Whole Foods is set to move into the former Borders storefront in Davis Commons in 12 to 18 months. As the Wal-Mart of organic and natural groceries, Whole Foods is reviled for its anti-union policies and reactionary politics.
On the face of it, Whole Foods seems like a crunchy granola kind of company. It boasts a commitment to pure, healthy foods and sustainable agriculture while giving back at least 5 percent of its profits per year to things like charitable non-profits and micro-lending programs. The store claims that “interdependence” is one of its central values, a recognition that everyone involved in the store represents a “community of interests.”
But, according to Whole Foods, the invisible hand of the market is what brings us together. Whole Foods’ radical libertarian CEO John Mackey claims that “the beauty … of capitalism is that it has a harmony of interests.”
The company’s commitment to “conscious capitalism” means that it has worked hard to stop unions from organizing its shops, with Mackey likening the possibility of unionization to “having herpes.” To stop the spread of unions, Whole Foods has allegedly fired labor organizers and threatened employees with lost benefits if they unionize.
Mother Jones reports that in 2002 workers unionized under United Food and Commercial Workers in Madison, WI, but Whole Foods busted them before they could negotiate their first contract. It happened again in 2006 in San Francisco, where the Teamsters tried to organize. After investigators at the National Labor Review Board found that “Whole Foods engaged in a variety of retaliatory measures to discourage union activity,” the company was forced to rehire workers in an out-of-court settlement.
More recently, Whole Foods has aggressively campaigned against workers by opposing the Employee Free Choice Act and Democratic health care reform.
In his now-infamous Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mackey attacked “Obamacare” while calling for insurance deregulation. Mackey’s alternative includes a variety of free market bromides, including a call to “repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover.” If we lived in Mackey’s libertarian utopia, patients with high-risk conditions would be left to fend for themselves.
As Whole Foods’ mission statement suggests, “There are no entitlements.” Whole Foods offers its employees a low-cost insurance plan and “personal wellness fund” but, of course, they lose their insurance when they are fired.
In health care and all other matters, the Whole Foods way leaves workers at the mercy of their bosses. Whole Foods workers’ wages remain low and, though the company may give employees some benefits, these are presented as management’s charity and not as workers’ due. Unable to collectively bargain, workers cannot speak back and demand their rights from Mackey and his underlings.
Whole Foods does pretend to be a more egalitarian, worker-friendly company. Mackey pays himself a humble salary — in 2009 it dropped to $1 — but then takes home hundreds of thousands in bonuses and millions in stock options. Like so much about Whole Foods, this is just a public relations stunt to impress bourgeois liberal shoppers.
Indeed, even their natural and organic image is just brand marketing. For example, the company openly admits that it allows genetically modified foods onto its shelves. Its rhetoric about healthy foods and environmental consciousness ultimately adds up to nothing.
And this appeal to social responsibility is what makes the company so odious. Whole Foods is a classic example of what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls the chocolate laxative. Chocolate, he claims, produces constipation, while the laxative reverses the effect. Like a poisonous antidote, Whole Foods tries to solve the very crises it creates.
Worried about capitalist greed? Shop at our monopolistic, corporate juggernaut! Want to support local producers? Buy from a mega-chain based in Texas! Tired of ecological devastation wrought by overconsumption? Consume more of our products!
Even if Whole Foods wasn’t a terrible corporation, its arrival would be a problem. Whole Foods will hurt local enterprises like the Davis Food Co-op. It also joins a glut of high-end grocery stores and will locate to an area already plagued by traffic and parking problems.
Moreover, as David Greenwald of the Davis Vanguard observes, Borders provided Davis with a steady stream of income but most of Whole Foods’ merchandise is exempt from sales tax. That’s another hole in the city’s budget.
At the same time, we should not be too sanguine about our local businesses. (The Woodland-based Nugget supermarket still does not have a union, for example.) My point is not that we should embrace small, local companies to promote some social mission through shopping. Trying to save the planet through luxury purchases is the logic that birthed Whole Foods.
Instead of buying into “conscious capitalism,” workers and citizens of Davis should come together collectively and democratically to promote environmentally safe agriculture and better labor practices. Organic, healthy food should be a right — not the privilege of a few affluent shoppers.
We can begin by doing all we can to stop Whole Foods from coming to Davis Commons.
JORDAN CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English at UC Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.