Food Hole: Socially Responsible Cages Meet Worker Experimentation in Free-Range Subversion!
from “War on Misery #4” (Summer 2013, St. Louis, Missouri)
For six months the working conditions at the Whole Foods Market Galleria location in Brentwood got so shitty that, by late June 2012, usually blasphemous words like strike and union were being whispered in the aisles, bathrooms, and the loading dock. Over the years the store had gained notoriety within the company for the tremendous profit they made (management’s “million dollar store” their “Mighty Gal”). Of course, in capitalism, profit doesn’t come from thin air; it must be squeezed from workers one hour at a time. The increased squeezing, as it were, came in the form of cut backs in wages and benefits, open availability requirements, and the whip crack of a couple notably despicable managers. Whole Foods’ usual anti-union posters (instruction guides on how to deal with union reps), mandatory anti-union meetings, and the Orwellian terms used to sanitize exploitation, blur class relationships, and instill a rah-rah team spirit(1) were losing their potency. In short, the ridiculous Whole Foods spell was being broken unbeknownst to the spell-casters themselves.
In the first outward sign of the growing discontent, an individual, possibly with the least to lose, potentially the bravest, or maybe with the weakest stomach for bullshit, decided to quit in spectacular fashion. He traded his two-week notice for an insulting letter to the company and management forwarded to every employee in the store. This caused a small stir amongst sympathetic co-workers, and as the spell faded the whispers grew louder. People telling their bosses to “shove-it” is rare and announcing it to co-workers far more rare, but what happened next is exceptional. Rather than turning to the UCFW, OSHA, NLRB (or any other alphabet soup of bureaucracy) a handful of workers looked to themselves and their friends to devise how to get back at Whole Foods collectively.(2)
When it began, it was only six people, six very different people. After two meetings of sharing stories and grievances and brainstorming possibilities, the group opened up to an ex-worker and a couple friends who never worked at the store. It must be said that this group of employees and friends did not share an ideology, a strategy, or even agree on where they would like the actions to lead. Those who would wait until such conditions of unity exist, as more than a few radicals did(3), should get comfortable in their ivory towers and/or armchairs. The only thing this motley crew held in common was the desire to take the initiative and shift the power dynamics of the store. The path forward was hazy and uncharted but there was a determination to walk it together, at least as long as the situation stayed the same.
Before long a few initiatives were outlined (with the people most interested and capable taking them on) and a plan was sketched out. A blog was prepared (truetmag.wordpress.com – a mockery of Whole Food’s internal mechanism for addressing grievances, the Team Member Awareness Group) to both communicate ideas from the group and to spark discussion amongst workers in an anonymous and open fashion. This was to be the low flame under the simmering conflict. A sick-out was planned for a Saturday just over a week away, the most profitable day of the week, and the day with the most shifts to infect. News of the sick-out was carefully communicated by word-of-mouth around the store to as many pissed-off or sympathetic workers as possible. On the day of the sick-out an email would be sent to workers in the two St. Louis stores and local and regional managers with the intention of airing grievances, calling out the hypocrisies of Whole Foods, and gaining legitimacy amongst workers. Then on Sunday, with questions in the air about how to move forward (maybe an all-out strike or similar bold action) and how to deal with company retaliation, friends and allies would flood the store with leaflets, chants, and banners of support. Planning beyond the weekend seemed premature.
The projects mutated and grew as the group gained more confidence. A careful balancing act characterized those early days in which employees had to be informed about the subversive initiatives and given confidence that these were more than mere rumors, while at the same time protecting the anonymity of the conspirators and mitigating the risk of a pre-mature leak to management by their loyal stooges, backstabbers, and ladder-climbers – aka snitches, rats, and class traitors.
By mid-week, energy, expectations, and hopes were high. Buzzing with activity, the blog had, at its peak, upwards of 3,000 views and dozens of comments daily. Two notorious assholes, store manager Shannon Chronister and his assistant Jake Flachs (under whose reign workers faced sexual harassment, routine firings, and increased surveillance and workloads) became lightning-rods for negative comments. Moreover, there were no signs that the plans were leaked to management, and news of the sick-out was actually being relayed back to the very people who had planned it. It was estimated that 40% of the workers scheduled for a shift on Saturday were planning on calling-in sick (including a couple low level managers), and many more knew of the plans.
With only four days to go before the sick-out, the tide turned. Midwest Regional Management, called in from Chicago, arrived at the store for damage control. They communicated explicitly and implicitly that they were here for the weekend, and anyone participating in the sick-out would be fired. A search began for the rebellious workers. Those couple days were touch-and-go, with rumors swirling about who was being blamed and who was snitching. All sides attempted to figure out how best to swim in the changing waters. Blog posts attempted to counter the fear that was quickly spreading. Then… management shifted gears and slipped on the velvet glove. In a brilliant maneuver they suspended the two store managers that were garnering the most ire and held multiple meetings (including a “town hall” where the President of the WF Midwest played the role of the concerned parent) to distance themselves and the company from the practices of the two. Comments on the blog began to change showing either the new tactic was working or management and their stooges had found the comment button (a combination surely). People began to guess as to who was behind the blog and sick-out in their comments. The sick-out was called off as workers were either scared or placated by the suspensions. The aforementioned email went out on Friday, and management responded by replacing the two suspended managers with friendlier counterparts. Saturday all was quiet in the store. Sunday around thirty sympathetic “outsiders” passed out fliers, chanted, and held a banner encouraging more action and offering their support. But it was too late. The anger had been recuperated. Monday the two suspended managers were fired.
No negotiations and no union reps, just like Whole Foods likes it! Okay then, we prefer direct action as well! In short, the threat of collective and disruptive action in a non-unionized workplace was enough to force concessions, something unprecedented in this era. Workers figured out a way to push back safely and win some breathing room. Giving up the fight was hard, and the anger felt towards those most ready to give in was real. Stripping away our narrative, our power, Whole Foods will undoubtedly rewrite the episode as them caring so much about their employees that they fired two of their higher level managers, who in fact workers had complained about for years. In reality, they were willing to take a small hit to avoid a bigger one. How will this go down? Will workers be fooled into thinking their superiors are altruistic – they, the same ones who put the policies into place and scrambled to have their managers remain in power by shifting them from store to store and position to position as needed, who held a sham meeting about their appointment in which many complaints were leveled but ignored? Will these same shit-heads get the credit for the new bigger-cage, longer-leash era of Whole Foods or will it be seen as it actually was?
We have taken away some simple but profound ideas from this experience:
Those who will not be fooled by management and by their version of the events are the workers who participated. Had the sick-out occurred (as we wished it had) or a strike or picket, more would have participated and less would have been fooled.
People who engage in subversion learn more about the possibilities of subversion. We change what is possible by pushing situations. We learn by doing.
Our only power within capitalism is our labor. A taste of that power causes the bosses to react. (Of course the real task is negating that class relationship altogether!)
1. Does the company’s utopian rhetoric affect the situation? Are WF workers’ expectations so high that their inevitable let down is greater than that of typical grocery workers? Does it encourage people to work subversively together? Does it do the opposite and encourage loyalty to the company?
2. We have nearly zero experience in what works. Anyone who claims otherwise is a fool. These days, seldom do strikes occur, and when they do, they are directed from union officials above (a play management is well-equipped to deal with). When was the last time you heard about a worker initiated labor struggle, let alone an effective one? This was an experiment in new ways to fight back on the job in a world of corrupt and impotent unions, the pervasiveness of the internet, and workplaces which increasingly try to look like they are a force of good and hide their exploitation.
3. Some cried “this isn’t our struggle,” others “we must wait for workers to act,” but both amount to ceding the situation to those in power, both amount to inaction and maintaining the status quo. Both claim the actions planned and initiatives taken were not the correct ones albeit for different reasons. Consider this critique an invitation to overcome contradictions and differences in perspectives, rather than being ruled by them and remaining stunted and powerless.