By Marc Norton
NOVEMBER 7, 2014 – Three days ago, Bay Area voters raised minimum wages in San Francisco and Oakland. There were also successful campaigns to raise minimum wages in Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Yesterday, workers at the San Francisco Whole Foods Market at 4th and Harrison Streets took the fight for fair wages to another level. Early this afternoon, a delegation of workers presented management with a demand for a $5-an-hour across-the-board wage increase for all employees. Workers at the store currently earn from $11 to $19.25 an hour.
At the call of an air horn, a contingent of workers in the store stopped work and gathered at the café bar near the store’s entrance. Other Whole Foods workers, who were not on duty but who had infiltrated the store, joined them, along with a number of supporters. They then summoned the store manager. As workers and supporters gathered around, and customers looked on somewhat bewildered, long-time Whole Foods worker Nick announced to the assembled crowd, “We are the Industrial Workers of the World.”
Nick and two other Whole Foods workers, both women, presented their demands for better wages and better treatment: “We are ready to earn enough at this job so that we can quit the other two.” Ryan Rosprim, the store manager, listened patiently, but did not respond.
The workers ended the gathering with a demand for an answer by November 14, when their next paycheck is due. At that, on-the-clock workers returned to their jobs, while the other workers and their supporters exited the store, chanting “Si, Se Puede!”
Outside, workers and supporters conducted a brief rally and picket.
“We are workers at Whole Foods Market building a movement for power and a voice on the job,” reads a petition that had been circulated at the store, signed by more than 50 workers. “This is our movement, we are capable of victory, and we are worth it.”
In addition to demanding the $5 wage increase, the petition raises issues about paid time off, hours and scheduling, safety and health, and a retirement plan.
A leaflet distributed to customers during Thursday’s job action said that a “2014 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a worker in San Francisco must earn $29.83 an hour just to rent a one bedroom apartment in the City. Even with a $15 an hour minimum wage on its way [in San Francisco], that is half of what a worker must earn… It is simply NOT ENOUGH.”
After the rally, the crowd broke into the perennial chant, “We’ll be back!”
The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday period is a key time of the year for sales at Whole Foods, and a huge profit generator.
The November 14 deadline that workers have set is two weeks before Thanksgiving. The IWW leaders say that workers will begin taking job actions if they don’t get a positive response from management by their deadline.
Whole Foods is a multinational chain specializing in what the company describes as natural and organic foods. The company has nearly 400 stores in the US, Canada and Great Britain, with $13 billion in annual sales, and 80,000 employees. Prices are high, which is why Whole Foods is colloquially known as the “whole paycheck” store. The company is headquartered in Texas.
This is not the first time that the Whole Foods Market on 4th Street has been the scene of labor action. Two years ago, there was a picket line at the store after a popular, long-standing worker – known for helping other workers in beefs with management – was terminated. That picket line also took place during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Last Saturday evening, Whole Foods workers packed the IWW office in the Redstone Building at 16th and Mission Streets to strategize for the Thursday action. They made plans for the delegation and to get leaflets and picket signs together. They listened to a presentation about Whole Foods’ anti-union stance, heard a report from their legal advisor, and got words of encouragement from supporters.
The IWW has been around, in one form or another, since 1905. The union sets its aim high. The preamble to the IWW constitution reads: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
The founder and CEO of Whole Foods is John Mackey, who describes himself as a “free market libertarian” who says he was a “democratic socialist” until he opened his first store.
Today, Mackey is a founder of Conscious Capitalism, Inc., which holds conferences and events targeted at CEOs and their “executive teams, entrepreneurs and the coaches and consultants who serve and support them,” and hawks Mackey’s book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.
In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission took Whole Foods to court for violating federal antitrust laws in a proposed merger aimed at cornering the “premium natural and organic” supermarket business. In the course of this action, the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation of Mackey when it became known that he had for years posted comments under an alias on a Yahoo financial forum boosting Whole Foods and slamming the company’s rivals. “I had fun doing it,” Mackey bragged.
Mackey’s mouth can run a little wild. He once told a reporter, “The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient.”
Just last June, Whole Foods agreed to pay an $800,000 penalty for overcharging customers, after an investigation by the city attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Monica. The illegal actions included “failing to deduct the weight of containers when ringing up fresh food, putting smaller amounts into packages than the weight stated on the label, and selling items by the piece instead of the pound, as required by law,” according to the Los Angeles Times. As part of the settlement, which applies to all stores in both Northern and Southern California, the company is required to have an employee at each store dedicated to insuring that pricing is correct.
CEO Mackey has in the past boasted that of “all the food retailers in the Fortune 500… we have the highest profits as a percentage of sales, as well as the highest return on invested capital.” The IWW workers at Whole Foods know full well that their labor is the source of that profit.
A few weeks ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an expected contender for the Republican nomination for President in 2016, grumbled to a Chamber of Commerce audience, “I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage.”
Well, Governor Christie, workers are also tired of hearing about the minimum wage, especially the minimum part. As much as an increase in the minimum wage is welcomed, we need a whole lot more than $10, $12 or $15 an hour to survive in the 21st century with any degree of dignity and respect.
Whole Foods’ current public relations slogan is “Values Matter.” We will see in a few days whether or not this is just “conscious capitalism” rhetoric.
A call shortly after the action to Ryan Rosprim, the store manager, has not been returned as of press time. A call and email to Whole Foods’ Northern California Press contact, Beth Krauss, has also gone unanswered.
Shortly after the action on Thursday, the workers’ new website at www.wfmunite.com went live.
Marc Norton has been a rank-and-file member of UNITE HERE Local 2, the San Francisco hotel, restaurant and culinary workers union, since 1976. He is also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 2010, Norton was fired from his job as a bellman at Hotel Frank, now Hotel G. The story of the outcome of the fight at Hotel Frank/Hotel G has not yet been told. Norton’s website is www.MarcNorton.us.