Breaking: Whole Foods strike wins Thanksgiving day off, workers say

(UPDATED) “I think it will be disruptive, but that’s kind of the point," says one of Chicago workers striking today

Published November 27, 2013 3:11PM (EST)

       (AP/Steven Senne)
(AP/Steven Senne)

A handful of Whole Foods workers plan to strike today at two stores, joining this month’s wave of non-union low-wage worker strikes and highlighting their opposition to an escalating trend: Employees stuck spending Thanksgiving with throngs of customers rather than in the company of friends and family.

Whole Foods employee Matthew Camp, a member of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), told Salon he expects about ten workers to join the walkout, which will include an afternoon rally with fast food and Wal-Mart employees and other supporters. “I think it will be disruptive, but that’s kind of the point: to disrupt the flow of things,” said Camp. He added, “Causing a disruption also provides us with a platform – you know, we have to make some noise to get our point across.”

As I reported yesterday, major retailers have come under criticism for increasing Black Friday’s encroachment into their employees’ holidays by pushing store openings and sales even earlier into Thursday. Blake argued that supermarket employees also deserve a reprieve. “We work hardest for this holiday,” he told Salon, so “everyone can enjoy the holiday,” but “we would like to be able to participate in the holiday ourselves.” He suggested that supermarkets “close the doors” on Thanksgiving itself, and said that if a customer finds themselves missing an ingredient that day, “you improvise, and you let the people who work the hardest for the holiday have the day off. I mean, really I think it’s a question of respect.”

Asked about the strike, Whole Foods spokesperson McKinzey Crossland e-mailed, "As a company founded on the ideals of respect for the individual, self-empowerment and free speech, Whole Foods Market supports fair wages and the rights of all workers, and we support groups who want to express their opinions and raise awareness for their cause, as long as they remain on public property." She said the company "takes pride in helping our shoppers for this special food-focused holiday, whether it's weeks or even minutes in advance," and noted that Chicagoland-area employees working on Thanksgiving receive time-and-a-half pay and "added dollars thanks to our gainsharing program."

Today’s strike by Whole Foods employees in Chicago will follow a protest Monday, first reported by Salon, in which employees of the Whole Foods supplier Amy’s Bread went public with allegations of unpaid wages, management disrespect, and painful working conditions. Whole Foods' Crossland said she "didn't have details for you at this time, other than I believe we carry their items in only one or two stores in New York." She added, "We expect all our partners to share Whole Foods Market's commitment to a respectful, fair and safe work environment."

The WOCC has mounted multiple strikes tied to the national fast food workers’ campaign, backed by the Service Employees International Union, demanding $15 an hour and the right to organize a union without intimidation. Unlike most cities, the Chicago campaign includes retail and supermarket workers as well as fast food. Wal-Mart employees have also been mounting one-day strikes this week - including walkouts by DC-area employees yesterday - in the lead-up to larger Black Friday protests.

Camp told Salon that his Thursday Whole Foods shift would prevent him from seeing his family in Texas. He said that, with time-and-a-half holiday pay, workers would make around $15 an hour that day. “That 15 dollars an hour,” he said, “is what we should get paid regularly anyway.”

Updated, 4:00 pm eastern:  Hours into today’s strike, Whole Foods told Salon its Thanksgiving policy had been misrepresented -- and workers say the company has now caved to their demand.

In a Wednesday afternoon e-mail, Whole Foods spokesperson McKinzey Crossland told Salon that “it is not company policy to be open on Thanksgiving Day,” and that when stores choose to be open that day, “Our company policy is that working Thanksgiving day is voluntary.” Crossland added, “We’ve heard from many Team Members in the Midwest region and nationwide that the chance to be part of the excitement during this very busy time of year while earning higher wages is a welcome opportunity: We actually have more Team Members volunteering to work on Thanksgiving Day than we have spaces to fill.”

Asked about that account, striker Aaron King told Salon, “It’s pretty blatant that working on Thanksgiving was never voluntary.” His co-worker Matthew Camp said that in two years at Whole Foods, “I’ve never been told anything like that.” Based on conversations with co-workers, he said, “The expectation in my store is that you would work Thanksgiving…Either people say, ‘That’s to be expected in the business that we’re in,’ or otherwise, ‘It’s not fair, the store should be closed on Thanksgiving.’” He added, “If the company’s saying that there’s a volunteer basis, that’s just patently false.” According to Camp, management at his store said months ago, at least for employees who had not already been cleared to take the holiday off, “that Thanksgiving is a day that we may not take off without accruing a point or a demerit on our record.”

Deivid Rojas, a spokesperson for Fight for 15, a group behind Chicago’s fast food, retail, and Whole Foods strikes, told Salon what he’s been told by Whole Foods workers is that while “some people might request it and get it off,” otherwise “everyone is expected to work” on Thanksgiving, and in some cases the day has been among those listed as a “Blackout Day” when time off is particularly restricted.

Asked about the strikers’ contentions, Crossland  e-mailed at 2:25 PM CST, “We have confirmed that regional and store leadership in the Chicago area have informed Team Members that working Thanksgiving Day is voluntary. If they want Thanksgiving Day off, they can take it off.” Asked if that meant workers could tell management now that they would not be working tomorrow, without consequences, Crossland said it did. Asked when workers had been told this, she e-mailed, “Each store communicates a little differently with team members, but I know all the stores were reminded yesterday and even today.”

“If that’s what the company is now saying, then I would say that’s a direct response to our organizing,” responded Camp. He said a strike rally scheduled for 4:30 PM CST would “certainly go forward, but now it might have a tinge of victory to it.” Rojas agreed: “Until this moment, the policy that the store was representing was different from what they’re portraying now.” The takeaway, he added, is that for lots of workers, “striking is working.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Amy's Bread Black Friday Chicago Fast Food Labor Strike Thanksgiving Wal-mart Whole Foods Wocc