Whole Foods has just launched its first national advertising campaign, featuring the slogan "Values Matter." It emphasizes not just quality food, but also the company's "fair labor practices." How do Whole Foods employees feel on that point?
It's true that Whole Foods has traditionally been rated as a good place to work. But the company's treatment of workers is packaged with CEO John Mackey's strong hatred of unions, meaning that every carrot of employee incentive is metaphorically tied to an anti-organized-labor stick. Nevertheless, Whole Foods employees in one San Francisco store have asked for a union, along with wage increases and better working conditions. Their request for a $5 an hour raise is ambitious, but they do appear to be getting some results—the organizers sent out press release this morning noting that the company's regional manager announced last week that starting January 1, "all employees in San Francisco locations will make a minimum of $12.75 per hour - $1.25 above the current starting wage and $.50 higher than the new minimum wage of $12.25 called for by" a new law.
That's something, at least. The union organizers say they will continue their campaign. There is little doubt that Whole Foods wants to be loved by its employees. But does it deserve to be loved? After we wrote about the company last week, we heard from several more Whole Foods employees about what it was like to work there. A couple of samples:
I've been at Whole Foods in TX since 2009, and the company has been making a lot of changes in the past two years. There has been a slow decline in the availability of full-time positions in favor of part-time jobs that don't offer the same benefit levels. I'm sure there are some numbers somewhere to evidence that. "Specialist" positions are in the process of being totally eliminated, meaning team members will be expected to do the jobs of buying, stocking, and monitoring inventory for no pay increase or promotion of title. Last year, my team was told by the regional/corporate powers-that-be that our labor budget would be cut consistently, to the point where all of our team members would be cut from 40 hours to 32-34 a week. Our labor budget was also altered into a less flexible state - basically a "use it or lose it" labor model, and we were given salary caps for the first time ever. As a commuter, cutting a shift's worth of pay out of my week was not an option, so I had to find a job closer to home and go down to seasonal status at Whole Foods. This allowed the rest of my team to keep their full week's hours. Until this year, seasonal team members were allowed to keep their store discount as long as they worked at least once a year. This year, they removed that policy, which was admittedly generous, and now I get my discount only when I work. Of course, without the discount, I cut out my bi-monthly shopping trips to Whole Foods, and they lose my business entirely. Over the past few years, I've worked in several stores, and there has been a general shift toward hiring managers from outside WF. As you can deduce from the Walmart horror stories on Gawker, managers from Walmart don't have the same expectations or values as those who are born and bred WF. In other words, there is less of a focus on valuing team members, helping them grow, and supporting their life circumstances in order to cut costs, cut labor, increase sales, and increase productivity. With this kind of management, the focus shifts from sustainable and local products, educating our customers, and supporting our team members and community to promoting WF's house brand in an effort to attract and retain customers during the recession. This year, WF also decided to start advertising. This all amounts to a shift away from the generosity and sustainability that WF once prided itself on. As the company continues to grow and open new stores, it constantly cuts labor budgets until teams run as skeleton crews who cannot keep up the high standards of the store regardless of how hard they hustle.
Those are just a few of the changes I've seen, and I imagine there are more to come... A lot of good reasons to look toward unionizing, especially when we know the benefits we can and should have, but have to watch them be ripped out from under us.
An identity crisis
I am a current Whole Foods employee at a store in [city], where I've worked for over four years. While some of the grievances of the team members in San Francisco are puzzling, others are not. The way Whole Foods is set up, some policies are global and others are only regional.
The one grievance I would add to the list is the abolition of the point system in [my] region. The point system in my region is used for attendance and behavior. Other regions have no sort of system. How many points a [team member] has accumulated over a six month period can and is used to determine the raise at the time of the yearly review, whether or not a tm can apply for a promotion and whether or not a tm can apply for a transfer. This system forces many employees to come into work sick. While Whole Foods does have decent health care benefits that affords tms to see a doctor, some tms still can't afford to miss work out of concern for their next raise, or to be able to apply for a position at a store closer to home. Over my time at Whole Foods, I've seen great employees get fired (point out) because of this system and terrible employees stick around because they know how to game the system. It's a flawed metric used to determine the quality of team members.
However, the main grievance I have with the company is the change in its culture over the last few years. Whole Foods has lost it's way and is currently undergoing an identity crisis. This can be summarized by a meeting I and every employee in the company had to attend simultaneously recently. (No really, every store employee, at the same time, on the same day) Last month, Whole Foods launched it's very first national marketing campaign, something John Mackey said he'd never do. In order to kick off this grand campaign, every employee had to sit through a presentation of a sharply produced eight minute video showcasing the different tv commercials and explaining the need for them, starring John Mackey and Walter Robb. Is there a better way to rebrand yourself than upsetting most of your tms by forcing them show up to an inconveniently timed meeting regardless of whether or not they are working that day in order to show them tv commercials and tell them the company spent $20 million dollars on them at the same time positions, salaries, and hours are being cut? I can also think of no better way to rebrand yourself by upsetting many of your customers by opening every store in the company 1) an hour late 2) on a Sunday 3) during football season. This is just one example of how the needs of customers and employees come after those of the shareholders.
All of this being said, I don't mind working at Whole Foods. Sure, it's not my dream job, but it pays the bills. I've been searching for something more professional without any luck for months. Many of my coworkers are in the same boat; college graduates that unfortunately got their degrees during the recession, and now feel stuck in retail. Some of the best people I've ever met work at Whole Foods, the type of people I look forward to seeing every day. This includes my bosses at the store and regional levels.
The very top of the global leadership is where I feel the problem lies. For me, global is too concerned about the stock price and pleasing share holders. My dream is for Whole Foods to go private, to become employee owned. Maybe that way the company can get its priorities straightened out and stop becoming more and more like the other retailers it set out to differ from. Also, that may end the increasing calls from its tms to unionize. I know this will not likely happen and be a drastic change for the company, but like I said, its a dream.
A company man's perspective
I'm currently a team leader in our northeast region, which covers stores in the entire state of NY, most of NJ and CT. A team leader essentially is a department manager though it also applies to support teams like IT, HR, etc.
I graduated from college in 2009 with a bachelors degree in business management. Opportunities for jobs were limited and while I spent time in the corporate finance world I came to regret the culture that defined the industry. If you would have asked me in 2009 that I'd be working for whole foods market, I would have laughed. As an outsider I viewed it as any other retail employer, dismissing the company without further research was foolish because as I've come to learn I couldn't be more wrong about what it's like to work for this company, a company I'm so proud to be part of the past 4 years..
When it comes to pay I recognize that $11/hour starting pay is not easy to live off. But I tell my team members that in one year I doubled my pay because I went out for two promotions. I had supportive managers that did their best to prepare me. It's the same style of leadership that I have and if a team member is passionate and interested in moving up, I will do my best to help prepare them. The company has paid for lots of training, product knowledge based but also in areas like leadership development because while I may be one of the ideal managers, there are many that aren't. The company recognizes this and it is my hope that those bad apples don't spoil things for all of us. I've never worked with a union backed employer so I can't speak from experience...
I hope this gives better insight..I recognize the union interest has come up because of some disgruntled employees. Whole Foods does respond, but in addition to union awareness trainings whole foods also restrains its leadership because something has to trigger this and many times it's those bad apples.