from the madison, WI Captial Times

Whole Foods workers vote to join union

A first for the nationwide chain

By Lynn Wohlwend
July 13, 2002

Workers at Madison's Whole Foods Market have become the first in the company's nationwide chain of stores to successfully gain union representation.

In a vote of 65 to 54 Friday, the United Food and Commercial Workers union was chosen to represent the employees. Labor organizers are seeking better benefits and wages and more respect from management.

David Newby, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said the vote was a victory with national consequences.

"This is obviously the first one to go union, and given the contact workers have had with other stores, we expect a number of other additional organizations around the country," Newby said.

Whole Foods Market is a nationwide chain of more than 130 stores that sells natural and organic foods. Out of the approximately 140 employees at the Madison store who were eligible to vote, 125 cast ballots Friday.

Labor organizer Debbie Rasmussen was relieved at the outcome of the vote and planned to celebrate Friday night.

"It's something that a lot of us have worked really hard for the last four months," Rasmussen said. "It's the most exciting thing that has happened in my life."

In an e-mail to The Capital Times, Kate Lowery, a corporate spokeswoman for Whole Foods, expressed the company's unhappiness with the decision.

"We are surprised and disappointed that team members in our Madison store have voted by a narrow margin to be represented by the UFCW," Lowery wrote. "We firmly believe that with our new regional and store leadership in place, our Madison team members would have soon realized our firm commitment to our founding core values that include team member excellence and happiness."

In an interview, Lowery said the company has seven days to contest the election. She declined comment on the possibility of an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board.

Rasmussen said organizers are planning to talk with workers to see what kind of changes they would like to see.

Pointing out that the employees' manual promotes respect for its workers, she said the company can now practice what it preaches.

She said she hopes to see "more respect for workers and more of a partnership between labor and management."

Organizers had been confident of the vote, despite a corporate management that claimed publicly that a union would run contrary to the spirit of the store.

"We fully expected to win," Rasmussen said. "Especially over the last week, we really picked up momentum."

Newby said the vote was also significant because of who was organizing the push for a union.

"Most people don't think of workers in their 20s as union organizers," Newby said. "A whole new generation of union organizers is beginning to emerge."

Delicatessen worker Brendan O'Sullivan oversaw the election process Friday and said he was "really drained" after the ordeal, but pleased.

"We did a really good job of educating people about unions," O'Sullivan said. "It will be the first time we will have a seat at the table to discuss policies at the store and conditions of employment."

Published: 6:19 AM 7/13/02