Unsweetened carob almonds are available for $5.99 a pound at Whole Foods Market, but the natural and organic food purveyor is fresh out of love for unions.

At one of the Austin-based chain's farthest outposts, the employees have revolted; workers at Whole Foods in Madison, Wisconsin voted July 12 to be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1444. It is the first store to do so in the 134-store chain, and maybe not the last — although the fate of Whole Foods' Texas employees is uncertain.

Upset with store management, freezes on pay raises, and a new dress code, in April a few Madison employees contacted the union to discuss representation. By the time Whole Foods management found out about the organizing efforts a few weeks later, more than half of the store's employees said they were in favor of unionizing.

Debbie Rasmussen, a 30-year-old juice barista at Madison's Whole Foods, was one of the first employees to try to organize. During a paid meeting mandated by store managers, Rasmussen led a walk out in front of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. The workplace is definitely tense, she said, and management has made clear that there will be no raises at the store until the situation is settled.

"Whole Foods is using a lot of typical anti-union scare tactics," Rasmussen added, "telling us that negotiations could take a very long time. They're taking the union contracts out of context."

Like Rasmussen, many employees at the Madison store are or were students at the progressive University of Wisconsin. Workers said they felt that store management had ignored them on issues like policy and wages. They also objected to a dress code that banned unnatural-colored hair, facial piercings (other than in the side of the nose, which management deemed socially acceptable), and clothing emblazoned with political messages.

"As much as Whole Foods said we were empowered, we weren't at all," Rasmussen said. "Whole Foods is saying that this happened because the Madison store is mismanaged, but other workers are countering the claim that this was an isolated event." Since the vote, Rasmussen has received nearly 30 calls and e-mails from other Whole Foods employees across the country with many of the same complaints.

But the battle is not yet over: The grocer has challenged the vote instead of allowing the National Labor Relations Board in Milwaukee to certify it. Whole Foods alleges improprieties by employee-organizers and the Local 1444 itself. The NLRB should decide the issue within a month. If it decides in favor of the union, Whole Foods could still appeal to the national office of the NLRB in Washington D.C.

Texas is one of the least unionized states in the U.S., ranking fifth (tied with Arkansas) in lowest percentage of union membership — 5.8 percent of the workforce.

A call to the San Antonio's sole Whole Foods location, at Hwy. 281 and Basse, to talk about the situation was directed to Manager Stan LaGroue. "You'll have to call the corporate office to talk about that," he said. Unable to comment more about the Madison situation, or what, if anything, the reaction was at his store, LaGroue in turn directed the Current to Kate Lowery, director of public relations at Whole Foods' corporate headquarters in Austin.

"There's really nothing to report right now," she offered, "other than the statement I e-mailed you." A single paragraph Lowery drafted following the Madison vote reads, in part:

"We are surprised and disappointed that team members in our Madison, Wisconsin store have voted to be represented by the UFCW. We firmly believe that with our new regional and store leadership in place, our Madison team members would have soon realized our firm commitment to our founding core values. To all of our team members across the country, we would like to reaffirm our dedication to those core values that include team member excellence and happiness."

Whole Foods talks a good game, and it's hard to argue with their ability to turn a profit. Austinite and CEO John Mackey founded the company 22 years ago and has purchased, acquired, or merged with 21 separate health food grocers and distributors, in addition to building nearly 100 more locations. The company has increased its number of stores from 13 to 134 nationwide in just 10 years, becoming the largest chain of its kind, with $2.3 billion in sales last year — more than double what it earned in 1997 and 25 times larger than the $92.5 million worth of goods sold in 1991, the year of the company's initial public offering. A company goal, published in Whole Foods' 2001 annual report, projects sales of $4 billion by the end of 2004.

Whole Foods corporate growth, though, has been accompanied by the company's anti-union philospohy. In 1990, during union picketing outside a Berkeley, California Whole Foods, President Mackey penned a position paper called "Beyond Unions." In 20 pages, he explains how competition among employees would ensure decent wages and the best work environment. Whole Foods is operated in teams, with each responsible for its own profitability. In Madison, the deli team was in a "labor deficit" for a year-and-a-half; because the deli team wasn't showing a good return on the corporation's capital investment (operating costs and wages), nobody on the team could receive a raise during that time. (Even though profits are affected by more than employee performance; what if customers find a better deal on Black Forest ham or fromage blanc elsewhere?) With starting wages at $7.50 an hour, 18 months is a long time to go without a bump in pay (especially considering that a dollar in San Antonio is worth only 81 cents in Madison). At the same time, the corporate office recorded sales growth of more than $400 million from 2000 to 2001.

No matter how many times the unions repeat it, Mackey's infamous anti-union quote doesn't lose its sting: "The union is like having herpes. It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover," he said in 1990 during picketing at the store in Berkeley. In 1996, the company also snubbed the United Farm Workers by refusing to join 5,000 other grocery chains in support of a 5 cent-per-pint increase for strawberries, which would have in turn increased pickers' $9,000 annual wages by 50 percent. In January 2000, the grocer settled a suit with the U.S. Department of Labor to pay workers $226,000 in unpaid overtime. Whole Foods blamed a computer error on the paycheck problem. In 1999, the same year the snafu occurred, the company turned $42 million in profits.

At the Local 1444 offices, President Daniel Welch said the Madison workers were able to pull off the vote by gathering public support. In addition to signing on student groups from the University of Wisconsin, employees rallied in front of the store with photos from the Whole Foods' 1996 opening: Stretched over the entrance, management had hung a banner reading, "Whole Foods supports the right for employees to form a union."

"This is only the first step," Welch assured. "We fully expect this company to fight." But, he added, the vote "gives courage to everybody else." His office has received an undisclosed number of calls from Whole Foods all over the country, many in towns with strong student centers.

Considering Texas' rabid anti-union sentiment, it's unclear whether Texas' Whole Foods stores will be able to accomplish what their Wisconsin counterparts did. Steve Gault, secretary and treasurer of UFCW Local 408 in Houston (there is no office in San Antonio since Kroger left town in the early '90s), didn't say whether any Whole Foods in Texas were unionizing; only that "several organization projects are going on in San Antonio."

"If companies treated their people with dignity and respect, they wouldn't be calling us," Gault offered. "That's the bottom line."

More by John Brewer



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