Last week Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced his opposition to a proposed new Whole Foods Market in West Seattle, claiming the chain offers employees low wages and poor benefits. His opposition comes in the wake of a recent vote in Washington D.C. to pass fair-wage legislation despite threats from Wal-Mart—a potential sign that major cities may be willing to push big corporations to treat workers fairly, or at least hold them accountable if they don’t. The Seattle store would be the city’s seventh Whole Foods. McGinn and a citizens’ group called “Getting It Right for West Seattle” oppose the development while the Seattle Chamber of Commerce has condemned the mayor's move and popular city radio host Dori Monson has taken up the case for the chain’s new store.Though Whole Foods claims it pays its 1,500 Seattle workers an average of $16.15 an hour, McGinn finds this claim dubious. And in a July 15 letter to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) the mayor asked SDOT to decline a request that the store be granted use of what is now a public alleyway, speaking out against the store’s policies. There are already seven large supermarkets within a mile and half of the site, at least six of which offer employer-paid, comprehensive affordable health benefits for full and part time employees and their families, as well as family-supporting wage scales.The mayor charges that Whole Foods’ benefits are difficult to qualify for and have high accompanying premiums. “What we see at Whole Foods is they are working to keep people below 30 hours a week so they don’t have to buy them health insurance.”A statement from the regional president of Whole Foods Joe Rogoff vehemently denies many of McGinn’s claims about the chain, saying that the store pays more than the union contract.But it’s no secret that Whole Foods is apparently “beyond unions”—handing out pamphlets of the name to fend off unionizing attempts. The chain, which is the nation’s second largest non-unionized food retailer, has responded to accusations that it is no better than Wal-Mart in terms of labor practices by claiming its motivation is beyond profit or personal gain.The city council has the final say on approving the project and plans to vote on Whole Foods’ request for the use of the public alleyway in the next month. It’s likely Seattleites will soon have another outpost to buy their bulk granola. Still, McGinn’s attempts—coupled with the recent D.C. decision—could be indicative of a growing trend of cities working to attract more fair and responsible businesses.
Emma Foehringer Merchant is a summer 2013 editorial intern.