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For organic stores, unrest blooming over labor practices

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San Jose Mercury News

By Lisa Fernandez

When their favorite clerks went on strike this year, many Southern California shoppers showed worker solidarity by boycotting Safeway and patronizing alternative grocery stores.

But if shoppers are serious about supporting workers, union advocates say, they might do better back in the corporate world of Safeway. Many organic food stores, born in the 1960s with the promise to bring “conscious capitalism” to the marketplace, lag behind the big chains when it comes to labor relations. Some clerks in organic stores charge that baby lettuce is treated better than they are.

Workers have brought complaints to the National Labor Relations Board against Berkeley Bowl, a now-closed Real Foods in San Francisco and Whole Foods in Madison, Wis., for allegedly firing, threatening or bribing employees who sought to unionize.

But managers at organic shops counter that they act more benevolently than unions. Being non-union, they say, allows for more democracy and creative thinking.

That granola-and-brown-rice stores are fighting union battles four decades after back-to-Eden types started the organic movement shows how far they are from reforming capitalism. It also raises questions for progressive-minded customers who hope that by shopping organic, they are making the world a better place.

“Where do you go?” asked Helen Wall, 35, of Oakland. “I want to do the right thing, but it seems like you can’t buy food anywhere.”

Union differences

Of the roughly 23,000 union grocery workers in Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Alameda counties, none work at alternative, organic markets. Often, these “at will” employees say they start at from $9 to $11 an hour, and become eligible to earn as much as $19 an hour if they prove to be good workers. Safeway clerks, for example, start at about $8.75 an hour and top out at $19 according to union scale.

It’s the “at will’ status that bothers Kim Rohrbach, 39, of San Francisco. She said she was fired from Real Foods in Noe Valley last August after she and three dozen co-workers tried to unionize, charges that are outlined in filings with the National Labor Relations Board. In an interview, she said managers “inconsistently enforced store policies,” doling out better vacation schedules to favorite employees, as one example. And after two years, she said, the highest-paid clerks earned up to $13 an hour.

Real Foods’ parent company, Nutraceutical International in Utah, did not return several phone calls, but told customers the store closed for renovations. The store was gutted, but neighbors say there’s been no activity in the store in five months.

Employees at other stores report frustration — and fear of unionizing.

“I’m going to quit,” said a 20-something Whole Foods checker in Palo Alto who earns $9.50 an hour and said she was too scared to be identified. She said she gets the evil eye from managers when the “U” word is brought up: “I feel powerless.”

Stressing `team’

Feeling powerless is far from the norm, said Ron Megahan, president of Whole Foods’ Northern Pacific region. He stressed that “team member excellence and happiness,” along with “shared fate” and “respect for the individual” are core values at the Texas-based company. Workers don’t need a union to have a voice, he said, pointing to a vote at the company’s 150 stores, including the 15 in the Bay Area, in which employees chose what benefits to include in a health package.

Aside from pay, if there’s any kind of grievance, a “third party” isn’t needed, Megahan said, because “team members” and their bosses are encouraged to work things out between themselves. Employees also vote on whether colleagues should pass a three-month probationary period, and they have a say in who gets hired or promoted.

`They want to dictate’

Katie Quan, chairwoman of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California-Berkeley, said the management philosophy at liberal-minded stores often reveals an interesting dynamic. Progressive companies believe their employees should be willing to take less pay to reach a common goal, she said, and want “unmitigated control” of the workplace.

“They want to dictate,” she said. “Their rationale? `The employees don’t need a voice, I speak for them.’ They think, `I’m being a good citizen of the world, why can’t the employees be grateful and pitch in and work with me?’ ”

The employees, in turn, are hurt, Quan said, because they can’t figure out why their bosses seem to care about fair trade more than they care about their workforce.

“There does seem to be a paradox for companies who purport being progressive and their employment conditions,” Quan said. “They have these progressive goals, talking about the environment, being anti-war. But they often leave out labor standards.”

In the wake of last year’s union brouhaha at Berkeley Bowl, where charges were made that two employees were fired, and others were threatened and bribed by managers not to unionize, cashiers were bumped up from an average of $10 an hour to about $18. All sides agree this is a decent wage.

But United Food and Commercial Workers representative Tim Hamann said that unlike a union contract, there is nothing in writing that guarantees this salary, and the pay increase came about only afterthe organizing efforts. And on April 30, the national labor board mailed Berkeley Bowl a complaint showing the agency found enough merit to the employees’ complaints to forward the case to trial.

Larry Evans, Berkeley Bowl’s store manager, said he truly believes “the Bowl” treats its 240 workers better than a union would. While unions were necessary in the early 20th century to combat sweatshops, Evans said, unions today “personify the fat-cat politic thing. I don’t think they’re looking out for what’s best for the worker. They nurture incompetence.”

Customer statement

Neighbors in Noe Valley run a weekly farmers market after last year’s union drive tore apart their beloved Real Foods. They want to make a statement about labor conditions with the food they buy.

“We’re resisting the anonymous faceless company that is disconnected from the progressive values of our community,” said Peter Gabel, a leader of the customer revolt. “We’re inventing something new, to be an ethically committed neighbor.”