grocery wars

Inside the Fight to Unionize Whole Foods

A Whole Foods worker at a location in New York. Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On November 1, Amazon will increase its starting pay to $15 an hour, a move that labor activists cheered as a watershed for the living-wage campaign, which will reportedly affect 350,000 employees, including those who work for Whole Foods, a chain that has — since Amazon’s purchase in 2017 — been under a microscope resulting in a string of negative press. Employees have dealt with a mass exodus of veteran execs, a revolt by angry longtime vendors, and multiple reports of low workplace morale. Meanwhile, lost among the stories touting the pay raise was the news that, to offset the new costs, employees will no longer receive bonuses or stock as part of their compensation.

The situation has gotten to a point where a push to unionize has started to gain momentum among workers. Organizers say they now fear that layoffs, benefits rollbacks, and job automation could be on the horizon. The group, called Whole Worker, also says that Amazon’s raise doesn’t go far enough. Organizers spent this past week on Twitter and Instagram disabusing people of the notion that this move was done out of the kindness of Jeff Bezos’s heart. (It’s worth noting that Amazon’s stock price has doubled in value since October 2017.)

Grub Street talked with Whole Worker’s three co-founders, Matthew Hunt (who, until recently, worked at a store in Manhasset, New York) and “Tyler” and “Lisa,” who currently work at a Whole Foods in the Rocky Mountain region and wanted to remain anonymous so that they could speak candidly without fear of retribution at their jobs. This is what they say is the reality of working at Whole Foods, both before and after the Amazon takeover.

$15 an hour is one of America’s highest minimum wages, and Amazon of course painted a picture of workers leaping with joy. What was the reaction that you observed at your stores?
Lisa: The mood was celebratory in the sense of, like, This is a good thing. But Amazon just did this in a panic. Management was very much kept in the dark. I went on break at 8 a.m., and I checked the news. I saw the headline about $15 and told my store team leader. He was like, “We’re just finding out ourselves, but we don’t know when it’s gonna happen.” I said, “Well, the news says on November 1.”

Tyler: So many people love this company and have tried to build careers here, but for many of them — Lisa is one — their wages are capped out. They want to know if they’re going to have resources. Whole Foods’ core value is setting people up for success, but over the last four years, since Whole Foods started consolidating positions, tons of people feel like they’re being set up to fail. [Nothing about this raise] spoke to any of their concerns, and the fact that leadership didn’t have any answers made them look incompetent.

The mood isn’t exactly wild celebration?
Lisa: Most people were just skeptical. Also, they were like, “What about our labor budget? Are our hours just gonna get cut? Will this even be a raise?” Everyone is burned out, too, so people are wondering if it’s going to make their jobs harder. All very valid questions, and no one has answers right now.

So Amazon didn’t adequately prep store leaders?
Lisa: That’s how everything is now, in general. Communication about new programs, they maybe get the day before. Amazon wants to, sort of, surprise its customers, but that doesn’t work with employees because they can’t plan. We all look like idiots. Customers come in with questions, and we go, “We don’t know. We just found that out, too.” It’s embarrassing.

When’s the last time you remember being embarrassed like that?
Lisa: Some of the Prime rollouts for sure.

Tyler: Do you remember the Thanksgiving turkeys?

Lisa: Ugh. We order our turkeys months in advance. Like, we probably ordered last year’s before the Amazon buyout even went through. But last Thanksgiving, lots of people placed orders, then other people came in and tried to get the Prime deal. And we had to say, “We can’t even give you a turkey because all of ours are saved for customers who preordered.”

Earlier this year, a wave of news stories said it was now “normal” for employees to cry in the workplace. How accurate did that feel for you?
Lisa: I’ve seen people cry because of OTS. They cried the most during OTS certification, when everyone was really under a microscope. You had this OTS crew come into the store, telling you where things had to go and grading you on these scorecards. You did get more breathing room once the certification was over, but some people also cried out of happiness when they passed.

Matthew: I started in May of 2014, and the first day I was there, I knew the work conditions were going to be terrible. I saw a complete lack of cashiers, no one bagging groceries, lines practically going back into the aisles. The store was small, only about 150 team members, and it smelled like literal shit because the store’s cesspool would overflow and flood the building. Other workers said this had been going on for a long time before I got there, but I know it happened again as recently as March or April. I sent a complaint to OSHA, I called the Department of Agriculture, the local department of health, and as far as I know, nothing was done.

The store was also very understaffed. Firings happened constantly. There was definitely discrimination against black employees — I saw about ten black employees get fired in a row. And the wages were absolutely terrible. I started with a bachelor’s degree making $11 or $11.50, and left at $12.50 after three years.

Did the Amazon purchase improve things at all?
Lisa: There were layoffs in 2015, and the only other layoffs came this March. They fired the graphic artists at every store, the marketing position, and our payroll benefits specialist.

News reports at the time said that, in order to get their severance, the graphic artists had to stick around until July, which meant working for several additional months, even though they knew their jobs would stop. I assume that didn’t do wonders for their work quality.
Lisa: It was sort of, “Eh, we’re just gonna show up, hang the stuff we need to hang, and clock out at 4 o’clock.”

Tyler: Our graphic artist stayed really busy up until he left because our store knew that marketing and graphics and signage were all going to be centralized, and there was nothing in place [for when that happened]. Our store team leader sort of foresaw that the system replacing the graphic artist wasn’t ready. In fact, we still have a bunch of stuff up from our old graphic artist because nothing has come in to replace it. There was really only one person per store who could do that. Most of the graphic artists were people who’d been there for a long time, really beloved team members. [When they were laid off], it was very frustrating for the other teams in the store because they relied on that person.

Lisa: Whole Foods used to pride themselves on the art, having these beautiful chalk signs, letting each store create its own energy and images that represent the community. But the individuality is gone. The signs are very homogenous now.

Tyler: It felt bizarre because Whole Foods had been stressing local brands, but I would contend that there is no such thing as a local Whole Foods anymore. Even purchasing is moving in a global, centralized direction.

At some point during all of this, the three of you decided that corporate wasn’t committed to finding solutions. Actually, now is probably the time to mention that Matt got fired for organizing at his store.
Matthew: I decided that I was going to try organizing on day one — it was just that goddamn awful, to be blunt. There was definitely suspicion among leadership early on that I was a “salt,” someone secretly paid to go in and organize. I was not. I was a grassroots organizer. I saw friends crying after getting off the phone with regional coordinators because they were treated that badly. I saw a friend of mine, a lesbian, quit because the mostly male leadership tormented her beyond belief. That was my big motivator, that this could happen at a company that supposedly treats its workers better than other companies.

Amazon and Whole Foods are notorious union-busters. Recently, a training video leaked that reportedly instructed managers “to watch out for warning signs of union activity and to tell possible union members that joining a union is a ‘roll of the dice.’” Do you think they’re scaring employees away?
Tyler: Yes, 100 percent. It’s interesting that Whole Foods says it believes in team-member happiness and excellence and this open-door policy, yet so many workers are terrified. The cities where we know our materials are being distributed — Boston, New York, and Chicago specifically — are the areas that are seeing the most anti-union meetings.

Matthew: A lot of the employees we’re talking to say the minimum wage hike, while great, is still just an attempt to stop any unionizing. They’ll say to us, “If we had a union, we’d be getting paid $18, $20 an hour and getting benefits.” They see this as an attempt to knock the wind out of our sails.

One week before Thanksgiving, Whole Foods surprised Prime members with an exclusive promotion: 20 percent off any whole turkey. “Order to shelf” is the name of Whole Foods’ new inventory-management system that has reportedly caused frustration among workers and customers. Whole Foods laid off hundreds of workers in March, including stores’ in-house designers who created each location’s unique signage.
Inside the Fight to Unionize Whole Foods