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Exposed: How Whole Foods and the Biggest Organic Foods Distributor Are Screwing Workers

United Natural Foods Incorporated, the largest wholesale distributor of organic and “natural” foods in the U.S., is currently under investigation for 45 violations of federal labor law.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

“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 illegally 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 co-ops 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, whereby 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.

 
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