Sheila Payne stands outside Whole Foods Market on a sweltering
day. People hurry in and out of the store, eager to escape the heat, but
Payne hasn't come to shop. She and three other activists are informing
customers that the nation's largest chain of natural food groceries has
refused to sign a pledge supporting better wages and working conditions
for California strawberry pickers. Payne has worked in the fields, and
knows firsthand that many of the 20,000 workers who harvest berries labor
among pesticide-laden crops, often without bathrooms or clean drinking
water, for less than $9,000 a year. California strawberry growers, who
supply 80 percent of the nation's crop, make $650 million annually.
Many customers are stunned to learn that Whole Foods won't
endorse the pledge for improved conditions, which has been signed by
supermarket giants like Kroger and A&P, along with most of the nation's
leading environmental and civil rights organizations. "I'm shocked,"
says Sarah Wright, as she shops at a Whole foods store in Durham, North
Carolina. "You would
think they would be at the top of the list of stores signing the
pledge." Other shoppers share her surprise. "A store that prides itself
on being concerned about organic food and other things that are healthy
should also be concerned about the health of workers," says Pam
a bag of groceries into her car. "It's important for human rights all
Face with national pressure to sign the pledge, Whole Foods
responded by holding a "National 5 Percent Day," in order to donate
$125,000 of its sales to organizations providing health care to farm
workers. But at stores across the country, the company also distributed
a brochure supporting the industry and attacking the United Farm Workers,
which drafted the pledge. Top executives make no secret of their
opposition to the U.F.W. -- and to all labor unions. "We are not signing
a pledge that supports the union," says Don Moffitt, a Whole Foods
Regional president. "If you say we don't support the farmworkers union
because we don't
support unions in general, I'd say that's true."
Whole Foods has taken a similar hard-line stance against
environmentalists working to protect sea turtles. An estimated 150,000
endangered turtles drown in shrimp nets each year, according to the Earth
Island Institute, a San Francisco-based organization that led the
campaign for dolphin-safe tuna. But when the group approached Whole
Foods to request the chain carry only shrimp caught in nets certified to
protect sea turtles, chief executive officer John Mackey once again sided
with industry and blasted the activists. "We will no be coerced by Earth
Island Institute or anyone else to support advocacy programs against our
will," Mackey e-mailed
the group. "Your attacks on Whole Foods Market are strategic mistakes."
Earth Island has responded by picketing Whole Foods stores in
California, Texas and Delaware. "I thought this would be right up their
alley," says Todd Steiner, who directs the sea turtle program. "They
claim to be really progressive, but their seafood counters are a big part
of their profit margin. They've determined that this won't help their
bottom line -- and their bottom line is more important to them than doing
the right thing for the environment."
Such an anti-activist attitude puts Whole Foods at odds with
many of its customers, who believe that organizations like the U.F.W. and
Earth Island represent important forces for social justice and
ecological well-being. People shop at Whole Foods not just because it
offers organic produce and natural foods, but because it claims to run
its business in a way that demonstrates a genuine concern for the
community, the environment, and the "whole planet," in the words of its
In reality, Whole Foods has gone on a corporate feeding frenzy
in recent years, swallowing rival retailers across the country and
building what Time magazine calls "a billion-dollar juggernaut." Whole
Foods now boasts eighty-five stores in nineteen states, including its
headquarters store in Austin and ten in Texas overall. The expansion is
driven by a simple and lucrative business strategy: high prices and low
wages. While Whole Foods makes millions selling organic and natural
foods, employees complain that they are overworked and underpaid. Some
start at less than $12,000 a year, and cannot afford to shop in the
stores where they work, despite employee discounts of 15 percent or more.
Its poverty-level wages and union-busting stance contradict the
chain's stated commitment to empower its employees by giving them a voice
in decision-making. "They tell you that you're part of a family and give
you a chance to be heard," says Melissa Parsons, a former Whole Foods
baker. "It all looks good on the surface -- but eventually people
that their opinion doesn't really count. The more involved you get in
the company, the more the illusion is shattered."
Love, Joy, and Happiness
Whole Foods prides itself on being a different kind of grocery
store. The company promotes organic farmers and educated consumers about
agriculture and nutrition. It donates 5 percent of its after-tax profits
to community organizations each year. It fill full-time positions only
by a two-thirds vote of workers in the department that's hiring, and
fosters a diverse
workforce that employees say is fun, friendly, and accepting of a wide
range of lifestyles. In January, Fortune magazine name Whole Foods one
of "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America."
"They treat their own workers exceedingly well," says David
Jernigan, a Whole Foods employee. "They don't have to do it -- it's
Much of that philosophy stems directly from John Mackey, who
opened a struggling health food store called Safer Way in Austin as a
disheveled, twenty-five year old, six-time college dropout. A
libertarian who combines New Age spiritualism with New Right capitalism,
Mackey sometimes sounds more like a cult leader than a C.E.O. "When I
peel away the onion of
my personal consciousness down to its core in trying to understand what
has driven me to create and grow this company," he writes in the latest
annual report, "I come to my desire to promote the general well-being of
everyone on earth as well as the earth itself." One of his goals, he has
said, "is to help create an organization which manifests love, joy, and
From the beginning, Mackey derived much of his happiness from
making money -- lots of money -- in an industry where that wasn't
necessarily popular. "Profit is the lifeblood of every business," Mackey
says. "It's like air." Six years after opening his first store in 1979,
he had expanded to three stores in Austin and one in Houston. In 1988,
he bought Whole Food Company in New Orleans and renamed his company
Whole Foods Market, Inc. In 1992,
Mackey bought Bread and Circus, a six-store New England company that was
the third largest chain. Since then, every other natural foods company
has become an acquisition target. Whole Foods now owns Fresh Fields,
Mrs. Gooch's, Wellspring Grocery, Bread of Life, and the Merchant of Vino
Chain. The Mackey empire also includes a coffee company, a vitamin
company, eight bakeries and a seafood wharf.
Six years ago, Mackey believed the nation could handle only 200
natural foods supermarkets. With the industry soaring to $16 billion in
sales this year, he has upped his estate to 500, and he'd like most of
those to have a Whole Foods sign out front. His company plans to open at
least eighteen stores over the next two years, expanding into new
territory such as
Seattle and Atlanta.
Whole Foods certainly isn't hurting for money: sales in the
last quarter alone shot up 25 percent, to $325 million. The chain has
grown 900 percent in the nineties, and some analysts predict it will
continue to grow 25 percent annually for the next five years. At its
annual meeting, shareholders burst into cheers when Mackey reported that
Whole Foods stock had tripled in one year. "That's pretty good stock
performance," he noted, as the audience of 500 applauded and whistled.
With its big, inviting stores in affluent neighborhoods, Whole
Foods has created a new standard for an industry once known for garbage
bags full of granola and long-haired, Birkenstocked customers. The
company has also blurred the line between conventional supermarkets and
natural foods stores. Alongside natural and organic products can be
found Clorox and Windex, Frito's and Honey Nut Cheerios, Star Kist Tuna
and A-1 Steak Sauce. Offering more products enables Whole Foods to
cross over the counter-culture line, generating healthier profits from
less healthy food.
The only remaining resistance to Mackey's expansion comes from
Wild Oats, a fast-growing chain of fifty-four stores based in Boulder,
Colorado. The battle between Whole Foods and Wild Oats is one of the
most intense, most talked-about rivalries in the industry. Mike
Gilliland, C.E.O. of Wild Oats, once compared Mackey to "Chainsaw Al"
Dunlap, the job-slashing head of appliance-maker Sunbeam Corporation.
Mackey responded by sending
Gilliland a gift: Risk, the board game of world domination.
"You will lead your armies as they sweep across vast continents
to launch daring attacks against your enemies," the game box reads. A
note to Gilliland added, "Forewarned is forearmed." It was signed,
"Chainsaw John Mackey."
However conventional his approach to growth, Mackey insists he
has created an unconventional workplace. "Just as we are dedicated to
providing excellent products and services to our customers, we are also
dedicated to creating a positive, productive and enjoyable work
environment," Mackey writes in the employee handbook. To promote
Foods urges employees to think of themselves as "team members." Workers
representatives to an advisory group, meet monthly to discuss concerns,
and are invited to share their opinions with store managers and regional
It's certainly not the kind of top-down management employed by
most supermarket chains, and many employees say the process gives them a
real voice in decision making. "I had a sense of dignity," says
Christine Westfall, a former Whole Foods employee. "I felt my opinions
were heard." Nearly half of Whole Foods employees nationwide completed a
confidential morale survey last year, and 82 percent said they generally
enjoy their work.
But when it comes to workers organizing themselves, Mackey
sounds every bit the boss. He calls unions "parasites" that "feed on
union dues," and compares them to "having herpes. It doesn't kill you ,
but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from
becoming your lover."
In a nineteen-page treatise called "Beyond Unions," Mackey lays
out a position on organized labor that views everyone -- from Bill Gates
to a single parent on welfare -- as economic equals. Unions are
unnecessary, Mackey explains, because "the foundation of a market economy
is mutual voluntary exchange" between employees and employers.
Translation: If workers don't like their jobs, they're free to go work
someplace else. Quoting the economist Milton Friedman, whose free-market
theories formed the basis of Reaganomics, Mackey insists that
"competition is the best protection for the largest number of workers
that has yet been found
or devised." Unions, he concludes, "are not part of the solution at
Whole Foods Market. Rather they are part of the problem."
Whole Foods has repeatedly backed up its anti-union rhetoric
with union-busting action. In 1988, the company refused to honor the
United Farm Workers grape boycott and had union picketers at its Austin
store arrested. In 1991, Whole Foods was forced to reinstate an employee
in Berkeley after she filed a claim with the National Labor Relations
Board, saying the company had fired her in retaliation for her pro-union
statements. Last November, the company bought two Westward Ho stores in
the Los Angeles area, and promptly replaced seventy union workers with
Most recently, Whole Foods has distributed a brochure at stores
across the country, attacking the U.F.W. and siding with the strawberry
industry. The brochure noted that federal and state laws require farms
"to pay minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and provide a clean working
environment," and assured customers that "most large growers comply with
the laws and go further by offering health insurance to their workers."
Besides, the company added, "Many of the strawberry workers we have
talked with also told us they believed they had the opportunity, if they
so desired, to freely vote whether to unionize or not."
Many strawberry pickers who have tried to organize tell a
different story. Labor laws often go unenforced, and workers who vote
to join a union sometimes find themselves out of work. In 1995, for
instance, the California Labor Relations Board lodged a complaint against
a grower called VCNM Farms. Workers in the fields had voted 332 to 50 to
join the U.F.W.
The week after the vote, however, the farm plowed under a fourth of its
strawberries. The next month, it shut down entirely, throwing 400
pickers out of work. VCNM eventually paid $113,000 in back wages to
settle the complaint, but workers never got their jobs back -- and
strawberry pickers at other farms got a clear warning signal that
organizing could cost
them their livelihood.
After several months, Whole Foods pulled the anti-union brochure
from its stores and replaced it with a milder version. "Admittedly the
tone in the first one was a little off base," says Peter Roy, president
of the company. "I probably wrote that at a point I was wanting to fight
The conflict over strawberry workers comes at a time when some
Whole Foods employees are expressing strong dissatisfaction with their
own wages and working conditions. At the Whole Foods-owned Wellspring
market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, every member of the kitchen staff
-- the largest department in the store -- recently signed a letter to
saying low wages and understaffing are undermining morale and fueling
high turnover. Employees urge the company to improve wages to keep pace
with growth, just as it upgrades equipment to meet increasing demand.
Both low wages and understaffing are driven in part by a Whole
Foods incentive program called "gain sharing." Under a complex formula,
each department receives a monthly labor budget and sales goals set by
management. If a department meets its goals without spending all of its
budget, part of the savings is divided up among employees. The idea is
to give employees an opportunity to increase their take-home pay by
working more efficiently, giving them a vested interest in the
performance of their entire team.
In reality, however, gain sharing winds up varying widely
between departments: those with smaller staffs and more profitable
products, like vitamins or meat, tend to fare better than larger units
like the kitchen or cashiers. As a result, employees stocking celery in
section may boost their take-home pay by several dollars an hour, while
chopping celery in the back make next to nothing. "There's a big
difference between the teams," says Scott O'Kelley, a former employee.
"Some teams rake in the profits, but those of us in the kitchen didn't
really share in the gains."
In addition to promoting inequities within stores, many
employees say gain sharing encourages teams to leave positions vacant.
Fewer workers, after all, means fewer people to share bonuses. "I have
seen many instances where departments would be understaffed because the
team members wanted to up their gain sharing," says Christine Westfall.
"It got stressful
because there weren't enough people to do the work."
Although the company says it pays its employees nationwide an
average of $20,600 a year, the inconsistency of gain sharing keeps many
of its workers in poverty. According to compensation guidelines in one
region, annual wages for all full-time workers except meat cutters,
bakers, buyers and team leaders range from $11,500 to $17,500. Wages are
employees reach the ceiling, they never receive a raise. Whole Foods
provides no cost-of-living increases, and overtime pay is almost unheard
of. Those who work full-time receive basic health insurance or select
other benefits from a menu of options, but any drop in hours means they
must pay extra for coverage.
The wages and benefits at Whole Foods contrast sharply with
those provided to grocery workers who belong to a union. Members of the
United Food and Commercial Workers employed at Kroger grocery stores in
the same region, for instance, receive hourly wages of more than $18,000
after several years on the job, plus annual raises to keep up with
inflation and at least $1,800 in guaranteed bonuses. Those who work
Sundays receive time and a half. Full health insurance, including
dental and eye care, is free to full-time employees and their families,
as well as to all part-timers and retirees.
At Whole Foods, the message for employees who want pay raises is
simple: Work harder with fewer people. The concept is presented as a
form of worker empowerment. "The teams have a huge amount of control
over their own efficiency," says Portia McKnight, a Whole Foods store
manager. "If teams run more efficiently, they can have fewer people..."
reconsidering her words. "They can schedule fewer hours," she
continues, "and be paid at a higher rate."
Despite its worker-friendly reputation, the company makes no
the fact that all of its workers are employed "at will." All Whole
Foods employees must sign a form acknowledging that the company "may
choose, at its will, to end the relationship at any time with or without
cause or notice." Employees, the form makes clear, are free to do the
same. Workers at some stores have talked openly about joining a
union. Labor organizing is a right protected under federal law, and Whole
Foods says its employees are free to join a union if they choose. "If
our team members ever felt that they needed to pay a third party to
represent their interests with the leadership of Whole Foods, then we
have fallen grossly short in upholding a core value of the company," says
president Peter Roy. At one Whole Foods store, though, workers say talk
of organizing came to an abrupt halt when the company eliminated the job
of an employee who raised concerns with top executives. "Everybody was
totally freaked out,"
says one worker. "They knew if they talked about problems they were
going to get treated the same way. It taught everyone a powerful
lesson." Another employee who talked with co-workers about the benefits
of organizing was approached by a manager. "The word's getting around
you're talking about a union," the manager said. "You better knock it
off. John Mackey hates
The Bottom Line
As Whole Foods continues its quest to dominate the natural foods
market, it's inevitable that workers will feel increasingly squeezed by
the pace of growth and the demands of shareholders. The question is
whether they will have the kind of voice the company has promised them in
shaping their own workplace. Mackey likes to call Whole Foods a
"fun-loving family." But for some employees, the phrase evokes overtones
of paternalism rather than cooperation, making it all too clear who is
the father and who are the children. "They try to pretend they're this
really lovey-dovey company, when in fact the bottom line is the dollar,"
says Lisa Longerich, who ran a Whole Foods bakery. "The bigger the
company grows, the less it cares about the people who work for it."
It strikes employees as hypocritical for Whole Foods to sell
itself on its higher standards and then complain when it is held to those
standards. If Whole Foods means what it says about empowering workers,
they say, it cannot be satisfied to profit so richly from the low-wage
labor of its employees -- and it cannot listen only to those workers who
agree with it. The true test of any participatory workplace is how it
treats its most vocal critics -- be they farmworker activists in the
street or employees behind the cash register -- all of whom share its
desire for a healthier
and happier planet. "People who shop at Whole Foods should push the
company to stick as much as possible to the original values of the
natural foods movement," says Christine Westfall. "It's an issue of
social responsibility. It's not enough to support the environment or
products for animals. I think human rights should be at the top of that
Eric Bates is a staff writer for the North Carolina Independent
Campaign for Food Safety/Organic Consumers Action
860 Hwy 61
Little Marais, Mn. 55614
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