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Whole Foods Plays Dirty

by Paul Ortiz


For the past several months, Whole Foods stores have been distributing a slickly-produced brochure to inquiring customers in response to the Strawberry Workers' Campaign. The brochure is full of misinformation and half-truths that give one the impression that being a farm worker in America is Heaven on earth. Here are a few of the more outrageous claims:

"Whole Foods Market fully supports workers' rights to receive fair wages, decent working conditions, and the right to join a union if they so choose. Workers' rights are covered by state and federal laws, and farms are required to pay minimum wages, unemployment insurance, and provide a clean working environment."

To the contrary : Historically, farm workers have been excluded from the most important federal labor laws that guarantee the right to a minimum wage and the right "to join a union if they so choose." Most laws that pertain to farm workers are simply not enforced because there are too few labor inspectors to enforce them. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of our nation's farm workers live in sub-standard housing, do not have access to toilets in the fields, and are subject to verbal and even physical abuse from foremen. Several major cases have been tried in states such as North Carolina and Florida during recent years where it was found that workers were being kept by their employers in a state of virtual slavery. This is worlds away from the ideal and naïve (and disingenuous?) information put out by Whole Foods.

Just as importantly, state laws are administered by elected officials and are subject to partisan politics. In California, farm workers are covered under a state labor board (the ALRB) that is supposed to oversee, certify and enforce union elections. Since Jerry Brown left office however, ALRB members have been selected by governors like Deukmejian and Wilson. These reactionaries have rendered labor laws meaningless, thus making a large-scale grassroots campaign a basic necessity to turn the tide....

"Despite its repeated stated concerns about worker safety and pesticides, the UFW has failed to support organic agriculture." This is a lie. The UFW has been in the forefront of both eliminating and reducing pesticide use to the benefit of workers and consumers alike since the mid '60s, long before Whole Foods was even created! The great UFW victories of the late '60s led to the ban on DDT, as the union demanded that this silent killer be abolished from the US marketplace.

Subsequently, working in conjunction with leading researchers such as Dr. Marion Moses, the UFW has funded a number of major studies designed to study links between "cancer clusters," pesticides, and communities where farm worker children are born with birth defects. The UFW has been a national force arguing for the end of deadly pesticide usage. Where has Whole Foods been all these years? Finally, Whole Foods is well aware that the UFW has won a union election at Swanton Berry, an organic strawberry grower producing 20% of the organic strawberry crop in California.

"Each of the farms we have visited that supplies strawberries to our stores provides clean drinking water and washing facilities, fair wages, and a discrimination-free environment." Whole Foods has never been able to actually state just exactly which farms their representatives actually visited. Again, this is providing cover to a brutally exploitative industry. (How many of us wouldn't love to live in a "discrimination-free environment?!") The fact is that the UFW has had to step up and file several class-action lawsuits in an effort to check the most outrageous forms of industry abuse of farm workers in the past two years. Last year, with the help of the UFW, workers won $575,000 in back wages for being forced to work "off the clock" without pay after filing their own federal class action lawsuit with the union's help.

Workers who have been identified as UFW supporters have been summarily fired or intimidated. The UFW helped them earn a $40,000 settlement in back pay. The list of abuses against strawberry workers in California and throughout America is endless. Why doesn't Whole Foods join the UFW's effort to improve the working conditions and lives of all strawberry workers? Please urge Whole Foods/Wellspring to meet with representatives of the United Farm Workers and join in this campaign for basic human rights and economic justice!

John Mackey, Whole Foods' CEO boasts a hyper-individualistic philosophy that might explain why Whole Foods refuses to support the farm workers' struggle for self-determination. Quoting heavily from his idol Milton Friedman and selectively borrowing from eastern philosophy, Mackey asserts in his article "Beyond Unions" that:

"'Happiness is often seen today as self-indulgent and narcissistic. How can I be happy when there is so much pain and suffering in the world? Why should I have so much when others have so little?' What many of us have yet to learn, however, is that the key to creating happiness and abundance throughout the world is to first experience it within ourselves." What a hollow philosophy! Every day, 40,000 children starve to death on this planet, filled with "happiness and abundance" for the rich. When are we going to learn that the interests of the poor are our interests (those of us who don't own corporations or banks)? Interests such as toxic contamination, wages, housing, the right to organize.

Wellspring now says it's donating funds for farmworkers' welfare; farmworkers say: "Change, not charity!"

  Paul Ortiz, a Duke history grad student, is a NC Farmworker Project board member.  

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