Whole Foods Busts Union in Madison, WI

The hopes of Whole Foods Market Team members in Madison, WI to secure a labor contract to ensure their involvement in decisions affecting them may have suffered the definitive blow November 2002 as the company, citing two petitions from team workers, refused to recognize the UFCW Local 1444; denying the National Labor Relations Board the right to conduct a formal reelection.

As a former bakery team member of the Madison store involved in the original organizing effort, this chain of events is routine. I was terminated from Whole Foods Market and here is my story: On a sunny day in May 2002, I exited Whole Foods to enjoy the seasonable weather on my half hour dinner break, when suddenly a hand popped up from behind an SUV, beckoning to me. It was a fellow WF teammate who worked in the Deli. He asked me some questions about my satisfaction working for Whole Foods Market.

I explained to him that in two years of working there I’ve had 3 different Team Leaders–8 different Bakery Team Leaders in all–and aside from my member status and subsequently my ability to garner a raise being delayed three months due to lost paperwork in a change of leadership, I wasn’t too crazy about having to throw out an average of two garbage bags full of unsold bakery “product” a night-donating the excess bread was petitioned for, yet the added expense of transport was deemed too great.

Regrettably, I didn’t have the time to describe to him in my half hour break my other point of conflict with management. It regarded one hundred and forty-two hours of pay I earned at Whole Foods in Lincoln Park, Chicago on a Christmas vacation work transfer in 2001 that never hit transfer status according to management. I’ll admit that the issue involved a breakdown of communication between two stores in two different states. Regardless, two stores’ breakdown amounted to one “whole” month without compensation for the entire previous month’s work. When I was finally compensated, one week’s worth of wages was unaccounted for and the issue never resolved. Organization of labor? Where do I sign?

Everything had to be a secret. That meant secret meetings, smoke break secrecy, dummy meeting locations, the works. I speak for a number of my former compatriots when I suggest that “we felt special.” And why shouldn’t we, management had no clue that 76 of 123 employees had already signed union registration cards, representatives from Local 1444 were at every meeting to answer questions, and it felt like we were in position to enact a positive change at work.

Then it hit. I don’t exactly know what hit, but the rumor was that there was a mole. Our entire Administration department excluding payroll was overhauled with 7 seasoned Whole Foods vets from around the country seemingly without warning. When explaining their presence the claimed Regional received a desultory Store Team Leader Review. According to April Reitano the former Bulk Buyer, three reviews had been sent each month before they acted on the fourth.

It was even less apparent what they were supposed to do aside from distract workers. They snooped around, singling out workers privately to “talk.” When one introduced himself to me, I was most impressed by the intensity of his unbroken gaze. I have to admit the thought occurred that he was trying to “scan” me for a second.

The night before the election, an afternoon I worked from 2:30 to 9:45 p.m. in the bakery, I was required to attend a mandatory meeting that would last till almost midnight. At the meeting, CEO John Mackey and four of his regional staff plus all seven of our new managers fielded our questions about the next day’s election.

It worked like this: after a statement from Mackey which framed the next day’s election as “a battle to save the Madison store from the dark side” he opened it up for questions, we all raised our hands, and the sole survivor of the administration overhaul wrote the names of hands on a list and went down it calling in order. The catch was that your comment had to be in the form of a question, and Mackey was allowed to skirt poignant queries by letting a member of his regional entourage take over. My question consisted of my experience not getting paid for two months with a coda of “so why did that happen?” Though my question was not answered, a Human Resources representative apologized the next day and gave me her card.

The next day, the NLRB held an election, the outcome favoring the union 65 to 54. Whole Foods challenged the union’s legitimacy and by September, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1444 began representing Madison Whole Foods employees.

I laid low the following months as almost thirty of my fellows quit or were terminated for trivial offenses. A hiring freeze administered by management left the store short staffed until September when the union took effect. An organizing committee was elected and a contract seemed close to fruition. Mysteriously, organizers began disappearing from the store. One such organizer was a student at UW named Michi who worked in the Bakehouse. All of a sudden his hours began to decrease until soon his name was omitted from the schedule completely. Still technically a team member, he continued to buy merchandise with his team member discount. One day I saw him bustle past the counter and out of the store with my team leader at his heels. My team leader told me that a restraining order barred Michi from the premises.

The next spring, I requested full time hours for the summer as I had been scheduled the previous two summers. I ended up being scheduled two days a week. One year and two sets of team leaders later, I was scheduled to work on my birthday after requesting off for that day one month in advance. When I saw the schedule I complained, and was told that we were still short staffed and just because I requested off didn’t mean I would get it. Days off were first come first serve apparently. I told them that I had a court date in Illinois that morning, and they still wouldn’t budge. I tried to find a replacement but couldn’t and so the day before I left for Chicago, I quit. A week later I got a message from my new supervisor telling me I missed work on the previous Thursday without calling and I was terminated. Let’s call a spade a spade, I thought to myself.

One year later I follow the unionization effort in Madison via the web. That’s where I heard about Whole Foods Market’s rejection of the UFCW Local 1444.

Citing a petition that a supposed significant majority of the workers signed in early November, the company contended that a majority of current whole foods workers at the Madison store did not agree to be represented by the UFCW Local 1444. Public notice of the petition surfaced auspiciously on Wednesday, November 12, 2003, five days before the National Labor Relations Board scheduled a vote for Whole Foods Team members to decide whether Local 1444 should continue representing Madison team members in contract negotiations. The vote was in response to a similar petition presented in September 2003.

The vote that should have occurred the following Monday, November 17 was cancelled to allow for investigation of the petition.

In an interview following the petition’s introduction to the public, Jackson Bowman, a whole foods team member on the union organizing committee, claimed that pro-management employees solicited signatures to decertify the union on company property during work hours and that one person soliciting signatures was a shift manager. Both incidents, he said, were violations of national labor law.

According to Irv Gottschalk, the assistant regional director at the NLRB, Local 1444 has filed an unfair labor practice charge that management assisted employees with gathering signatures to decertify the union.

I myself was solicited for such a petition in June of 2003 before I was fired. The team member who solicited me had just been promoted to P.M. Counter Manager. He had worked for Whole Foods for six months at that time and had failed to be voted on the team on two separate occasions for his lack of work ethic, and his knack for leaving coworkers at the counter while he socialized. I myself was detained on no less than four occasions by him. I didn’t agree when he was voted on during a meeting that half my team attended. He told me that he complained enough about not getting voted on the team that they gave him the promotion. I told him that had they posted the position, I would have applied.

That means it took three months to get enough signatures and they weren’t even playing fair. I figure that if it took three months to fill one petition, then something must have changed before the second surfaced weeks later. At least I know that it wasn’t management soliciting employees that fueled the fire for the second petition.

Whole Foods has chosen not to recognize the charge. “In light of this significant change of circumstances, we have decided the best way to respect the wishes of our Madison team members is to withdraw recognition from the union, and we have done so effectively Wednesday (Nov. 12, 2003),” said John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. Acknowledging that the union could challenge Whole Foods’ decision, he maintained in his statement that “the company fully expects to put this brief period of unionization behind us and move on together with a renewed sense of cooperation and shared vision.”

Dan Welch, president of the UFCW Local 1444, has argued that alleged violations mean the election should be cancelled and collective bargaining should resume, promising the union will challenge Whole Foods’ latest move to block union recognition.
A recent article by James B. Raskin in In These Times (Nov. 13-19) describes the situation at the site of the new Berkeley, CA store. Picketers lined up to protest the only nonunion grocer in town. They explained Whole Foods to be a hypocritical organization who “preaches teamwork but prohibits unions,” and promotes communication but pays lower wages than any other local grocer.

Perhaps Whole Foods should be as flexible with its labor policy as it is with its regional cuisine, and allow unions in stores located in progressive communities like Berkeley, Madison, and Austin. In Madison for instance, Whole Foods was one of two grocers in the area without a union.

The other is Willie Street Coop. With over 10,000 members and 115 workers, the coop sets a respectable standard by adhering to the Dane County Living Wage. The coop claims to “strive to give equal consideration to the needs of members and the right of workers to participatory management and a humane work environment.” Two former employees of WFM who now work at Willie Street assured me that they were now paid fairly and involved in store decisions. Wheatsville Coop in Austin boasts a similar atmosphere and respect for workers. If you really care about the person packaging your turkey, check one of these coops out.

Thankfully, local coops such as these have been able to survive, unlike Bread & Circus, Fresh Fields, Merchant of Vino, Mrs. Gooch’s, Bread of Life, and Well Spring Markets who were absorbed as of December 1999 according to John K. Wilson of Bankrate.com.

If you need more reason to boycott the natural foods conglomerate who claim to be an “active environmental leader” that support “environmentally sound products,” then consider the fact that WFM does not make “Certified Turtle Safe” shrimp available in any of its nationwide locations.

What kind of monster would refuse to carry turtle safe shrimp thereby endangering the lives of millions of sea turtles? The same monster who in a public statement announced his personal opinion that “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.”

Well John–can I call you John since you broke the ice with that STD metaphor–why you gotta go love on so many people?

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