Whole Foods doesn’t care about our kids

February 5, 2014

Fight for 15 activist Trish Kahle reports on the struggle of a fellow Whole Foods worker to defend her job--and how the solidarity campaign was built.

RHIANNON BROSCHAT-SALGUERO was forced to call off from her job as a cashier at Whole Foods Market on January 28 to care for her 10-year-old special needs son since Chicago Public Schools were closed for the day due to extremely cold temperatures.

The next day, she was fired from Whole Foods' North Halsted location in Chicago, where she had worked for almost two years and where workers have been organizing with the Fight for 15 campaign for almost a year.

But Rhiannon decided she wasn't going to take her firing sitting down. Instead, she decided to organize with her co-workers to fight back. Together, we launched the Stand with Rhiannon campaign.

The latest chapter in a yearlong fight

At Whole Foods in Chicago, we have been fighting against the "points system"--an unfair attendance policy that fires good workers like Rhiannon all the time--for almost a year.

Under this policy, workers are assigned "points" for absences (even for illness and family emergency); tardies (in a city with an unreliable public transit system on which many workers depend); being forced to leave work early, even if they were sent home early by management; and some disciplinary write-ups.

Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero (center) at a protest alongside coworkers and supporters
Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero (center) at a protest alongside coworkers and supporters

A worker who racks up six points at any time is terminated with no course of appeal. Rhiannon summed up the kind of fear such a policy forced employees to live in: "I would sit there at night unable to sleep, or dreaming that I wouldn't hear the alarm go off because I'm so scared of losing my job."

That's why, as Rhiannon said, "this company, this multimillion-dollar company, shouldn't be up on a pedestal. Their policies aren't fair. You can't take someone's job away without just cause. That's why I went on strike the first time."

Over the course of 2013, workers at Whole Foods waged three one-day strikes and one two-day strike demanding changes to this policy, and finally, in December, the company relented, instituting a policy that was not supposed to penalize workers for getting sick, having a family emergency, or becoming caught up in a major weather event that affects a large number of people.

This meant, when the Chicago schools closed on January 28 because of extremely cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills, Rhiannon called in to say she needed to take her shift in order to care for her young special needs son. With hundreds of thousands affected by the school closings and unable to find the necessary child care on such short notice, she was clearly within her right to call off work.

Then, Rhiannon's manager called her, warning her to make sure she had a doctor's note when she came back to work. Rhiannon frantically tried to figure out what was going on, but found it impossible to get a clear answer, so she called her co-workers and union organizer, and she went with a contingent to demand her personnel file.

"They didn't say much," Rhiannon said, "until I brought up the new policy that we had fought for." That was when management started playing every trick in the book--from arguing over commonsense definitions to lying through their teeth.

They said no absences were being excused because the extreme temperatures didn't count as a major weather event since there was no snow on the ground. They also claimed Rhiannon was on a final warning over points when they had admitted previously they hadn't notified her of the number of points she had in a timely manner and therefore she wouldn't be placed on final warning.

The points policy will persist as long as workers tolerate it. Organizing has started to turn the tide. Rhiannon explained:

They thought they could do whatever they wanted to me. I know that us organizing, that Fight for 15 gets under their skin. They want a certain kind of team member. They want someone who wants to move up in the company or is willing to stay at a certain level and play by the rules, keep their head down, because every normal person would see this is a bad policy. So they pick people who buy into it.

They brush it off, but with the number of people who get fired because of points, it's pretty clear there's a problem with the policy, not the workers.

A working women's issue

Still, Whole Foods had the gall to blame Rhiannon for being unable to find affordable, specialized child care at a moment's notice. "[Management] was so arrogant. He told me that it was my responsibility to have arranged childcare and to keep track of my points...It's heartless and inconsiderate, especially as much as they talk about 'Team Member Happiness.'"

Rhiannon's had difficulty with points in the past, but not because she's a bad employee. In fact, she's one of the most productive cashiers in the store. The company sets her up to be late with bad scheduling policies. Rhiannon said:

Almost all of my points are for being late on Tuesdays. Because that's the day there's no one else to take my son to school, so I have to take him. They schedule me too early and I can't get there on time...

He's in grade school, there are limited hours, the shifts don't run the same time my kid is in school. I'm a single mom, I don't have his father or his family in my life, I have my mom and a couple friends, but that's not a long term solution.

Arranging childcare is a major difficulty faced by working parents, and because of women's oppression, this burden falls disproportionately on women. Rhiannon's story is far too common. Low-wage women workers around the country struggle to support themselves and their children, especially as cuts to support programs make getting by on low wages even harder.

Women workers at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods regularly struggle to get child care for late-night and early-morning all-store meetings, held once each fiscal quarter and mandatory for all employees. Kora Brown, a Burger King worker in North Carolina, echoed Rhiannon's situation: "Before [organizing], I felt alone, as a single mother trying to take care of my son."

A letter carrier we talked to while tabling to build support for Rhiannon said, "Her situation is my whole life. I'm a single mom of a child with special needs. I'm Black and I'm gay. You have to stand up for yourself in that situation."

Even if a working mother can find child care, she still has to pay for it. Even though she relies totally on her family and friends for childcare--people who often work for little or no pay in order to help each other out--Rhiannon still spends about 15 percent of her monthly pay on child care alone.

That's steep for anyone, but especially for a single mom and student who lives on about $1,000 each month. When her son was younger and had to be in day care, "it was easier," Rhiannon said, "because he could be there longer, but the cost was astronomical."

Nancy Salgado, a leader in Chicago's Fight for 15 who has worked at McDonald's for more than eight years also voiced her support for Rhiannon. "I'm a mom too. I'll be there for her. Women have to stand up for each other."

Organizing to defend Rhiannon

As soon as her co-workers learned what had happened to her, we sprang into action. A year of organizing against the company's poverty wages and anti-worker policies has transformed our relationships with our co-workers.

Rhiannon, a friendly co-worker and skilled employee, was especially popular and encouraged workers who have been timid about taking action in the past to come to her defense.

We started an online petition, which as of this writing had collected hundreds of signatures, and buttressed it with daily lunchtime tablings outside the store to build support for our struggle among customers and collect further signatures.

Inside, workers donned their red union hats and "Stand with Rhiannon" buttons to show management that we were organized and united. Still, management didn't budge; our co-worker still didn't have her job back. So we decided to escalate, and we set a strike date for February 5. Being part of the Fight for 15 has taught us that walking off gets the goods.

We also knew we wanted our customers and the North Side community to be on our side, so we scheduled a community meeting, "Whole Foods Workers and North Side Communities United!" to build our alliances with community groups and other unions.

The response from her co-workers has given Rhiannon the resolve to keep fighting. "It makes me feel like I'm being heard," she said. "I feel loved and strong and empowered. I was pretty intimidated before, but not anymore."

In fact, rather than intimidating people from organizing, responding to Rhiannon's unjust firing has strengthened our self-organization.

We're in the middle of this fight right now. We have to stay organized, maintain our unity and stand up to company lies and threats. But Rhiannon summed up the mood, which going into the strike, was buoyant:

We need to force them to reevaluate this policy, make a more just policy. It needs to be more fair and more uniform. If we stand together and we fight for what's right and we have all these supporters standing with us, we can keep fighting until we get what we want.

It's our job as parents to make examples of ourselves, so our children will grow up and follow in our footsteps. If someone gets fired unjustly we can take a stand, to make the example for our children, to fight to make a living for ourselves and our kids.

Especially as a woman; we're not going to sit down and shut up. I don't think anyone should be scared. Fight for 15 backs up anyone who is being wrongfully treated. No one should be afraid when you have organization to back you up.

Further Reading

From the archives