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Labor Unrest Brewing at Whole Foods & Other Natural Food Supermarkets

May. 08, 2004

For Organic Stores, Unrest Blooming over Labor Practices

By Lisa Fernandez
San Jose Mercury News (California)

When their favorite clerks went on strike this year, many Southern
California shoppers showed worker solidarity by boycotting Safeway and
patronizing alternative grocery stores.

But if shoppers are serious about supporting workers, union advocates say,
they might do better back in the corporate world of Safeway. Many organic
food stores, born in the 1960s with the promise to bring ``conscious
capitalism'' to the marketplace, lag behind the big chains when it comes to
labor relations. Some clerks in organic stores charge that baby lettuce is
treated better than they are.

Workers have brought complaints to the National Labor Relations Board
against Berkeley Bowl, a now-closed Real Foods in San Francisco and Whole
Foods in Madison, Wis., for allegedly firing, threatening or bribing
employees who sought to unionize.

But managers at organic shops counter that they act more benevolently than
unions. Being non-union, they say, allows for more democracy and creative

That granola-and-brown-rice stores are fighting union battles four decades
after back-to-Eden types started the organic movement shows how far they are
from reforming capitalism. It also raises questions for progressive-minded
customers who hope that by shopping organic, they are making the world a
better place.

``Where do you go?'' asked Helen Wall, 35, of Oakland. ``I want to do the
right thing, but it seems like you can't buy food anywhere.''

Union differences

Of the roughly 23,000 union grocery workers in Santa Clara, San Mateo, San
Francisco, Santa Cruz and Alameda counties, none work at alternative,
organic markets. Often, these ``at will'' employees say they start at from
$9 to $11 an hour, and become eligible to earn as much as $19 an hour if
they prove to be good workers. Safeway clerks, for example, start at about
$8.75 an hour and top out at $19 according to union scale.

It's the ``at will' status that bothers Kim Rohrbach, 39, of San Francisco.
She said she was fired from Real Foods in Noe Valley last August after she
and three dozen co-workers tried to unionize, charges that are outlined in
filings with the National Labor Relations Board. In an interview, she said
managers ``inconsistently enforced store policies,'' doling out better
vacation schedules to favorite employees, as one example. And after two
years, she said, the highest-paid clerks earned up to $13 an hour.

Real Foods' parent company, Nutraceutical International in Utah, did not
return several phone calls, but told customers the store closed for
renovations. The store was gutted, but neighbors say there's been no
activity in the store in five months.

Employees at other stores report frustration -- and fear of unionizing.

``I'm going to quit,'' said a 20-something Whole Foods checker in Palo Alto
who earns $9.50 an hour and said she was too scared to be identified. She
said she gets the evil eye from managers when the ``U'' word is brought up:
``I feel powerless.''

Stressing `team'

Feeling powerless is far from the norm, said Ron Megahan, president of Whole
Foods' Northern Pacific region. He stressed that ``team member excellence
and happiness,'' along with ``shared fate'' and ``respect for the
individual'' are core values at the Texas-based company. Workers don't need
a union to have a voice, he said, pointing to a vote at the company's 150
stores, including the 15 in the Bay Area, in which employees chose what
benefits to include in a health package.

Aside from pay, if there's any kind of grievance, a ``third party'' isn't
needed, Megahan said, because ``team members'' and their bosses are
encouraged to work things out between themselves. Employees also vote on
whether colleagues should pass a three-month probationary period, and they
have a say in who gets hired or promoted.

`They want to dictate'

Katie Quan, chairwoman of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the
University of California-Berkeley, said the management philosophy at
liberal-minded stores often reveals an interesting dynamic. Progressive
companies believe their employees should be willing to take less pay to
reach a common goal, she said, and want ``unmitigated control'' of the

``They want to dictate,'' she said. ``Their rationale? `The employees don't
need a voice, I speak for them.' They think, `I'm being a good citizen of
the world, why can't the employees be grateful and pitch in and work with
me?' ''

The employees, in turn, are hurt, Quan said, because they can't figure out
why their bosses seem to care about fair trade more than they care about
their workforce.

``There does seem to be a paradox for companies who purport being
progressive and their employment conditions,'' Quan said. ``They have these
progressive goals, talking about the environment, being anti-war. But they
often leave out labor standards.''

In the wake of last year's union brouhaha at Berkeley Bowl, where charges
were made that two employees were fired, and others were threatened and
bribed by managers not to unionize, cashiers were bumped up from an average
of $10 an hour to about $18. All sides agree this is a decent wage.

But United Food and Commercial Workers representative Tim Hamann said that
unlike a union contract, there is nothing in writing that guarantees this
salary, and the pay increase came about only afterthe organizing efforts.
And on April 30, the national labor board mailed Berkeley Bowl a complaint
showing the agency found enough merit to the employees' complaints to
forward the case to trial.

Larry Evans, Berkeley Bowl's store manager, said he truly believes ``the
Bowl'' treats its 240 workers better than a union would. While unions were
necessary in the early 20th century to combat sweatshops, Evans said, unions
today ``personify the fat-cat politic thing. I don't think they're looking
out for what's best for the worker. They nurture incompetence.''

Customer statement

Neighbors in Noe Valley run a weekly farmers market after last year's union
drive tore apart their beloved Real Foods. They want to make a statement
about labor conditions with the food they buy.

``We're resisting the anonymous faceless company that is disconnected from
the progressive values of our community,'' said Peter Gabel, a leader of the
customer revolt. ``We're inventing something new, to be an ethically
committed neighbor.''
Contact Lisa Fernandez at or (510) 790-7313