On the surface, it may not appear that Whole Foods and Wal-Mart have much in common. Whole Foods caters to the bourgeois bohemians that inhabit towns like Ann Arbor, while Wal-Mart is a stomping ground familiar to the NASCAR set. Despite these differences, there is one troubling similarity between both companies: They are two of the nation’s largest grocers that do not allow their employees to unionize. Whole Foods is currently under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board for anti-union practices.
Whole Foods has seen its market share and profits skyrocket in recent years due to baby boomers’ increasing awareness of their own mortality. On Sept. 24, Whole Foods will open its second Ann Arbor location, which will be one of the company’s largest stores in the nation. Organic production and the United States’ struggle with obesity alone do not explain Whole Foods’ remarkable success. In 2002, Whole Foods was the single most successful grocer in the nation, with profit margins of 3.1 percent. A key ingredient in the company’s success has been an aggressive campaign against unionization.
A recent Forbes profile of Whole Foods detailed the travails of Debbie Rasmussen, an employee in Whole Foods’ Madison, Wisc., store, who was fired for what the company called “breaking the rules and store policy.” Rasmussen believes this to mean she was terminated because of her pro-union activism. After employees voted to organize a union at the Madison store in July 2002, Whole Foods challenged the outcome of the election and then fired Rasmussen in November. John Mackey, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Whole Foods, has responded to workers’ desire to organize for collective bargaining rights with a barrage of anti-union propaganda to discourage workers from unionizing.
In addition, worker-led efforts to unionize have been swiftly quashed by management in North Carolina and Texas. National websites, such as wholeworkersunite.org, have sprung up to allow workers to show their strength in numbers anonymously. Due to the absence of union representation, workers have struggled to survive significant cuts to their health benefits and tuition assistance.
With the national economy mired in a downturn and health care costs continuing to grow at a rate higher than inflation, it is critical that service industry workers possess economic security. Michigan’s unequalled support for unions should give Whole Foods’ workers an environment conducive to organizing.