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A Plea to UNFI and Whole Foods for Justice

Domestic Fair Trade

by RONNIE CUMMINS and DAVE MURPHY

“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.”

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods Market (WFM) CEO John Mackey has done a brilliant job of creating the illusion that his empire is all about abundance, bounty and the good life. But there’s nothing bountiful or good about the way the second-largest non-unionized food retailer exploits workers.

United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI), the largest multi-billion dollar wholesale distributor of organic and “natural” foods in the U.S., is currently under investigation for 45 violations of federal labor law, including physically threatening immigrant workers in California who were trying to form a union.

The company recently fired  its underpaid and overworked unionized workers at its Auburn, Wash., distribution center for going on strike, and  hired non-union replacement workers.

What happens when companies like WFM and UNFI, which have carefully cultivated their public progressive images, start acting like Walmart? When union-busting and labor exploitation are accepted as “business-as-usual” in the green economy, it makes us all look bad. It discredits organics and Fair Trade by creating the impression that consumers don’t really care how their healthy organic food was produced. That the entire industry cares only about profits. Ethics and workers be damned.

When flagship organic companies take a Walmart approach to workers’ rights, it sends negative and conflicting signals to core organic consumers, making it look like leaders in the organic community are concerned about the plight of endangered species and Third World coffee growers or cacao producers, but oblivious to the economic pain and stresses of working class Americans or hardworking immigrants who plant and harvest our organic fruits and vegetables and then pack and deliver them to our neighborhood coops and natural food markets.

Isn’t it time we ask the same of WFM and UNFI that we demand of ourselves: that they walk their talk, prioritize organic food and products, practice Fair Trade and social justice, and wake up to the fact that “business as usual” is a bitter recipe for injustice?

The demand for organic and fairly traded food, apparel and body care products has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Millions of consumers are demanding products that not only are organic and healthy, but also embody Fair Trade principles, gefoodcumminswhereby the workers involved in producing these products are treated fairly and paid equitably.

Under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), organic products are certified by third-party certifiers and regulated under federal law. But no such federal standards exist for Fair Trade labor practices, including the right of workers, especially in large businesses, to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining with their employers.  As a consequence many consumers look for the “Fair Trade” label on imported goods, but pay little attention to the domestic supply chain.  Here in the U.S., most consumers naively believe that organics and Fair Trade practices go hand in hand. They are surprised to learn that most family farmers and farm workers, as well as many supply chain workers, struggle to make a living. But the truth is, labor exploitation is rampant in the fields, factories and warehouses where organic products are grown, processed and housed. And this is especially true when small, alternative businesses are bought out by corporate investors.

WFM is one of the biggest offenders in the U.S. The company’s Whole Trade Guarantee, through a third-party verified program, supposedly ensures that producers and laborers in developing countries get an equitable price for their goods in a safe and healthy working environment. But here in the U.S., WFM. the second largest union-free food retailer behind Walmart,  has taken the position that unions are not valid. The company even gives its workers a pamphlet titled “Beyond Unions.” In the company’s 27-year history, only one of its stores, in Madison, Wis., successfully unionized.   The chain has also fended off unionizing attempts in Berkeley, Calif.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Falls Church, Va.

As for UNFI, the company’s recent record on workers’ rights is abysmal. The National Labor Relations Board investigation includes allegations that UNFI engaged in worker surveillance, intimidation and retaliation; that it refused to bargain in good faith; and that it illegally reassigned bargaining unit work. UNFI workers and drivers at UNFI’s Auburn, Wash., distribution center went on strike for better pay and better working conditions Dec. 10, after rejecting UNFI’s latest contract offer. In retaliation UNFI fired them and illegally hired non-union replacement workers.

WFM and UNFI like to brag about how their workers are part of their “family,” and how well management treats them. But what about the thousands of non-unionized and exploited farm workers in California, Texas, Florida, Mexico, Latin America and Asia who supply many of their premium-priced products? What about the immigrant feedlot workers across the country? What about the truck drivers, food processing workers and warehouse staff who are threatened and intimidated whenever they try to organize themselves for collective bargaining? Are we all one family?

It’s time for WFM and UNFI to publicly acknowledge that Fair Trade principles and practices need to be implemented as part of their entire US/North American/global supply chain for food and organic and natural products, not just for the minority of products produced overseas and certified as Fair Trade. And of course, supporting domestic Fair Trade means that WFM and UNFI must stop their union busting and start recognizing the rights of workers, especially workers in large for-profit corporations, to freely organize themselves into unions for collective bargaining.

Until they do, as conscientious consumers we have to pressure UNFI and its largest customer, WFM. In response to UNFI’s actions in Washington State, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has called for a boycott of UNFI’s brand name products, Woodstock Foods and Blue Marble, until the company rehires its fired workers in Auburn, stops harassing and intimidating workers and drivers who want to form a union, and sits down to sign a fair contract.  We’re also asking organic food stores to look for alternative wholesalers to supply their stores, as a number of coops in Seattle and Olympia Washington, have already begun to do.

In addition to boycotting UNFI’s Woodstock Foods and Blue Marble products, we encourage consumers to:

Sign the online petition in support of the striking workers at UNFI.

Call UNFI Manager Hank Heatherly at (253) 333-6769. Tell him to rehire the fired workers and return to the bargaining table immediately.

If you live in Washington State, and are willing to join in informational leafleting at Whole Foods Markets, sign up here

Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including “Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers” (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).

Dave Murphy is the founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement of more than 350,000 American farmers and citizens dedicated to creating a more sustainable future.  You can follow him at@food_democracy