John Nichols: Unionizing Whole Foods would be fitting

By John Nichols

The Capital Times, Madison, WI, June 27, 2002

The trouble with most chain stores is that they impose a set of commercial, cultural and political pretenses on a community that - although often cloaked by clever marketing - are at odds with the values of most people who live in that community. Take, as an example, the Whole Foods chain. People who don't know much about Madison or Wisconsin might think Whole Foods would be a natural fit in a community that values fresh food, organic farming and sustainable approaches to agriculture. But another of this city's most precious values is a commitment to economic justice for the people who power the food chain from the field to the cash register. On this account, Whole Foods seems to be wholly at odds with the values of Madison and Wisconsin. Back in 1988, when Texas activists began distributing literature supporting a United Farm Workers boycott of grapes in front of the Whole Foods store in Austin, Whole Foods managers had the activists arrested. This was the beg! inning of many years of bitter disputes between the union that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hailed for "righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people" and a chain store that markets itself as a different kind of corporation. In 1996, when the UFW was mounting a national campaign in support of strawberry field workers, the union asked the owners of the Whole Foods chain to join the owners of more than 5,000 other grocery stores in pledging to support initiatives aimed at securing basic union protections and a living wage for strawberry workers. Whole Foods did not respond. When activists with the UFW's Strawberry Workers Campaign hand-delivered a letter to Whole Foods headquarters, Whole Foods officials did not just refuse to sign the pledge - they went on the attack against a union of migrant laborers. In an effort to discredit the farm workers union, Whole Foods began distributing anti-union propaganda produced by a front group for the strawberry industry. The Whole Foods chain went so far as to lie to its customers by distributing literature that claimed the UFW was not supportive of sustainable agriculture. In fact, the UFW's mission statement contains an explicit commitment to "promote and create a safe and healthful food supply for agricultural workers and consumers." And the union led the fight against the excessive use of pesticides and other agribusiness abuses. In an effort to maintain the company's hip image, Whole Foods told customers it would "fully support the union if that is what the workers decide." Yet Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is a bitter critic of organized labor who says unions are "like herpes." This year, a majority of workers at the Whole Foods store on Madison's west side signed on with an effort to organize a union. Officially, the company claims - as it did when it attacked the farm workers union that Bobby Kennedy said represented the most ignored and exploited laborers in America - that it respects the rights of workers to organize. Yet, as a July 12 union recognition vot! e approaches, the Whole Foods chain is up to its old tricks. Just as the company attacked the United Farm Workers, it is now ordering workers to attend mandatory meetings in which the company criticizes the United Food and Commercial Workers union that workers at the Madison store want to represent them. Brendan O'Sullivan, one of the workers seeking to form the union, says the company is "stirring up all the old negative stereotypes, trying to scare people into voting against the union." This is not surprising. If Whole Foods workers succeed in organizing a union here, this will be the first union shop of the chain's 134 stores. Thus, voting for the union would not merely guarantee better wages, benefits and treatment for workers here. It could begin the process of forcing this chain to respect the values of Madison and other communities where Whole Foods stores are located. When UFW founder Cesar Chavez visited Madison to promote grape boycotts, he hailed this Midwestern ! town for recognizing the role unions play in advancing the cause of so cial justice. After his death, Madison attempted to repay the compliment by naming a school for Chavez. But the best memorial Madison could provide would be to make this the town where the Whole Foods chain - which so disrespected the farm workers union - begins to show some respect for the trade union movement to which Chavez devoted his life.