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Organizing Whole Foods: An interview with a worker on the Fight for 15 and beyond


February 9, 2014

Socialist.ca’s Peter Hogarth spoke to Matthew Camp, a socialist labour activist and worker at Whole Foods, about the fight for wages, conditions and unions in Chicago.
 
Can you describe for our readers the kind of organizing in which you have been involved? How did you and your coworkers decide to get together and fight for wages, benefits, hours, days off etc? How did you go about organizing with fellow co-workers, what steps allowed you to take collective action?
 
Personally, I have been an organized activist for over ten years with a background in a variety of anti-capitalist struggles. My coworkers, with really one notable exception, are new to activism, though many identify as socialist or anti-capitalist.
 
There had always been discontent in our workplace. But most often this found expression in one-off conversations amongst ourselves or in occasional quittings or firings. We got together at first in ones and twos reading texts on labor struggles or similar articles in radical journals. After a solid year of this kind of proto-organizing, I attended a general assembly of the Chicago Fight for 15 and we were invited to organize with the campaign after few subsequent meetings.
 
At one of our first strategy sessions, we ascertained that Whole Foods' attendance policy was where the company was most vulnerable. Whole Foods uses a “points system” where one accrues “points”—more truthfully demerits, if one is more than seven minutes late for a shift or otherwise misses work for any reason, including injury, death etc. If one accrues six points in a rolling six-month period one is fired with little recourse and no appeal. As one can imagine, anger with a policy that didn't guarantee something as basic as sick days was almost universal. So organizing around a more fair attendance policy gave us the advantage of tapping into a frustration that was shared by practically all of our coworkers, and it was something that many people wanted to be a part of.
 
Our collective action campaign is founded on our legally protected right to organize as workers to make improvements in the workplace, which means that so long as an unfair labor practice (ULP) has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) we may participate in any collective workplace activities of two or more workers. Our strategy has been to publicly shame the company for its antiquated attendance policy through a series of high profile minority wildcat strikes. And so far it's worked. Whole Foods is a company that is highly concerned with its public image, and in the face of public scrutiny has been willing to make significant concessions to our demands.
 
How did you overcome the initial fear of making demands while working in a non-union workplace in what many would call a precarious industry?
 
First of all, I don't think we're facing any more of an intimidating scenario than has been experienced by worker-activists in the past. But now we have the advantage of looking back on those experiences and learning from them. Having said that, it's important to emphasize that we do have a lot to lose. For many of us, Whole Foods is our primary source of income, and even in the economic "recovery" it is by no means certain that a job will be waiting for us should we be fired.
 
It takes a lot of sand to stand up for yourself and others and we set the bar rather high by moving directly into a strike campaign. This makes many people uncomfortable, but there are a growing core of us that will challenge the company willingly and openly until we win our union. Now we know that's a tall order, but we also know that our best chance of getting it is by sticking together. First of all because there's strength in many voices and secondly the bosses know they can't mess with any one of us without bringing the whole Fight for 15 campaign right down on their front doorstep.
 
And frankly, for all the challenges and uncertainty that comes with this kind of campaign, that's what makes the whole thing worthwhile—having people's back because you know they've got yours.
 
Can you tell us a bit about the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC)? How did it come to be? What affect has it had on the organized labour movement in Chicago (and beyond) and what affect has it had on the wider labour movement, especially the traditionally unorganized?
 
WOCC (spoken as in 'wok') is a legally recognized union built across roughly 70 fast food, retail and low wage shops here in Chicago, including 21 national brands. WOCC came into being as a project of local community activist campaigns here in Chicago to win a union for low-wage workers. In November of 2012 we coalesced as a full-fledged campaign based on the wildcat model put forward by Fast Food Forward, a low wage worker project in NYC.
 
The impact WOCC has had is hard to calculate. Certainly we have captured a dialogue around low wages and corporate thieving that simply had not existed previously. How we have inspired the rest of the labor movement I think remains to be seen. We certainly see ourselves in the tradition of the Chicago Teachers Union as well as our sisters and brothers in Our Wal-Mart and Warehouse Workers for Justice, that is to say we are waging a social justice campaign, not one oriented toward limited to reforms in this or that workplace. At the very least we have raised horizons about what can be accomplished as well as revealed truths about low wage work, for example the rampant wage theft, and overt racism and sexism that are commonplace in many of these industries.
 
You had a big victory, winning a day-off on the busy Thanksgiving holiday. How did that come about? What has the affect been on you and your coworkers?
 
Large retailers have been stealing Thanksgiving for years. They by compel their employees to work long hours into Thanksgiving night in order to open earlier and earlier on Black Friday. In 2013 companies like Sears and Macy's announced that they would stay open all Thanksgiving day essentially negating the holiday as a day of rest for their workforce. Of course these companies remunerate their workers for working through the holidays by awarding them time-and-1/2, which many people are grateful to have, but then if you are a minimum wage worker, time and 1/2 still doesn't approach the kind of wages necessary to survive in the United States, especially if you only earn it one day out of the year.
 
We wanted to do something in solidarity with Our Wal-Mart and Warehouse Workers for Justice, two organizations that have held Black Friday strikes to protest corporate greed over the past several years, but we also didn't want to take away those organization's thunder by having an action on the same day. We decided to strike the day before Thanksgiving, as this is the busiest day of the season for grocery retail. We wanted to say that we as grocery workers work hard so everyone can enjoy their holiday, and furthermore that we ourselves deserved that time off to spend however we may choose.
 
As it turned out, the company caved before we even got to the picket lines. Forcing their employees to work on the holidays is just the kind of bad press companies like Whole Foods can't stand. So they announced to the media that anyone who wanted to take that day off could have it without facing repercussions. On Thanksgiving day there was a small exodus at my work when my co-workers got the news. Many people stayed for the time and 1/2 offered by the company, but it was great to see people clock out to go spend the day however they wanted.
 
Can you tell us a bit about the Fight for 15 in Chicago? What tactics has the campaign employed? Who is involved? Have there been victories? Has the campaign been able to involve people for whom English is a second language?
 
So Fight for 15 has many backers among community, faith-based, and activist organizations. It's no secret that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a big contributor to Fight for 15. And that's caused a lot of raised eyebrows on the left in this country. People are concerned that we're being had by a stodgy, business oriented, bureaucratic union. Some have gone so far as to say that we're only pawns in SEIU's game. But our answer has always been, that might be true—but we're pawns in their game for higher wages!
 
At the end of the day we are given funds, legal resources and personnel to go out and fight the bosses on our own terms. At Whole Foods were given complete control over the messaging, tactics, and overall orientation of our campaign. Much of this is due to the fact that in Chicago we have our own workers' organization. WOCC meetings are often run by workers, are held in both Spanish and English simultaneously, and are the places where decisions affecting the campaign are democratically made. We have organized strike actions, occupations, petition drives and press conferences to name just a few of our strategies and activities. We have set up a women's caucus and launched a citywide investigation into wage theft. WOCC gives us as workers direct oversight over our campaign. We have intervened in cases of racism and sexism on the job. We've won raises and promotions for our members, and settlements with back-pay for wrongful terminations.
 
At Whole Foods alone we've won better day-to-day working conditions, defended our members' jobs and even forced the company to amend its attendance policy.
We're not done yet, and this is only what we've achieved in our first year of organizing with WOCC.
 
What's next for you and your co-workers and the WOCC?
On our last national day of action there were strikes in 160 cities in the US. Of course many of these actions weren't huge, but still many hundreds of low wage workers took up the call on a national level to demand a living wage and a union. I think that really says something about the effectiveness of our campaign and the enthusiasm our message has inspired. We have great things to look forward to.
 
Many of us know, though that this moment won't last forever. The primary task is to build confidence and militancy within our union and inspire broader struggles. Some of our successes have come so fast that it's easy to forget that the dog days may still be ahead of us. That's what we need to be ready for, the kind of mobilization necessary to bring the big corporations to the table.

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