My Year Organizing at Whole Foods Photo: Mike Mozart via Flickr (Creative Commons)

My Year Organizing at Whole Foods

I’ve been meaning to write a retrospective on my time trying to organize a union at Whole Foods in 2014. I always have a hard time committing myself to writing projects, but upon seeing that Whole Foods workers (along with Amazon, Instacart and other gig workers) were going on strike on May 1st, I felt a burst of energy to share my experience. The mix of emotions I feel when I see the endangered, beleaguered, poorly paid and poorly treated workers organize is hard to express. I’m at the same time gratified and melancholic, energized and wistful. I wish I could do more to help, to be part of it. Hopefully these posts will be of some benefit, though most of what I share are negative examples to avoid, not of victories that can be easily duplicated.

With six years past and few notes at my disposal I’m going to get some things wrong. I entered the fray in the middle, really on the downturn, of an organizing campaign. I encourage any of my former coworkers to correct anything I get wrong or outright miss. I only have my minor, somewhat clouded perspective. There are others who were much more vital to the beginning of the organizing process whose experience is needed to complement mine. Anyway, enough with the preamble, here we go.

At the end of 2013 I was an eager radical fresh off the defeat of the Occupy Wall Street movement working a demeaning data entry job and searching for a place to put my energy. I fashioned myself a socialist of some stripe, a Marxist, I had read 2/3 of Capital (I’m still stuck in the Heavy Machinery chapter) and had looked at union organizer jobs. Occupy Chicago had produced about 100 committed activist-revolutionaries who now formed an unstable social network in the city. At this point, without the Occupy movement holding us together, people were branching off into other projects. A good proportion of former Occupiers were union staffers, usually SEIU (this also says something about the trajectory of the Occupy movement and the current Left) and the Fight for Fifteen movement was gearing up. I of course followed FF15 very closely, and it seemed shockingly successful. I wasn’t naive, I knew SEIU’s reputation (particularly the International leadership). I knew that the strike actions they organized were small, often only a single individual from each store, but it was widespread. Though there wasn’t a heavy concentration at any one shop, there were dozens, then hundreds, and even thousands of low-wage workers who would take part in protests across Chicago. And there were thousands who had signed ‘union cards’ at these shops, though what that signified was not clear. If nothing else, there was a lot of raw material to work with.

There were also several ex-Occupy radicals who were involved in the campaign, as workers, not as staffers. Most notably, there were a handful at a couple Whole Foods stores. There had already been some work trying to organize these stores before FF15 really came onto the scene. With Fight for 15 getting headlines and winning some attention, they were building up some steam. Now, SEIU didn’t really know what to do with them. SEIU really wanted to focus on fast food, but they opened up a Pandora’s Box with these small wildcats. Suddenly they were getting workers not just from supermarkets, but from convenience stores, small retail outlets, coffee shops—all of them inspired by FF15 and wanting to get some help from a union that seemed to be on the offensive. Again, one of the main problems was that there wasn’t a strong concentration at any of these shops, there were small pockets spread out throughout the entire city, but all of them were low-wage retail workers. It’s my understanding that SEIU didn’t really want to incorporate the Whole Foods campaign into FF15, but they were overwhelmed by several successful wildcats there and were convinced to bring them on board (at least temporarily).

For a time, there was a lot of focus on one particular store which seemed to be a ‘hot shop:’ the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland in Boystown. There were no less than 4 wildcats in the summer and fall of 2013. Now each one didn’t bring out more than 20 workers, but they didn’t face much retaliation (yet) and had won several victories. They had gotten at least one despised manager fired, they won a break room (the management claimed it was under construction, it suddenly appeared open shortly after a strike) and the right for cashiers to some basic comforts, like having access to a water bottle near their work station. What united the workers were generally three basic demands: low pay, the ‘points’ system, and self-respect and dignity. Sexism and racism were rife. Here’s a quote from a 2013 DNAinfo article about the campaign:

“Women frequently experience sexual harassment, and management does nothing about it, she said.

Bosses once stood by as a customer invited her and three female co-workers to join him in a limo if one performed fellatio on him, she said.

“We can’t tell a creep to go away,” she said. “The second I complained about it, he said I shouldn’t wear the shirt I was wearing.” 

The starting wage at Chicago Whole Foods stores was $10 an hour. This was slightly above the minimum wage in the state, but well below the supposed $18 an hour that Whole Foods would say an average worker made at their stores. I have no doubt the average wage was $18/hr, but I am very confident the median age was closer to $10. Embarrassingly, 10 bucks was a higher starting wage than our unionized competitors at Mariano’s (organized by UFCW, or colloquially, United For Cutting Wages). This would cause problems down the road. And in 2013, 10 bucks an hour, with some expectation to move up if you stick around for a while, it wasn’t seen to be that bad. It was bad. But most retail jobs started below that. What really raised workers’ ire was the points system.

The points system, for those who don’t know, is one of the most ingeniously evil methods of work discipline I’ve ever encountered. Instead of giving workers a set number of sick or personal days that they could spend over the course of a year, a worker starts with some amount of points, at Whole Foods it was six, and every absence or late clock-in deducted from those points. If you needed to take a sudden day off, for whatever reason, you lost 1 point. If you were late (and ‘late’ was defined as clocking in more than 7 minutes after your scheduled start time) you lost half a point. In a calendar year if you lost 6 points you’re fired. It was draconian. If, say, you take three sick days, one personal day and are merely late 4 times over the course of a year you’re fired, no excuses, nothing to say in your defense (actually, we would learn, there was an appeals process, but, lol). There was no such thing as an excused absence. Suffice to say, this was one of our greatest targets to organize around. It would also be one of the strongest cudgels wielded against us.

So, around the winter of 2013 I was approached by some socialist friends of mine to get a job at Whole Foods. A handful of others applied, some got rejected, others were weeded out pretty early. I wasn’t confident I would get hired. I had a little experience in working at supermarkets, I had worked a summer at a Dominicks in the meat department (unbeknownst to me at the time, that minimum wage job was union, another UFCW triumph), but my name was all over Occupy protests. If you googled me the first five or so results were various articles quoting me about burning down capitalism or whatever. I didn’t think there was any chance I would get the job. But, late December 2013, I got word back and I had an interview, and would start at the Boystown store—what I thought was the hot shop—in January.

I had a bit of a distorted picture of where the organizing was at. It was communicated to me that they had already had about 70 union cards signed (of a store estimated at 200 employees) and an organizing team of 8–10. They were fresh off a stunning victory in November where they won the right to take Thanksgiving off. You can read about it here. We would learn this would be the zenith of the entire campaign. After that, the campaign was battling rearguard actions until it sputtered out. I’ll get to that. While I do believe that some 70 workers signed cards, that was over the course of a year. Their commitment wasn’t strong across the board, and the turnover was so high that many would soon be gone. The 8–10 workers that formed the organizing committee was closer to 5–6, and a couple were soon to leave. The campaign had gotten a ton of publicity and had won some real concessions, but the core wasn’t broadening out much beyond the handful of radicals who started it. Into this maelstrom, I joined the scene.

The Life and Death of a Union Campaign

In January 2014, I started as an associate in the meat department at the Whole Foods in Boystown, Chicago. I was ‘self-salting’ in a sense, getting the job with the intention of helping to organize the union campaign. Even the department I applied to was strategic. Even though I had previous experience working in grocery meat departments, breaking into the meat department had been a real difficulty in the campaign. I was hoping to aid in that effort.

The real core of the organizing team was fairly small. There were about 4–5 real committed organizers, people who were willing to seek out conversations with coworkers and get them on board with the campaign. There were about two dozen active supporters, people who had signed cards and had even taken part in protests and walk-outs. And there were several dozen who had been convinced to sign union cards, though this wasn’t a ‘true’ union card campaign at the moment. The cards they signed came from the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), which was the organization SEIU set up through Fight for Fifteen. What WOCC was or could be wasn’t entirely clear yet. I don’t have hard numbers but I have heard from Chicago organizers that the number of low-wage workers in Chicago that signed cards numbered anywhere from a few thousand to twenty thousand. Again, that was spread across hundreds of shops over the city. What that meant for us was uncertain. Still, it meant the signers had some amount of buy-in. Signing a union card at a precarious workplace with rabidly anti-union bosses is no small undertaking.

Beyond the small concentration at the Boystown store there were also several militants in a couple other stores in the city. Most were far more isolated than us, but there had been some growth. Whole Foods was also undergoing a rapid expansion in Chicago (and nationally) at that time. There were only 19 Whole Foods stores in Chicago in 2014, but around the same time the Safeway-subsidiary Dominicks (a UFCW union shop) had just gone out of business, and suddenly Whole Foods and Mariano’s were competing for both the market share and the empty storefronts. As I mentioned before, Mariano’s was a union shop under UFCW local 881, but their starting wage was lower than Whole Foods. It felt like a great moment to strike and perhaps compel the unions to support us, out of self-interest if nothing else. UFCW was losing 4,000 dues-paying members because of the Dominicks closures. Surely they’d help us out?

SEIU was also in a bind. They had put a huge spotlight on the organizing at Whole Foods, deployed a full-time organizer to help us reach more workers and coordinate between stores, and gave crucial legal advice and support where necessary. But Whole Foods didn’t really fit the paradigm they set out for with Fight for 15. To this day I’m not really sure if the campaign had concrete goals in mind, or if they really knew what they were setting out to do before they starting talking to workers. Obviously they didn’t think they could organize unions by signing McDonald’s and Wendy’s workers one-by-one and winning union elections. Clearly part of the strategy, if indeed there was one, was to pressure municipalities and state governments to raise their minimum wage laws by staging high publicity one-day strikes. This bore quite a bit of fruit, but it also left some individual workers worse off than before. Because they weren’t really organizing shops to defend themselves from reprisal, sometimes workers who took the enormous risk to walk out on these big chains would be fired shortly after. And there really wasn’t much SEIU could do to stop it.

From the summer of 2013 to early 2014 the Whole Foods campaign and Fight for 15 found each other mutually beneficial. But soon the FF15 organizers were getting itchy. They didn’t really want to step on the toes of UFCW over a jurisdiction question. SEIU didn’t organize grocery workers typically, UFCW did, and nobody wanted a turf war. SEIU wanted to focus more on fast food workers, and so, a few months after I started, SEIU started pulling their support and brokered meetings between us and UFCW.

I just want to take a moment and talk about the organization SEIU created for Fight for 15, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. Before I wrote about how they had literally thousands of workers signed up to be WOCC members, but they were spread over hundreds of workplaces around Chicago. Now I don’t believe SEIU had any intention of running individual union election campaigns at any of these workplaces, nor do I think that would have made any sense. That was part of why they shied away from Whole Foods in the first place. However, some of the militants in WOCC saw a potential in WOCC that SEIU was not interested in. What if the thousands-strong WOCC acted as a minority union for all low-wage workers in Chicago? Absolutely it would not be as strong as a federally recognized union that could collectively bargain, but it would still have strength in other ways. What if there was a legitimate organization that any low-wage worker could sign up to, pay dues to, and in return receive some measure of union representation, legal support, and the power of thousands of activists? What if any time a worker was fired without cause there was an organization that could rally hundreds of worker-activists to picket the store and organize boycotts? That could raise funds and financially support workers temporarily out of work or on strike. There was something there. But those were ideas we kicked around and were never able to really do anything with. I still think some sort of cross-industry minority union like that could be a useful tool.

I started in mid-January in the Whole Foods meat department. Early on, I knew I had a tough task ahead of me. One of the people in my hiring cohort had left a unionized job at Mariano’s because the pay was too low. Moreover, the stratification of workers in the shop created some hard barriers. The vast majority of activists and card-signers in the shop were cashiers. They had the most strenuous job, were treated the worst, had the most contact with customers, and had the highest turnover. They also tended to be the youngest and had a higher concentration of female workers. Nearly every organizer was a cashier. We barely broke into Grocery, Seafood, Prepared Foods, Specialty, etc. I figured out early on there was a huge gulf in how the rest of the workplace regarded the cashier department. While most of my coworkers in the meat department had friendships with workers in other departments, rarely did they have any relationship with any of the cashiers. They were seen as disposable and interchangeable. The same was said of the ‘back-of-the-house’ workers, who were the porters, janitors, dockloaders, etc., who were much more likely to be older and Spanish-speaking.

Additionally, there are some real prospects for advancement in the meat department. Historically, some of the old grocers would have two unions in shops, one for most of the staff and one just for the meat cutters. There was a real divide there. The fully trained meat cutters made pretty good money, $25+ an hour. If you played your cards right, within a year or so you could make it to be an associate meat cutter and make $20 an hour. It was not a terrible option to pursuing a middle-class life. Why risk your job for a cashier who’s going to be gone in 6 months anyway?

There were also some particularities to the store itself. The Boystown Whole Foods is, well, in Boystown, the most prominent queer neighborhood in Chicago. And the management spared no opportunity to proclaim just how queer friendly they were. Whole Foods truly epitomized the libertarian ethos of John Mackey, the owner and founder. I wont judge the personal lives of whoever works for me, but when you’re in my house, I own your ass. It truly did mean a lot to many workers that they worked at a tolerant business that wouldn’t turn them away for their sexuality. But the tolerance had its limits—there were arbitrary rules about how many tattoos and piercings could be displayed, and there were zero black supervisors or managers when I started, despite a sizable proportion of black employees. Black women cashiers in particular faced special abuse from managers, and that was one area the campaign attempted to concentrate and organize around.

So these were the obstacles ahead of us. And a few weeks into being hired, the campaign faced its toughest, and ultimately fatal, challenge. In late January 2014 Chicago would be hit with the first of a recurring Polar Vortex. Chicago was hit with extreme weather, with windchill temperatures hitting levels as low as -40 F degrees. It shut the city down for two days. Well, most of the city anyway. Whole Foods remained open. The workers who had points to spare used them, and the ones that didn’t did their best to show up (and work a mostly empty store). One worker, a single mother with a special needs child who had to stay at home because the school system shut down, asked her manager if it was okay to stay at home and look after him. The manager told her that was fine. When she came back to work, she was fired because she was on her last point. (You can read about it here.)

Rhiannon Broschat wasn’t just a random worker who got unlucky, she had also been a prominent striker. There’s no doubt this was an opportunistic act of retaliation. The workers, at least the ones that heard about it, were aghast. The injustice of it all was stark. We knew we had to organize to protect Rhiannon but that this was also an incredibly stupid and cruel act by management that we desperately needed to capitalize on. And we did our best. We organized a walk out to demand Rhiannon’s reinstatement, and we managed to get a shocking amount of national attention. CTU President Karen Lewis spoke at the rally. MoveOn produced a petition to get her job back. All the local TV stations covered it. When the day arrived for the strike, over 20 workers from two stores walked out, others inside wore unions pins or hats in support, and… we waited.

I was caught in a bind. I had only officially been hired two weeks earlier, and was on a “probationary” status. I desperately wanted to walk out with my coworkers, but my fellow organizers discouraged me from doing so. No reason to lose your job while you’re just starting. You have to sit back, play it cool, and carefully build support. I ended up compromising, I came into work that day, but I wore a union cap expecting much of the store to also be supporting Rhiannon. I ended up being the only one in my department wearing any union swag. I was marked.

So we got a bunch of attention, a bunch of us walked out (though the numbers were remaining stagnant, neither growing nor declining), and Rhiannon filed an official appeal to get her job back. And we waited. And waited. And a few weeks later Whole Foods denied her appeal. And that was the gut punch to the campaign. We had no other tools at our disposal, or at least tools we knew how to utilize. Whole Foods weathering the bad press, watching us strike, and then stonewalling our demands was the deathblow. The second other workers saw that they were vulnerable to retaliation, and that we weren’t strong enough to guarantee their jobs, we were doomed—though we didn’t know it yet. Our support would drop precipitously over the next few months.

Throughout the drama of Rhiannon’s firing, the walk out, and the appeal, we discussed ways we could escalate our tactics. It wasn’t lost on us that Whole Foods management could sustain a minority strike and move on. What tools were at our disposal though? The only surefire way to protect Rhiannon, and ourselves, was to organize enough of the store that we could completely shut it down. We were unable to do that, not on that short a time scale. There were however, other ideas floated. One, which I still think about, would have been for us to form a community picket of the loading dock. We knew the trucks that brought goods to our stores were Teamster trucks, and someone, months back, checked and confirmed that the Teamsters had in their contract that they would not cross any picket line. Now, there would have to be some work to get the truckers in question on board, but this was an idea with some legs. We could conceivably shut the whole store down with just a handful of workers. Is that what we wanted to do though? A minority of workers could wield a ton of power though this type of gambit, but it would set that minority against the vast majority of the store. We decided against it. To this day I’m not sure how the store would have responded—the sympathy for Rhiannon Broschat was broad, but I do not know if it would have extended to losing days of work and taking a hit to people’s paychecks. We’ll never know.

So with the appeal finished, we found ourselves at a loss for how to continue. SEIU finally handed us over to UFCW (though we were still making up our minds on how much we wanted to rely on them), and we were entering a new phase. We were going to quietly build up our forces again, rebuild our organizing committee, and keep this campaign going. At least we thought we were.

The Denouement

In the weeks leading up to my hire and for months after I got on board, I asked all the radicals and socialists I knew for reading material on how to conduct a union drive. What I got in return, bless their hearts, were mostly radical histories and higher-level strategic stuff. There was very little that I could find that would help in conducting worker-to-worker conversations, winning people over, defensive and offensive tactics, basic small-scale strategy. Unfortunately I’m not able to provide much on what worked but I can impart some lessons on what to avoid.

Between 2013 and 2014 the Halsted store made some changes in management. They fired the Store Leader (everyone in Whole Foods is a ‘team member’ or a ‘team leader,’ it’s real saccharine stuff) and brought in someone new. The departing Store Leader [Manager] was regarded as fairly nice guy, pretty accepting and not a punitive type. We anticipated the new guy would be a hard ass, and he was, but he managed to do it with a smile on his face. Up until Rhiannon’s dismissal the union organizing team had managed to avoid reprisal. We thought they simply didn’t know what to do with us, hoped it would blow over, and wanted to avoid bad PR. When they decided to weather the bad press and go through with firing Rhiannon, the signal had been given that they didn’t care about their image in the media anymore. It was gloves off.

I was in a tough position. I was a rookie on a team where your esteem in the eyes of your peers mattered a lot. I had also foolishly marked myself as a union supporter two weeks into being hired when I wore a union cap on the day of the strike to support Rhiannon. Nobody in management spoke with me, none of my supervisors took me aside, but I think at that point I had become somewhat toxic. And they had already started working to build a case to get rid of me, or at least scare the shit out of me.

The meat department was its own mini-store inside the store. It was also a heavily masculine, Boys Club environment. Of a team of 10–12, there were two female workers, but the entire culture was Bro-y. And it was fairly individualistic. The associate team members were pitted against each other in hopes that they could win the right to become apprentice meat cutters and then full meat cutters. The supervisors and management in the meat department competed among themselves in hopes that they may get to run the meat departments in any of the new stores Whole Foods was opening around the city. There were barriers to solidarity in our department, to say the least.

That’s not to say it was a terribly hostile environment, it wasn’t. Even though I was marked early on, I made friends, and got along with nearly everyone (some specific supervisors be damned). But coworkers were held at arms length, and I never once heard any chatter about the union campaign that I didn’t initiate. People wanted to do their work, get their hours, progress up the meat-cutter chain, and not rub anyone the wrong way. Collective action didn’t come naturally to the department. However, the meat department, and the meat cutters specifically, wielded an immense amount of power. The morning shift consisted of workers coming in at 4 a.m. to conduct all the work to make sure there was fresh meat for the display. It was a brutal shift, and the chaotic way we were scheduled meant that in a given week you could have a closing shift and an opening shift back-to-back occasionally. (That would be closing the shop at 10 p.m. and coming back six hours later at 4 a.m.) If just one or two of the meat cutters opted not to come in one morning, the meat department would basically have a lost day. Those one or two workers could cost the store thousands and thousands of dollars.

Sadly, I didn’t break through with any of my meat department coworkers. I had much better luck with stockers, loading-bay workers, prepared-food workers and produce workers. If I had been able to stay, build up some esteem in the department and rise the ranks a little bit as a meat cutter, I might have been able to make some progress. As a lowly associate though, I didn’t have much of a voice with them. And I mostly just tried to keep my head down within the department. I knew it would be a long haul there, and if we were going to win folks over it would be a long process.

While I tried to ingratiate myself with the meat department team and get myself hired on permanently, the campaign suffered more losses. The points system was the official culprit, though really management was making opportunistic reprisals. We lost a couple lead organizers in the cashier department, and we lost, most damaging of all, organizers in departments we were starting to break into in produce and the loading bay. With the stick came the carrot, however. Shortly after Rhiannon’s firing Whole Foods announced a new absence system, one that applied to the whole region. Suddenly, excused absences were accepted, provided you were able to produce a doctor’s note. The entire Midwest region now declared that you would recoup a point with that magical doctor’s note. It wasn’t much, but it was a small concession. We felt gratified we were able to make the lives of thousands of Whole Foods workers just slightly easier through our organizing. It showed us that one store could move the whole company.

Along with firings management also found clever ways to co-opt the movement. One of our most militant workers was promoted to associate team leader of the cashier department. Someone who had previously gone on minority strikes and risked his job was now arguing against the union and firing organizers. It was a blow. Others were co-opted in subtler ways. One of our card-signers was offered a position created just for them: they had previously been vocal about environmental issues and now they became the official Store Environmental Representative (or some such title). The position didn’t carry with it any extra pay, but it did provide that employee with a feeling that they had a voice and autonomy within the shop. Whole Foods was constantly pushing this idea that they would support whatever social justice ideas employees had, provided you did all the work. I noted to my boss how wasteful it was that we prepared gallons and gallons of soup every day and the majority of it would be thrown out by the end of the day. I asked if it wasn’t better for us to maybe donate the soup nightly to the homeless and needy, and my boss said if I put together a detailed plan and let the management review it, maybe we could put something together. Rather than go through all those hoops, I periodically took some of the soup and gave it to folks outside of the store. Still—it was important for Whole Foods management to at least appear like individual workers could come with new ideas and plans.

With our organizing team decimated by dismissals and co-options, we got back to trying to rebuild in the ones and twos. SEIU was still our official benefactor at this time, but they replaced our energetic organizer with one who was overwhelmed with fast-food organizing and put us on the back burner. We desperately needed some help talking to and assessing workers—we were too overwhelmed with keeping our jobs and keeping the team going to really branch out and take risks. If there’s one takeaway lesson I can communicate to aspiring worker-organizers it’s this: you’re going to spend most of your time trying not to get fired. I survived the 90-day probationary period, but I was written up twice early on for flimsy charges. One of my supervisors, who I had never even interacted with, took issue with my mopping and took cell phone pictures and sent them to our team leader. They accused me of leaving a shelf full of meat out of the refrigerator and spoiling $500 worth of product. Curiously, they also accused one of our other organizers of ruining $500 worth of merchandise. (The fact that they accused us of destroying the same dollar amount of food struck us as… quite a coincidence). Strangely, though they kept accusing me of subpar work, they didn’t move to fire me. I think the marking of myself as a union organizer had a dual effect—they targeted me but they didn’t want to outright fire me. If they thought you were a central organizer they seemed to be less likely to fire you. This seems paradoxical until you get into their thinking: they know if they fire a central organizer you’ll kick up a big stink and bring in the full force of the union apparatus. However, if you fire someone who has been involved in the organizing but more peripherally, they’re generally not interested in waging weeks and months of struggle to regain their job. This happened with Rhiannon after all, though she fought and went through the appeal process, after they shot her down she went and got a new job. Who can wait months for the NLRB to rule against you anyway?

SEIU eventually handed us off to UFCW. All credit to the organizers they connected us with, but the local was never committed to devoting real resources to rebuild our organizing team. Maybe that made sense, given where we were. But UFCW 881 had just lost 4,000 dues-paying members that previous year and we hoped that perhaps that would stir something in the local, if only out of desperation. We had a half dozen meetings with organizers in the local and we put together flow charts and strategized but I’m not sure a UFCW organizer ever stepped foot in our store. We lost more and more core members until we were down to 4–5 organizers in our shop. Any of the cards that were signed in 2013 were now defunct. Of the 70 or so that had signed cards, at least half had either moved jobs or been promoted out of any bargaining team. Things were bleak.

I kept trying to set up meetings and talk with workers I thought I could win over, but it got more and more difficult. We strategized what we could do to get the campaign some momentum again, maybe a petition of some sort? Try to expand the new sick-day statute? We needed something to rally around. We needed to build a social group again. The initial 2013 group had been its own social network, a few dozen people who were more or less friends and knew each other. This had advantages and disadvantages. It was shattered now. I was isolated from my own department but I tried to form connections with people elsewhere in the store. But it was too little, too late. People were moving on.

By Fall 2014 things had clearly stagnated. I was hit with some stunning news—my main collaborator, the person who had convinced me to get the job in the first place, disappeared. He just stopped showing up to work without any notice (to me or the store), and a week or two later I learned he got a job as an organizer with SEIU. I was personally betrayed and devastated, and I knew the campaign was done. It was a tough pill to swallow. I joined late, watched the campaign die, and now I was the only one left standing. It was a bizarre state of affairs. I weighed my options. For a while I thought, you know, maybe I’ll stick around for a while, try to become an associate meat cutter, get myself some job security, and then try to relaunch the campaign from a more secure position. But I also knew there was no way my department would promote me over other loyal workers. I was spinning my wheels. A few months later I put in my two weeks, and as a joke, I started openly leaving union cards and propaganda in the break room. On a day off, a week before I was going to leave, the Store Leader called me and said you know, it’s okay, you don’t need to keep coming in.

So that was that. For a year I worked two jobs, 60 hour weeks, to support myself and then an additional 10–20 hours a week trying to organize this union. It gave me the greatest sense of purpose and meaning that I’ve ever had through a job. I was, ironically, the best worker I’ve ever been. I never once registered an unexcused day off or came in late—for those that know me they know how astonishing that was. Despite all their hounding I was a stand-up employee, fat lot of good that did me or the campaign. Still, I would never have traded that experience for anything in the world. It energized me and empowered me. I’m proud of our work there, and we made things better for workers throughout the entire company. But we could only do so much.

Six years later Whole Foods is a very different company. It’s now owned by Amazon and in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. Workers are still organizing there, in the worst circumstances. Whole Foods is deploying the most sophisticated possible technology to thwart them. They’re literally developing algorithms to try to track which stores are in danger of unionizing. But I’m confident they can’t stop a serious organizing drive, and what’s being put together is much stronger than the bold but rather amateurish effort we spearheaded in 2013–14. The workers at Amazon and Whole Foods have my unconditional solidarity, and I hope my story helps in some small way. My best wishes to the workers of the world. Solidarity!