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Is Whole Foods Just Another Evil Corporation?

Beneath the surface of Whole Foods' fuzzy, progressive image is a company hell-bent on preventing its workers from unionizing.

Whole Foods Market is a highly profitable corporation that far outperforms its competitors, while maintaining an aura of commitment to social justice and environmental responsibility.

Its clientele is attracted not only to its brightly lit array of pristine fruits and vegetables, organically farmed meats and delectable (yet healthy) recipes, but also to the notion that the mere act of shopping at Whole Foods is helping to change the world.

In 2007, Whole Foods launched its "Whole Trade Guarantee," stating its aim as advancing the fair trade movement -- encouraging higher wages and prices paid to farmers in poor countries while promoting environmentally safe practices.

In addition, Whole Foods announced that 1 percent of proceeds will be turned over to its own Whole Planet Foundation, which supports microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Meanwhile, the company's Animal Compassion Foundation seeks to improve living conditions for farm animals, while stores periodically hold "5 Percent Days," when they donate 5 percent of sales for that day to an area nonprofit or educational organization.

Whole Foods also has a distinctive reputation for rejecting traditional corporate management models in favor of decentralized decision-making, described as an experiment in workplace democracy.

There are no departments at Whole Foods stores, only "teams" of employees. And Whole Foods has no managerial job titles, just team leaders and assistant team leaders. Nor does the company admit to having any workers, only team members who meet regularly to decide everything from local suppliers to who should get hired onto the team.

Generally, the company strives to achieve consensus at team meetings, where workers brainstorm about new ways to raise productivity. And new hires need to win the votes of at least two-thirds of team members to make the cut.

The liberal dress code at Whole Foods allows nose rings, Mohawks, visible tattoos and other expressions of individuality to help promote its stated goal of "team member happiness" for its relatively young workforce. Each team takes regular expeditions, known as "team builds," to local farms or other enterprises to educate themselves on how to better serve their customers.

When team members show extra effort on the job, team leaders award them with "high fives" that can be used to enter an on-site raffle to win a gift card. When a team member gets fired, it is sadly announced as a "separation."

For all its decentralization, the "unique culture" so beholden to Whole Foods' supporters bears the distinct stamp of cofounder and CEO John Mackey, who declared in 1992, a year after Whole Foods went public, "We're creating an organization based on love instead of fear."

The former hippie is known for shunning suits and ties and wearing shorts and hiking boots to meetings -- and for insisting that before the end of every business meeting, everyone says something nice about everyone else in a round of "appreciations." In a 2004 Fast Company article, business writer Charles Fishman favorably quoted a former Whole Foods executive calling Mackey an "anarchist" for his eccentric executive style.

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But something sinister lurks beneath the surface of Whole Foods' progressive image. Somehow, Mackey has managed to achieve multimillionaire status while his employees' hourly wages have remained in the $8 to $13 range for two decades. With an annual turnover rate of 25 percent, the vast majority of workers last no more than four years and thus rarely manage to achieve anything approaching seniority and the higher wages that would accompany it. If Whole Foods' workers are younger than the competitions, that is the intention.

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