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Working In These Times

Monday, Dec 2, 2013, 4:23 pm

How Chicago Whole Foods Workers Won Back Thanksgiving

BY Amien Essif

Matthew Camp (center) joined fellow Whole Foods employees to protest having to work on Thanksgiving. (Fight for 15 - Lucha Por 15 WOCC)  

On Wednesday around 5 p.m., half an hour into a rally to support striking Chicago Whole Foods workers, striker Matthew Camp took up the bullhorn and announced: "We got news that our company will now allow anyone who wants Thanksgiving off to have the day off." The assembly of about 100 demonstrators let out a cheer and quickly began chanting, "When we fight, we win!"

The so-called “Strikesgiving” at the Whole Foods Market on Halsted Street is the fourth strike organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) since April. WOCC, a retail and food workers' union, currently represents about 30 workers at the Halsted store, according to Camp, and has signed up more than 40 more workers at two other stores in Chicago, though some of those registered no longer work at Whole Foods. WOCC does not yet have a contract with the grocery chain, but it's using the strikes as a tactic to fuel support for the organizing campaign among workers and the public.

On Wednesday, at least seven Whole Foods workers represented by WOCC either walked out or stayed home from work in order to demand that the company pay all its workers a living wage of $15 an hour and close its stores on Thanksgiving Day so that workers could participate in the holiday. 

While Whole Foods did not agree to shut down its Chicago stores, company spokesperson McKinzey Crossland informed Salon’s Josh Eidelson on Wednesday afternoon that working on the holiday was voluntary for all workers and that Chicago-area Whole Foods workers would be allowed to request time off for Thanksgiving even if they had not yet done so. 

Striking workers heralded the statement as a win. 

"Whole Foods is saying that Thanksgiving has always been voluntary, but that is not the case," says Deivid Rojas, communications director for WOCC. "This is a victory for us," he says, "and it has shown that organizing has worked." 

Keith Stewart, marketing director at Whole Foods Market, explained to Working In These Times why Chicago-area stores had chosen to remain open for the holiday even though some Whole Foods in other regions closed: "Whole Foods being open on Thanksgiving is about serving our customers and our community and it’s actually a long tradition connected to the Thanksgiving experience, so it seems pretty natural."

Stewart stressed that there will be no actions taken against workers who participated in the demonstration. "Team members are absolutely free to do on their personal time whatever they want," he says.

Stewart also addressed the strikers’ demand for a wage increase, arguing that Whole Foods workers in the Midwest make on average of $18 an hour, "which is a little bit higher than the $15 that they’re asking for."

While Camp agrees that Whole Foods’ wages are "on the higher end of low-wage America," he counters that the entry-level wage is $10 an hour, and, given the high turnover rate, "it would be wrong to say that your average Whole Foods worker experiences anything close to $18 an hour."

Whole Foods may pay decent wages relative to other jobs in its sector, but the grocery store has earned a reputation as a union-buster. CEO John Mackey has been known to compare unions to herpes and to personally distribute tracts titled "Beyond Unions" to his employees, and his company has defeated unionizing attempts in Madison, Wis., Berkeley, Calif., St. Paul, Minn., and Falls Church, Va., among others. Next to Walmart, the 33-year-old grocery chain is the second-largest union-free food retailer in the country. 

"Companies like Whole Foods are incredibly good at defeating traditional union drives," says Camp. He explains that WOCC, which got its start as part of the SEIU-backed Fight for 15 movement of fast-food workers, is taking a different approach: "The strategy of this [current] campaign is to struggle for victories off the bat by organizing wildcat strikes in order to have a basis on which to launch a union drive." Camp believes that actions like Strikesgiving will attract Whole Foods workers to the unionization effort and bolster public support for their eventual campaign for a contract. "Anytime people get together to organize for better working conditions, for better wages, for better environment on the job, for respect, it’s a win," says Camp. "Just by getting people together, the effect is stupendous."

During the demonstration, security guards ushered customers from the exit to the sidewalk, but a few stuck around to watch the protest. One Whole Foods shopper, who gave her name as Nancy, said, "It doesn’t seem like they’re asking for too much, in my opinion ... I think they should have reduced hours on Thanksgiving. These people need to enjoy their families, too." She says that it isn’t important for her to have a place to shop on Thanksgiving. "Plan ahead," she suggests.

José Rodriguez, a striking worker, told Working In These Times on Wednesday that he was scheduled to work on Thanksgiving but after hearing the company announcement, he was having second thoughts. "Since we won something today," said Rodriguez, laughing, "I feel like I should stay in and enjoy the holiday."

In fact, Rodriguez and about nine other workers scheduled for Thanksgiving did end up taking the day off, with the permission of management.

Camp, who chose to work the holiday, tells Working In These Times that there was no retaliation against strikers.

Amien Essif is a regular contributor to Working In These Times and maintains a blog called The Gazine, which focuses on consumerism, gentrification, and technology with a Luddite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and CounterPunch. You can find him using Twitter reluctantly: @AmienChicago

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