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Self-Refuting Actions of the Day

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Whole Paycheck:

Whole Foods Market co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey has never hidden his disdain for labor unions. “Today most employees feel that unions are not necessary to represent them,” he told my colleague Josh Harkinson in 2013. That same year, Mackey echoed the sentiment in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s the Daily Ticker. “Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of [Fortune’s] 100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We’re not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”

On September 25, the natural-foods giant gave its workers reason to question their founder’s argument. Whole Foods announced it was eliminating 1,500 jobs—about 1.6 percent of its American workforce—”as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure.” The focus on cost-cutting isn’t surprising—Whole Foods stock has lost 40 percent of its value since February, thanks to lower-than-expected earnings and an overcharging scandal in its New York City stores.

Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store in the chain’s South region, “all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately,” according to an employee who works there.

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  • Derelict

    In one store in the chain’s South region, “all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately,” according to an employee who works there.

    My guess is that Mackey will be getting a nice, fact bonus this year. After all, showing such leadership is not something any fool off the street can do.

    And why isn’t he being hauled in front of a grand jury over the pricing thing? Oh, wait: He gets paid so much money because he’s in charge, and only he has the special abilities to oversee every detail. Except the details that could lead to a felony indictment.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Being supervisers they weren’t eligible for a union before…of course, that’s all changed now, hasn’t it.

  • Atrios

    WF had a somewhat deserved rep for being a bit better to their employees than you might expect (low bar, I know). You could tell it’s true because their employees generally are good at pretending to give a shit, which is not true at all McJObs. Decent customer service requires semi-decent pay, and a store nicknamed Whole Paycheck isn’t going to survive without decent customer service…

    • Yes, I shop at WF and I have had long term relationships with the workers there because they’ve been working there as long as I’ve been shopping there. I’ve known people there, from cashiers to floor stockers, for 12 years in some cases. Its a good job–or has been so far–and people seem to like it enough to stick with it. The store only runs because the people working there are damned good at their jobs. Cutting pay, increasing turnover, is just the sort of assholic stupidity that McKay would choose over valuing the work these people do.

      • ThrottleJockey

        That seems similar to Southwest Airlines in that employees there seem to be happy despite not having union representation. And it shows in the customer service, which is many times better than other airlines (at least based on my experience).

        • mds

          That seems similar to Southwest Airlines in that employees there seem to be happy despite not having union representation.

          As far I know, Southwest Airlines is still unionized. Many people presume that it isn’t, because Crazy Herb Kelleher emphasized employee satisfaction as crucial for their success. On some 60 Minutes segment long ago, he himself noted that the workforce was unionized despite his employee-friendly policies, because why should they have to trust him to keep them up?

          • Thirtyish

            Southwest is unionized, which is why I gladly fly them. I refuse to fly on any airline that does not have a pilots’ union.

        • Morse Code for J

          SWAPA represents the pilots, TWU represents the flight attendants and ramp workers and AFMA represents the aircraft mechanics. Southwest is an overwhelmingly union organization.

      • ajp

        Same with my local Costco. It’s really nice to see the same employees over and over again for years. Employees who don’t look like they’ve just been waterboarded by management, who seem happy (happy for people who are on their feet all day, at least) and seem to give a shit.

        And despite its reputation, the Whole Foods by me is actually competitive on price in some departments. I find the “If You Care” tagline profoundly condescending, and some of their stuff is ridiculously overpriced. Bulk stuff and produce is better at Fairway or Wegmans in my experience, but when I have the time to comparison shop sometimes WF has the better price.

      • ajp

        It might be good for management training to include a month-long rotation at the store level. Make the aspiring CFO or SVP cut steaks or mop floors or stock aisles for 50 hours a week for a month, interact with the people who rely on the job to feed their families. I don’t know, the idealist in me thinks such an experience would stick. But there are plenty of rich people from humble origins who turned out to be miserly pricks.

        • It sounds like that TV show where the CEO pretends to be a member of the ‘umble masses to spy on see what conditions are like for his employees

          Now, if they had to take the same pay as the store staff for a year, that would be interesting.

          • Hogan

            If Only the Tsar Knew? I love that show.

        • Ronan

          Isn’t this the procedure for getting on management track at a lot of these supermarkets ? I know it is in some of the German ones like aldi or lidl anyway , where the aspiring manager has to spend six (I think) months on the floor

          • Ronan

            Forget about it, we’re talking about differing levels

          • Lee Rudolph

            Man, talk about credential creep! It used to be even an aspiring bartender only had to spend ten nights on a barroom floor!

            • Ronan

              Some of the finest people I’ve met in my life I’ve met drunk on barroom floors

              • LosGatosCA

                My favorite college classmates often met with me on the floor.

            • Hogan

              Is there no end to your erudition?

          • ajp

            When I was a kid, all the management at the local supermarket chain was taken from the floor level. The district manager (father of one of my high school classmates) started out in produce when he was a teenager and got his degree at night. No one thought this was unusual when I was a kid. Bet that doesn’t happen much anymore.

      • Yes, I shop at WF and I have had long term relationships with the workers there

        Love on the olive bar

        Dear Penthouse Forum,

        When I walked into Whole Foods last week, the only thing on my mind was fresh mozzarella, but workers at the deli counter had other things on their minds …

      • Downpuppy

        Fresh Pond or Putnam St?
        Fresh Pond was great for grazing, but suddenly, no samples.

        I like Putnam, and its liquor license, but I’m getting afraid to bike there with insane Cambridge cops stopping bikers for piddly shit stuff everybody does mostly to stay out of the way.

        Prospect & Beacon are just too small.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, sad but true — WF is probably still above the mean for a non-union retailer.

  • Warren Terra

    Eventually the Whole Foods staff would have to figure out that their paycheck wasn’t worth massively more than its face value just because it was in a Whole Foods branded bottle of water.

  • Davis X. Machina

    We’re not so much anti-union as beyond unions.

    You’ll occasionally hear the same argument from workers, more’s the pity.

    If you need a union, then it’s because strength in numbers is necessary. From this it’s easy to conclude then you’re weak, or not fully self-actualized, or defective other way. And people don’t want to admit that.

    Not here, in America, where I can walk into the C-suite and negotiate my salary and working conditions mano-a-mano any time I want.

    • Chaz

      Yes, I see that constantly from tech workers in particular. Any post on Slashdot about pay or working conditions fills up with guys saying, “If you don’t like your pay just negotiate better, I negotiate my pay myself!”

      • postmodulator

        When I was a regular Slashdot commenter, it was full of 19-year-olds who were certain they understood the world better than anyone else because they knew HTML and had seen a Perl script once. Good to know it hasn’t changed.

        • mds

          Eh, it’s changed somewhat; I’m fairly certain most of the 19-year-olds there nowadays no longer know HTML.

          • sparks

            And it’s Python now, not Perl.

            • Warren Terra

              You forgot the grandpa.

      • KadeKo

        And, just like at Triangle Shirtwaist, they can negotiate their own safe working environment. Or go to a place that does.

    • LeeEsq

      Another argument you here is that unions are something for low-skill or unskilled workers but employees with education and skills should be able to negotiate their own contracts.

  • pianomover

    I went to WF once had a loaded cart including an expensive cut of meat but couldn’t find the last item on my list. I asked one of their “associates” where I might find it he answered “that’s not my section”
    Left my cart there and have never gone back.

    • Manny Kant

      Cool story, bro.

  • kayden

    “as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers”

    Lower prices? What lower prices? There’s a reason that Whole Foods is derisively called Whole Check by many people.

    • ThrottleJockey

      One of the many reasons I’ve never shopped there.

    • Kathleen

      I’ve been going to Whole Foods for several years (for specialty items only like baked goods, bread, and salad bar) and I noticed that within the last year they’ve been advertising “low prices” on certain items, which I found interesting. Why would a high end store want to be known for “lower prices”? Maybe that’s why their profits are down – they can’t decide what they want to be when they grow up. I think they should stick to being high end and figure out how to better serve that market.

      I think their customer service is excellent, though not necessarily better than Kroger, which is where I shop 95% of the time (fuel point whore). No other store in my area can beat their prices or variety.

      • ajp

        Why would a high end store want to be known for “lower prices”?

        Well, I do know a lot of middle class and even upper middle class people who have really been feeling an economic squeeze the past few years. They want to maintain the status of shopping at a place like Whole Foods but also want to be able to justify it in light of their own economic realities. So shit like that makes them feel responsible but doesn’t take too much of the edge off of the prestige factor of shopping at Whole Foods.

      • The chain’s earnings may not be down, it could have failed to meet unrealistic earning projections.

        Some other possibilities:

        It no longer has a lock on the “organic groceries” brand, even in places where it was the first organic grocery. Everywhere sells organic now, including Costco.

        It’s also been expanding like crazy in the D.C./suburbs. A WF is regarded as the sign of doom in poor neighborhoods because it means gentrification is about to begin in earnest. (And yes, it is a really sick joke when the first grocery in a food desert is a Whole Food$.)

        But if it is following this pattern across country, it wouldn’t be surprising that the store is trying to become attractive to people who aren’t “high end” shoppers.

        There’s a limit to the number of people who have the money to buy all of their groceries at WF, but there are a lot more who can afford to shop at Giant or Harris Teeter (Kroger analogues).

        • JustRuss

          This. The corporate obsession with growth. So once you’ve dominated the high-end grocery business how do you keep earnings growing? Destroy your brand by moving down-market, let a bunch of staff go and cut wages to temporarily juice up profits. Brilliant…for a little while.

        • cpinva

          “The chain’s earnings may not be down, it could have failed to meet unrealistic earning projections.”

          that would be a number some 25 year-old MBA came up with, in between playing video games? that number? what a joke. look, you can use all the fancy shmancy algorithms, all the dependent/independent variables you want, in the end, it’s all guesswork. I can be just as brilliantly accurate/inaccurate using a dart and a dartboard. “earnings projections” is just another way of making “analysts” seem useful, and justifying the trading fee you’re being gouged for.

          what’s even funnier about this, is that the company itself isn’t directly benefiting from an increase in value of their already authorized/issued stock, the sh’s are. oh, and of course the brokers. as long as the sh’s are kept happy, the company could tell the brokers to go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, we’re not issuing any “earnings projections”, we have better things to do than tongue bathe your balls. you know, like run the company competently. and, aside from the sputtering, nothing would happen.

          “It no longer has a lock on the “organic groceries” brand, even in places where it was the first organic grocery. Everywhere sells organic now, including Costco.”

          and everyone’s been selling organic, since about forever. unless, of course, those carrots in my fridge are the result of better living through chemistry. what they really mean is that they (supposedly) didn’t use pesticides/ripening-retarding agents on the produce. other than that, they’re all organic, even the flash frozen stuff.

  • ajp

    as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers

    Yes, if there’s one thing Whole Foods is known for, it’s their low prices.

    Although they seem to have my beloved siggi’s on sale more often than Westside or Fairway.

  • I am shocked that a chain spawned by a libertarian dickcicle who once tried to tank a competitor’s stock prices via trolling would do anything that doesn’t benefit its employees. Truly.

    ”as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure.”

    Translation – Self-serve checkout, coming soon to a Whole Food$ near you.

    p.s. Remember to support your local purveyor of organic comestibles & cosmetics.

    • I hate those self serve checkout lines. With a passion.

      • Funny thing about those self-checkout lines… if you’ve picked up a bottle of wine with your groceries, you can’t use them.

        • postmodulator

          Around here, if you have wine or beer and use the self-checkout line, you can wait forever for the single overworked cashier to run over and check your ID, thus allowing you to check out. This, of course, is after you have already waited forever behind the technologically-illiterate person pawing ineffectually at the touchscreen like a plains ape confronting the monolith.

          All this self-checkout everything needs to go away forever, or at least until a smaller percentage of the population is baffled by it.

          • matt w

            At my local not-high-end supermarket I noticed recently that the self-checkouts had disappeared. Apparently almost* everyone hated them, and also people would steal stuff.

            *Apologies to those who’ve said they want to avoid interacting with people–I know what you mean, some of the time, but I even less want to interact with those things.

          • ajp

            behind the technologically-illiterate person pawing ineffectually at the touchscreen like a plains ape confronting the monolith.

            I’m always stuck behind one of these people when I need to refill my MetroCard or PATH smart link. One of the reasons why I love a monthly pass.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Which is a pretty stupid law, thanks CA Democrats.

          • Derp, never mind.

          • It’s to prevent underage people from buying alcohol. They could easily fix that by requiring the checkout computer to have the customer swipe a valid ID.

            • Warren Terra

              Only if the computer could check that the valid ID matched the customer. Or perhaps if it sent a picture to a call center for an operator to do so. In either case the computer or call center worker would require access to a photographic or biometric database, and the state would probably have to certify the technology and approach. Far easier to call a clerk over.

      • Warren Terra

        The ones that actually work, and don’t spawn incessant “staff member needed” problems, can be a boon to the anti-social or dyspeptic. In theory, at least, the notion that hardware might displace people from laboring at mind numbing tasks doesn’t bother me, I see the problem as being that the savings accrue entirely to the wealthy, and our society lacks provision for the displaced.

        • I see the problem as being that the savings accrue entirely to the wealthy.

          Which is why these things are installed.

          The best case scenario for the redundant cashier is s/he will spend that time stocking shelves, which is more physically demanding.

          • Brett

            At the stores I’ve seen, it looks like they moved them to other customer service stuff, like expanding their customer service desk. Plus they still usually need one cashier for every four self-checkouts in a station.

      • Julia Grey

        I hate those self serve checkout lines. With a passion.

        ME TOO!! Vile things.

        • Thirtyish

          I will cop to loving and seeking out self-serve checkout lines for one simple reason: using them means that I don’t have to interact with a human being (which, at the end of the day when I mostly do my shopping, is usually the very last thing on earth that I want to do).

      • Bill Murray

        Patton Oswalt — Grocery Store Robot’s

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhkP0RWQ68w

        • postmodulator

          METH!

      • zoomar

        I like the self checkout technology. I hate the line, because it’s always full of people who get confused by it.

        • sparks

          I only like/use it when I have few items (<10), as there is no express line anymore and I despise standing behind five full carts waiting to get out. It's amazing to see people who know nothing trying to use the self-checkout. The worst are kids on summer vacation, they go in groups so one will tie up a self-checkout spot while the others take it over without standing in line. I once noticed they did not pay for some items while doing their little relay.

        • Halloween Jack

          Something tells me that these are the same people who would demand a price check on every other thing they buy in the regular line, lest they lose out on thirty cents’ savings on their twelve-pack of toilet paper.

      • Kathleen

        I avoid them because I like interacting with a person and I’m self check challenged so I always end up having to ask an associate for help anyway.

      • wengler

        Everytime I use one of those I wonder how the increase in theft is worth one less cashier paycheck. Seriously, three boxes of crackers an hour and the store is in the red.

      • cpinva

        I refuse to use them. i’ll stand in line and wait for a human, rather than use those things. it’s one tiny thing I can do for the employees.

    • Brett

      It’s stupid of them to fire their most experienced workers, then. In my experience they tend to be the best when operating Self-Check-Out Stations, because they have an idea of what costs what and so forth. The best run self-checkout I’ve seen at a grocery store was at a Smith’s where it’s been the same person for 4-5 years.

      As for self-checkout stations, I love them. It’s not just about the “no socializing” aspect of it, it’s that it lets you check out items at your own pace, bag them how you like (or not at all), and not feel guilty about asking the machine for odd cashback amounts (like $19 so you can get a mix of bills).

      They actually started here in the library system, which was especially great because it saves you some of the embarrassment of having to hand the librarian certain books and movies in a conservative area.

      • cpinva

        “and not feel guilty about asking the machine for odd cashback amounts (like $19 so you can get a mix of bills).”

        ok, that’s new to me. all I’ve ever seen, anywhere, are machines that return cash in $5 increments, sometimes $20. I’ve never seen one that will do any amount you want, odd or even. where is this machine of which you speak?

      • Halloween Jack

        it saves you some of the embarrassment of having to hand the librarian certain books and movies in a conservative area.

        Please don’t be embarrassed. Why do you think so many of us became librarians in the first place?

  • Ruviana

    I hated them running smaller players out of business and buying them up. The late, lamented Mrs. Gooch’s in L.A. was a victim, as have been others. And I started hearing about the labor issues almost immediately after they opened as W. F. I’ve never been in one. Shout out by the way to Trader Joe’s which seems to have a similar crew of long-time happy employees, at least in my experience.

    • Here we have Market Basket which is a family run business–I don’ tthink the workers are unionized but they were so well treated by the family member running the business that they struck, en masse, when his cousin tried to seize control of the business. The stores were closed for a month? and they drove the cousin out entirely and brought back the manager/owner they loved. I shop there when I can. The prices are great, they have wonderful produce, but its very crowded and chaotic and most of the stuff they stock I don’t buy or not in those quantities.

      • Downpuppy

        Also, MB meat is terrible. Stringy steaks and the hamburger is brown inside.

        But great fun when you’re up to the challenge.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I worked at WF Palo Alto for a few years as a cashier, and I pretty much can’t stand leftists who pretend to care about labor unions and continue to shop there. I pretty much can’t mention the words “Palo Alto” or “Stanford” without putting “fucking” in front of them.

    • Origami Isopod

      I can’t blame you one bit.

      • I worked quite a few years in retail in Palo Alto, and have run into many examples of the “Palo Alto Type”, as co-workers called them. She’s not entirely wrong about that.

        However, as I mentioned below, and as sparks pointed out, her “support” for labor unions only extends to those unions that don’t inconvenience her personally. When BART workers went on strike, she threw a temper tantrum because the strike made her need to get up earlier to go to work, and suggested that the workers should all be fired. As a former member of the CWA, who worked on trying to organize my co-workers (without success), this kind of shit pisses me off.

        If she wants to talk about faux-progressive hypocrisy, she should look in the fucking mirror.

        • Origami Isopod

          Yeesh. I’d forgotten that; thanks for reminding me.

          Amanda sounds like she bases her political opinions solely on whether or not something annoys her personally.

    • Ah yes, it’s Amanda, champion of labor unions, except when they’re BART workers and they go on strike. Those people can go get fucked, eh?

      • sparks

        When they inconvenience her as they do?

    • Lee Rudolph

      Pro-tip: “Palo Fucking Alto” is a good alternative to “Fucking Palo Alto”—try it!!!

      • cpinva

        gee, I don’t know, it would probably get you a spot on “Oprah”. or arrested.

  • fledermaus

    It used to be that laying off workers was a bad sign on Wall Street, showing slower growth. But since Al Dunlop showed them the light, it’s now just an easy way to boost pay for the brass.

    • LosGatosCA

      Gonna need an example there. My experience dating to GM layoffs in the early 80’s is that announcing credible staff cuts is the fastest, surest way to raise stock price. Second fastest is stock buy back.

      Those are for reasonably successful companies ( financial perspective).

      For badly run companies it’s different of course.

      • cpinva

        my experience goes back to the 70’s. at that time, layoffs were not considered a positive thing, and assumed to be the result of either poor management, or falling demand. if it was one company, poor management was usually the cause, if it was industry wide, slowing demand was assumed to be the culprit. either way, it didn’t look good. things changed dramatically in the 80’s. the mad rush to expand through acquisitions & mergers almost always resulted in duplication. the target always got stripped of employees. and thus has it ever been.

  • Justaguy

    I have some friends who work at WF in NYC and their roommate is getting laid off. He can either find a new position within WF, or get severance – 8 weeks + 2 weeks for every year he’s worked there. Overall, it’s a shitty move that will harm WF’s business in the long run. But that’s a better deal than I’d expect any supermarket to give an employee.

  • Nick056

    This dynamic appears more complex than all that …

    Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store in the chain’s South region, “all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately,”

    Traditionally, supervisors would not be eligible for collective bargaining, anyway, and an employee union would probably not fight pay cuts for management staff (to they extent they even could). In fact, they might welcome such pay cuts and demotions into non-supervisory roles if those employees would now be in the bargaining unit. Put simply: generally, cutting costs by hitting mid- and low-level management is not something unions necessarily oppose, especially if it results in fewer costs for their members. However, those decisions (made regionally) might be more complicated if there were a union, because WF would probably not want to reclassify a bunch of people into non-supervisory union positions, as they have here. Given that constraint, management might actually be inclined to take more from line employees or to simply radically cut supervisor pay while maintaining their status as management employees. None of this is to say that it’s fair or feels good to give a line supervisor a 31% pay cut ($16 to $11).

    I’m also unclear, in a labor law sense, what it means to tell people they’re no longer supervisors but have to fulfill all the same duties. Usually the NLRB (or EEOC and the courts) will apply an analysis to supervisory status for bargaining/EEO purposes that goes beyond “the company says so.” If they were responsible for assigning work and exercising independent judgment regarding employee performance before, and they still are … Then they’re still supervisors. If WF employees were ever to unionize, that could carry some interesting implications. It’s also interesting in terms of liability for harassment cases. If your “non-supervisor” is harassing an employee whose performance review he writes, you could be in for a nasty surprise during litigation. Which is all to say, I wonder what “all the same duties” really means, because supervisory status isn’t arbitrary or magical.

    • Bruce Vail

      Re: Supervisors. Yes, that’s right, the NLRB applies its own standard to who is or is not a supervisor. Being designated as such by the employer, or being given a manager title, means little for NLRB purposes.

    • Morse Code for J

      The NLRB will only apply that analysis if a complaint is brought. If you are an at-will employee not protected by due process in adverse employment actions by the employer, and you are not willing to risk this job, you won’t be the one bringing the complaint.

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