On the line for Strikesgiving

December 4, 2013

Whole Foods worker Trish Kahle reports on a walkout at two Chicago stores that was aimed challenging the company's policies on holiday shifts.

WHOLE FOODS workers in Chicago scored an important victory on November 27 when we forced the company to backpedal on their holiday labor policies.

Ten workers from two Whole Foods Market stores on Chicago's North Side walked off the job the day before Thanksgiving--the busiest day all year for grocery stores--to demand that Whole Foods let its own employees have Thanksgiving off with their families, since for many Americans it is one of the only times during the year they will get to see their family.

The workers, members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC/Fight for 15), were joined by nearly 100 supporters for "Strikesgiving" to demand the right to spend Thanksgiving with our families without fear of retaliation.

We won that demand. The company announced Wednesday afternoon that any Whole Foods worker who wanted to could take Thanksgiving Day off without discipline or retaliation.

Companies like Whole Foods are happy to use the idea that holidays are for family in their marketing to boost sales. In U.S. culture, Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time to spend with one's family, as families are increasingly spread out geographically and high costs of travel make regular visits difficult if not impossible.

Workers on the picket line outside Whole Foods as part of the Fight for 15 campaign
Workers on the picket line outside Whole Foods as part of the Fight for 15 campaign

So when retailers tell us that we have to work on Thanksgiving, they're sending a not-so-subtle message: "Family is everything, unless you're a retail worker." Forcing us to work on this holiday is their way of reinforcing the idea that low-wage workers' families don't matter.

Our families and friends matter just as much as anyone else's. Our lives are just as meaningful as anyone else's. And if they can get away with making us work on holidays, other companies will expand on this trend as well. In fact, they've already begun to, with growing numbers of retailers opening stores on Thanksgiving and increasing numbers of parcels being delivered on Sundays, alongside postal workers working through holidays to accommodate increased parcel traffic.

Whole Foods workers decided that someone had to take a stand against Corporate America's encroachment on one of the few nationally recognized secular holidays. We decided that "somebody" would be us.

UNSURPRISINGLY, MANAGEMENT pulled out all the stops to discredit our fight, as the company was nationally embarrassed by the attention the strike drew from outlets like Time magazine, Think Progress and Salon.

They said that since people "volunteer" to work on Thanksgiving, workers actually want the store to be open. But why do workers volunteer? First, because they get time-and-a-half on Thanksgiving, meaning most workers get about $15 an hour--the wage they should be making all the time--for one day.

Considering that many workers are struggling to pay our bills, it's not surprising that they'll sign up for these shifts, but we think that: 1) Thanksgiving should be a paid holiday for all workers, and 2) we should receive time-and-a-half on the day before Thanksgiving, to match the increased pace of work that racked up more than $500,000 in sales for the Lincoln Park flagship store.

Whole Food workers walked out to say that our families matter, too. We need $15 an hour every day to be able to support ourselves, and we need paid holidays to live meaningful lives outside of work. If we made a living wage every day, the number of people who volunteer to work Thanksgiving would drop drastically.

Management also claimed that keeping the store open was necessary to meet last-minute customer needs, but it wasn't so long ago that no stores were open on Thanksgiving. For decades or more, people coped with not being able to run to the store for baking powder by improvising recipes and borrowing from neighbors. The "need" to stay open on Thanksgiving is a manufactured need--one that serves no one except corporate profits.

Not satisfied with obscuring half-truths, managers resorted to outright lies. They said that working Thanksgiving has always been voluntary, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Thanksgiving (as well as Thanksgiving Eve, Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day and other major holidays) is what is called a "blackout day." This means that workers can't even request the day off. And while there was a sign-up sheet for people who wanted to work Thanksgiving, my manager explicitly told us that we could sign up if we wanted, but if we didn't sign up, that wouldn't mean we would get the day off.

The way management painted it, you'd think Whole Foods would close its doors if no one volunteered to work--but that just isn't the case. If we don't volunteer, we're assigned.

As Whole Foods worker Matthew Camp said, "The expectation is that you would work on Thanksgiving...If the company is saying that there's a volunteer basis, that's just patently false."

Whole Foods spokesperson McKinzey Crossland told Salon that Whole Foods employees would receive "added dollars thanks to our gainsharing program." But Crossland either hasn't read her GIG Book (Whole Food's employee handbook) or she's misrepresenting how gainsharing works.

Gainsharing is, at its base, an anti-worker policy, because the small amount of money a worker receives each fiscal period from the program--usually around $20 for a full-time worker--has absolutely nothing to do with store sales at all.

Gainsharing money is the leftover labor budget at the end of each quarter--money that only exists because management has as few people scheduled each day as possible and cuts labor costs wherever they can.

In other words, gainsharing is stealing our money, making us work harder as we are perpetually understaffed, and then giving us a couple of hours extra pay each month as consolation. And then the company points to it as one of the reasons it's better to work at Whole Foods than at other low-wage jobs.

THE FACT that none of these tactics succeeded in discrediting our action speaks to the increasing strength of worker organization in Chicago and the ties we are building between stores and within the community.

As workers carried picket signs that read, "I'm thankful for solidarity!" and "Low-wage workers of the world, UNITE," we were joined by workers and organizers from OUR Walmart, who were preparing for their demonstrations on Black Friday; by Unique Thrift Store workers who are busy with an organizing campaign of their own; and, of course, by our fellow WOCC members from other stores, including McDonald's, Walgreens, Target and more.

Low-wage workers took the bullhorn and spoke out about all sorts of issues that affect low-wage workers--from racism and sexism to poverty wages, from disrespectful scheduling practices to retaliation for organizing.

The result was a powerful portrait of the unity we have built, the solidarity we feel with one another, the deep respect and commitment we have for each other as union brothers and sisters. The immediate issue was our right to a holiday, but it was also part of our larger project: building a union in the retail and fast-food industry that can unite workers and fight the companies on every front.

Unionized workers and community organizers also joined us on the picket line. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union continued their long-standing support of our struggle. Community organizations like Jobs with Justice and Arise Chicago organized support.

Native rights activist Caro Gonzales Kuehner Hebert spoke about the genocidal history of Thanksgiving--and why she supported Whole Foods workers. "In the past, I have not looked forward to celebrating Thanksgiving...So today I start celebrating something new. My history, my friends, and most importantly, my fellow fighters."

When journalists asked workers if the action would be too disruptive and turn customers against them, Camp said, "I think it will be disruptive, but that's kind of the point: to disrupt the flow of things"--with the goal of forcing the company to act.

Workers also tried to gain customer support by tapping into a widespread anger over the intrusion of business and consumerism into holidays at the expense of family and respected breaks from working. Many customers understood that we were taking a stand against the increasing trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving as a way to boost profits.

In addition to Whole Foods and other grocery stores keeping their doors open on Thanksgiving, other retailers, including Walmart, Macy's, Toys R Us and Target, opened in the evening on Thanksgiving to give shoppers more time to participate in Black Friday shopping.

Strikesgiving, far from incurring the anger of customers desperate to shop, instead met a sympathetic audience that could identify our struggle with a broader trend. Instead of being the villains standing between them and their turkeys, as some had predicted, they saw us as a hopeful sign that the incursion of consumerism into everything--and the necessary exploitation of workers that accompanies it--could be effectively resisted if workers and the community joined together.

The day ended with a clear victory. The mood on the picket line was joyous, as workers led the picket in singing "Solidarity Forever." We're going to keep fighting, and we hope that more Whole Foods workers, and workers from other stores, will join us next year.

We have a year to organize ourselves and our communities against companies determined to make us work 365 days a year for poverty wages. Strikesgiving showed us that we can win that fight.

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