our environment.”

It is, in other words, not just your neighbourhood organic deli, but an integral part of the support networks which sustain the neighbourhood – a social force for good, a benevolent father figure seeking to bring us all together in happy,”delightful,” communities. What nonsense.

Despite the PR, Wholefoods has built a powerful reputation within activist circles as a corporate malefactor – practising union-busting, preventing farm workers from promoting their struggles against exploitative bosses, shooting down shareholder motions, failing to carry certain environmentally certified products and running smaller competitors out of town. It’s paternalistic hogwash is a necessary component of this, and represents a skillful development of the science of “greenwash” pioneered by Big Oil in response to concerns about pollution and climate change.

Its record on unionising is particularly troublesome. Wholefoods is completely un-unionized, and not because of its grinning “team members” who just won’t allow themselves to band together to improve their wages and working conditions. When Wholefoods workers in Wisconsin tried to form a union, back in 2002, they cited numerous problems that stimulated such a move. As Mother Jones magazine reports, employees “asked the company to award raises more equitably, establish a grievance procedure, and protect them from arbitrary firing” – not unreasonable requests.

They were refused, point blank, and Wholefoods demanded that the issue be put to a vote amongst all “team members” in the offending store. When the workers there voted in favor of unionizing, the firm took the matter to arbitration for a year, meaning that the motion lapsed and the workers would have to start all over again. In the meantime, two key organizers had been sacked – for one of them drinking a botched latte – and the firm built up momentum to reverse the vote by bribing eager young recruits. Such is the way of corporate America, “team members” or not.

Similar tactics were employed against Wholefoods truck drivers in San Francisco in 2006, where two drivers were sacked, sick days were reduced and wages frozen after workers opted to organize themselves. As the US National Labor Relations Board found, Wholefoods “engaged in a variety of retaliatory measures to discourage union activity.” The sacked workers were reinstated after appealing to the board, but the firm’s ethos rolls on.

In recent years, the energies of the firm have been dedicated less to union busting and more to busting union-friendly legislation. Wholefoods CEO John Mackey has been the prime mover behind a corporate coalition called the Level Playing Field for Union Elections which arose last year in response to plans tabled by the Democrats to ease unionising in American workplaces. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow unions to organize workplaces via a simple “card check” scheme rather than a secret ballot which proponents of the act contend employers can easily influence. As Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson puts it, card check would “]allow] employees to sign cards to authorize union representation lets them organize below the radar of employers, preventing bosses from retaliating against pro-union workers and stalling a vote.”

This legislation is only necessary due to the aggressively anti-union practices of many American corporations (and the unwillingness of regulators to go after them effectively). For Mackey though, the EFCA is a grave abuse of his human rights as an employer who, he contends, should have an equal right to influence the way his workers organize themselves as a union (the union is always an intruder in his worldview, never stemming from the initiative of workers themselves).

Mackey has made his passionate anti-unionism explicit in the past, in fairly crude terms. As he wrote in 1992, “Here’s the way I like to think of it…The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it¹s unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.” So all efforts to raise wages and improve protections (sic) that aren’t approved by management are anathema. Worker self-organization and solidarity is a disease as, presumably, are high wages. Many Wholefoods employees subsist on wages which, in adjusted terms, are equivalent to the minimum wage back in the 1960s.

That’s not to say that the Wholefoods approach is wholly bad. For some people, the paternalistic, team-building ethos may be beneficial, in a sense, but it certainly does not encourage free thinking and worker autonomy. In fact, it’s deeply cultish. As the Wholefoods website beams, “We now number over 50,000 team members and are glad to report that our idealism and commitment to our core values are as strong as ever. (Sit in on a meeting and you’ll hear team members asking questions like “How does that action support our Core Values?” It’s a tough crowd!)”

Other problems with the firm abound. One of the most troubling is its relationship with farm workers, whom it claims to support (“Creating ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers”). But when activists from the United Farmworkers Union tried to hand out leaflets to shoppers in the Austin Wholefoods, the police were called and the unionists were arrested. The firm actually has a long history of opposing the UFW. In 1998, when the union tried to get large fruit retailers to sign a pledge to improve working conditions for strawberry pickers (who workers said toil “among pesticide-laden crops, often without bathrooms or clean drinking water, for less than $9,000 a year”) the firm refused to sign. That was even after large supermarkets and the nation’s largest environmental NGOs had signed up.

As one Wholefoods “regional president” put it, the refusal was totally ideological. “We are not signing a pledge that supports the union” said Don Moffitt, “If you say we don’t support the farmworkers union because we don’t support unions in general, I’d say that’s true.”

More recently, Wholefoods has also come under attack for another of the whims of its CEO. Along with EFCA, Mackey has discovered another Obama policy that he despises – healthcare reform, having penned an acerbic editorial for the Wall Street Journal to that effect earlier this year. To be specific, Mackey despises the idea of publicly-run healthcare on the British, French, German, Canadian (insert country with a successful health service here) model. This is another ideologically motivated piece of hogwash. As healthcare campaigner Russell Mokhiber has written:

“Mackey leads his Wall Street Journal diatribe against national health insurance with a quote from one of his heroines – Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”…And the problem with Mackey’s campaign is that it results in the deaths of 60 Americans every day due to lack of health insurance.”

A union advert decrying Mackey’s stance on healthcare

In some ways, Wholefoods represents the avant garde of American capitalism – eco-conscious, community minded, led by a dynamic CEO but organized around “team” ethics and promoting healthy eating. If so, then the future of American capitalism will also be centred around destroying the initiative of workers, enforcing “values” that corporate management deem appropriate, beating back efforts to improve living conditions via public assistance and extremely unpleasant for toilers on corporate organic farms.

In reality, Wholefoods is just another corporation, one which will seek to exploit its workforce when necessary (say, a major downturn) but which rode high on the artificial Greenspan boom. It expanded mightily, gobbling up smaller competitors (truly local organic shops) and marginalizing farmers’ markets, stimulating huge corporate organic farms in the process with their attendant ecological problems.

The way in which it combines this basic nature with a cultish set of “values” and faux-communalism is interesting, fascinating even, but is simply a means of pulling the (organically produced alpaca) wool over consumers’ jaded eyes.

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