The Controversy Continues: Whole Foods Quietly Gutting Employee Free Choice | Civil Eats

The Controversy Continues: Whole Foods Quietly Gutting Employee Free Choice

While Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recently publicly inflamed the health care debate, behind the scenes Whole Foods has been quietly dismantling a key piece of legislation that would make it easier for workers who want to form a union to do so.

Whole Foods and Starbucks are backing a “compromise” to strip the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) of a key provision. The so-called “card-check” provision would require employers to recognize its employees’ union once a majority has signed union authorization cards. Currently, employers often refuse to recognize new unions even if all their employees have signed up. New contracts often take years to negotiate, meanwhile workers are frequently subject to harassment and sometimes fired. The card-check provision is so central to this legislation, it has been called “the card-check bill.”

Food industry giants from WalMart, to meatpacking titans Smithfield, and Hormel, to McDonalds have sent out an army of lobbyists to fight the pro-union bill. WalMart has spent $10.5 million in federal PAC spending since 2000, plus contributions to other corporate front groups lobbying against the bill.

However, unlike out-and-out opponents of the legislation, Starbucks and Whole Foods have built labor friendly images by supporting fair-trade and offering better wages than some other chains, despite being aggressively anti-union. Now it appears the retailers are cashing in on that image to modify the EFCA and remain, as Mackey says, “100% union-free.”

The hypocrisy is not lost on Whole Foods’ employees – one states, people need “to know just how false their [Whole Foods’] ‘socially responsible’ image is, especially with regards to their own workers.”

This summer Whole Foods employees are voting on their new health benefits package – the “choices” amount to a significant cut from the previous years’ packages. Reflecting employee discontent, a recent press release alludes to the need for unions to confront these cuts, saying that without “a method for organized, collective action workers can expect this promise from their employer, ‘Whole Food Market reserves the right to change, revise or eliminate any of the policies and/or benefits at any time.’”

Though reporters have discussed the EFCA compromise as if it is a done-deal, AFL-CIO union leader Candace Lund reminds us, “reports of the death of card-check have been prematurely exaggerated . . . We don’t have a compromise, just an article [making reference to the New York Times story].”

Lund’s support of the “card-check” provision is just one way unions are seeking better conditions for workers. Within the food system, organized labor has played a significant role in job quality. Research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research indicates that unionized workers in the retail food industry make 31 percent more than their non-union counterparts. The premium is even higher for part-timers (33 percent), non-supervisory workers (45 percent), and cashiers (52 percent). Union members are also more than twice as likely get part or all of their health insurance premiums paid through their job.

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Yet, unionization rates have fallen from their post World War II peak of 35%, to 26% in 1975 and today only 12% of all workers and 8% of private sector workers are unionized. This drop in union representation has come with a significant drop in wages. For example, supermarket workers’ real average earnings fell by 31% between 1978 and 1996.

Similarly, wages in the meatpacking sector have declined in real terms by 45% since the 1980’s. While pay got worse, line speeds almost doubled. Turnover rates and injuries began to mount. Patterns are similar in the packaging and processing sectors. Along with the devaluing of processing and packing labor has come countless food safety scares in everything from cookie dough to hamburger to salad greens.

The fact that food industry giants have come out in force against Employee Free Choice is indicative of something larger. Falling wages and health care coverage are trends that are recurring throughout the food system and public policy underwrites the decline – through selective enforcement of labor and anti-trust laws, but also through state welfare programs. As the food industry has become increasingly concentrated over the past two decades – cost-cutting measures have disproportionately shifted to workers whose poverty line wages are often supplemented by Medicaid, food stamps, child nutrition programs, direct government payments, and other government services.

The total estimated cost of state and federal payouts for Burger King employees alone is over $273 million a year. Multiply $273 million over all major fast food and low-wage retail food outlets, and the government is shelling out billions of dollars a year to subsidize the industry’s bottom line. According to research done by the AFL-CIO, in the company’s home state of Arkansas, Wal-Mart employees are the largest group of Medicaid recipients from any one company, accounting for 40% of the total state Medicaid budget.

One way to reverse this trend would be to make food sector jobs good jobs – by making it easier for workers who want to form a union to do so. This is why an intact Employee Free Choice Act (with majority sign-up) is crucial.

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Whole Food’s John Mackey is no fool – while he may have galvanized supporters of health care reform by speaking up, on the issue that will eat into his company’s profit margin, he remains silently, yet powerfully active.

A version of this was published at Common Dreams

Annie Shattuck is a Policy Analyst at the non-profit think tank Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, California. Zoe Brent, a visiting researcher at Food First, spent the last several years studying the labor movement and economics in Argentina and the U.S. Read more >

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  1. Sarahgoat
    I've never liked Whole Foods. They're expensive and phony. I've bought and eaten probably 60% local and organic for all my adult life, and I've only shopped there twice.

    After the CEO's comments against health care in the Wall Street Journal, Whole Foods made a statement that those were his views, not the company's. To me, this casts doubt on that statement. And really, this alone is bad enough.
  2. Martha
    There is another side to this issue. It's not just a matter of bringing in unions so that supermarkets have to pay their employees more, it's changing the public perception that food should be dirt cheap. Whole Foods catches a lot of crap for being more expensive, but I would imagine that is what gives them the luxury of being able to pay their employees more and give them health care choice. Would bringing in a union be able to increase what the general public thinks they should be paying for food. Or, would bringing in a union bring health care reform to reduce the cost to employers? Health care costs are increasing in every sector, not just food. Are we prepared to spend more for our food to provide for our food workers? I am and I vote with my feet and my dollars. But more and more, people are looking for the cheapest option with little regard to how or why the food items can be that cheap.
  3. Abigail
    I love this site but this article is a bit ridiculous…

    I know everyone one who reads Civil Eat hates Big Ag, including myself but to specifically point out Big Ag as the main group lobbying against Employee Free Choice Act (also know as card check) is to overlook that all of industry in every sector, big or small is against the bill. Industry is against the bill completely… no compromises because they believe they will win and how it is looking on the Hill they will. The bill is going to fail because of Dems like Senator Lincoln (think about what state she is from). Whole Foods and Starbucks are the only ones in industry willing to compromise with labor. They came out with a statement at the end of March of this year (below is the website to the post article). Whole Foods isn’t perfect but it better than the majority of large grocery stores in this country.

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