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Starbucks and Whole Foods Pay Lip Service to Fair Trade while Preventing Their Workers from Forming Unions

Shortly before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the manager of a Whole Foods grocery store in the San Francisco Bay Area gathered his employees in a conference room for a chat about labor organizing. "This is not a union-bashing thing whatsoever," the manager began, adding, however, that he'd called the meeting because Whole Foods believed Obama would sign the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation intended to ease unionization that was opposed by the company's lobbyists. According to a tape of the meeting obtained by Mother Jones, the manager went on to imply that joining a union would lead to reprisals: "It's interesting to note that once you become represented by the union," he said, "basically everything, every benefit you have, is kind of thrown out the window, and you renegotiate a contract."

"I think it's probably fair to construe [that comment] as a threat," concluded Tim Peck, a representative of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in San Francisco, after Mother Jones read him quotes from the meeting, one of several anti-union trainings held by the company in recent months. Peck pointed out that labor law bars employers from threatening to strip benefits from workers in retaliation for unionizing. "The 'flying out the window' [comment] kind of suggests that the benefits are gone," he noted. Legally, "that wouldn't pass muster."

That Whole Foods stands accused of union busting comes at an inconvenient time for the company, which late last month unveiled the Committee for a Level Playing Field for Union Elections, a partnership with Starbucks and Costco that aims to rewrite the Employee Free Choice Act. This year's top priority for organized labor, EFCA would allow employees to form a union automatically if a majority of them sign pledge cards-a plan known as "card check" - instead of requiring them to vote in secret elections that unions say employers can manipulate. Whole Foods opposes card check, yet has rankled business interests by suggesting other ways to make it easier for workers to unionize, such as guaranteeing union campaigners access to workers and boosting enforcement and penalties for labor law violations. "This is a third way," says Whole Foods' attorney Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton and self-described "pro-labor, liberal Democrat."

Unlike Costco, where 20 percent of workers are represented by the Teamsters, Whole Foods and Starbucks stores haven't been organized by traditional unions. And yet their cultures are steeped in the language and norms of the labor movement. Starbucks calls its workers "partners" and Whole Foods dubs them "team members." A "Business Conduct Helpline" allows Starbucks baristas to a report workplace issues anonymously, and special committees of Whole Foods workers and managers resolve disputes. Both companies offer employees relatively generous wages and health benefits and routinely make Fortune's list of "Best Companies to Work For."

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