Whole Foods and CEO John Mackey: Even “wholesome” capitalism is toxic

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Consumers of organic and natural foods are a skeptical bunch. Yet even they can be taken in by a business that wraps itself in enough promotional fluff and little green lies.

Or so hopes Whole Foods (WF), the big box grocery chain that is cornering the lucrative market in healthy foods. Its CEO, John Mackey, has become a guru on Wall Street, giving capitalism a New Age facelift and shareholders handsome profits. What’s the key to his success? “Whole Foods is dedicated to helping people be healthier and live lives with more vitality,” he sermonizes.

From a modest start in Austin, Texas, Mackey has built WF into a Fortune 500 company with more than 300 stores. But his Achilles’ heel is the growing food justice movement and organized labor. In alliance, they are exposing a naked emperor.

Buyer beware. In a strategy akin to Wal-Mart, Mackey has built his empire by buying up competitors or driving them out of business. WF charges higher prices by slapping “natural” labels on its products. Keeping unions out helps it undercut co-ops.

On the web, shoppers are told WF sells “the highest quality natural and organic foods available.” Browsers can “go local” to find a nearby store with a homespun atmosphere, just like the local co-op.

But the beauty is skin deep. For example, in 2005, shoppers learned that WF’s line of organic frozen produce, “365 blend,” was grown in China — and inspected by an outfit that was later banned by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

In 2008, the California Attorney General filed suit against WF for selling “natural” body washes and home-cleaning products laced with 1, 4-Dioxane, a carcinogen. In California, companies must warn consumers of products containing this cancer-causing agent, a detail WF had overlooked since 2004.

Now, WF is rushing to the front of the movement for labeling Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) — to profit by it.

Also known as Frankenfoods, GMOs are hazardous to health and U.S. food supplies. For example, Monsanto has genetically engineered a strain of alfalfa that is resistant to the weed-killer Roundup. Growers can now spray even more of this herbicide on alfalfa to keep weeds out — but also poisoning air, water and soil even more. Inconvenient truths such as this are driving the call to label GMOs — already required in Europe.

But such laws hurt profits: imagine having to replace “natural” labels on GMO foods with “warning!!” When California activists put a labeling measure on the ballot, WF was pushed to support it — grudgingly and with no money. When the measure failed, efforts spread to put it on the ballot in other states.

In January 2013, Wal-Mart, ConAgra and other big businesses met to discuss the possibility of a mandatory labeling law. Then, in March, WF raced to announce itself as the first grocer to adopt GMO labeling — in 2018!

The Organic Consumers Association is asking Whole Foods to move its deadline to 2015 — more in line with measures that are gathering steam in several states. OCA Director Ronnie Cummins is also calling for an end now to “routine mislabeling and marketing fraud,” — the practice of putting “natural” labels on GMOs that has earned Mackey such huge profits. Keep an eye on this one.

A union-hating bully. Mackey has earned notoriety for equating unions with having herpes. He opposes the human right to association, i.e., the right to join a union, which is a core principle for labor standards recognized by the U.N.

WF’s hostility to labor traces at least to 1988, when activists with the United Farm Workers were arrested at a WF store for picketing. In 1998, top brass spurned UFW again, announcing they would give charity to strawberry pickers, but never sign a pledge to support better wages and working conditions.

From 2000 on, WF thwarted several union-organizing efforts at stores with retaliation, firings, captive audience meetings and more.

Last year, WF silently supported its partner in crime, supplier United Natural Foods Inc., (UNFI) in trying to bust a union of warehouse workers and drivers in Auburn, WA. After dragging its feet in negotiations, UNFI fired 72 Teamsters employees, about half its workforce.

Food and labor activists unite! This caused a crisis for organic food customers who had nowhere to go since UNFI was the main distributor. While co-ops protested, WF claimed the dispute was of no concern.

When Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) called a boycott of WF, grocery lawyers quickly filed an unfair labor practice to silence the labor-community organization. Instead, OWLS escalated picketing, and gained support from unions, food justice groups, and shoppers. Confronted by growing protest, WF withdrew its charges and UNFI settled with Teamsters.

After the strike, WF let it be known it wouldn’t accept products from the union warehouse!

This fight isn’t over, but the strike united food activists and labor in what could be a fruitful alliance.

Through boycotts and other actions, shoppers are learning of all WF’s dirty dealings and helping to apply heat. This includes the idea that sustainability “from farm to fork” must include supply chain workers.

Linda Averill and Patrick Burns, both active in OWLS, can be emailed at FSnews@socialism.com

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