By STEVE LEIGH
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
— SEATTLE, June 27 — The Black Lives Matter movement is in the streets. But it is also at work. On Friday, June 12, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County called for a “ general strike” for justice for George Floyd. Tens of thousands came out to marches across the area. One march alone from the historically Black Central Area to Beacon Hill drew 60,000 people. June 12 was not a true general strike, but many employers shut down or cut hours to allow employees to participate. They pre-empted open strikes by giving in to the movement.
On Juneteenth, workers at the Whole Foods store on Westlake in downtown Seattle were disciplined for supporting Black Lives Matter. Charles, a Black employee, wrote, “Black Lives Matter” on his COVID mask. He was told to take it off or go home. In support, dozens of other employees also wrote the same message on their masks and in turn were threatened with discipline.
Why did the company take this action? It claimed that the company had to remain neutral on political issues like this. Charles said, “Why do you have a Pride flag up then?” Management responded by taking the flag down! They furthered this anti-LGBTQ action by demanding that employees with their own pronoun pins take them off, without offering alternative pins. Later, they offered company-produced pins, but often only “she/her” and “he/him” pins, denying the rights of non-binary employees.
In response to these repressive actions, employees organized further. They began picketing in front of the store for the next week and plan to continue again starting Monday, June 28. They are leafleting shoppers who come in. Though the workers are not calling for a boycott of the store, business is significantly down due to the picketing.
Whole Foods management is trying to have it both ways. They want to remain neutral between racism and anti-racism. They don’t want to offend racist customers, which means they are acceding to bigotry. Yet they also claim to be non-racist. On Friday, June 26, they posted a large banner over the store’s main entrance, “Racism Has No Place Here. Whole Foods supports the Black Community.”
Their actual racism is shown by how they treat different sets of workers. White workers who support the movement are less likely to be disciplined. One worker said she wore the BLM mask all day and was given only a verbal warning. Black employees, on the other hand, have been given formal write ups, and some now have enough write ups to be close to firing. Management is also targeting the more vocal workers. They have called workers into one-on-one intimidation meetings.
Though not all workers have picketed, most support the movement. A large majority opposes management. The workers have received significant union and community support. Supporting organizations include United Food and Commercial Workers local 21, which provided a sound system on June 26, the Transit Riders Union, UAW 4121 (University of Washington grad students), Pipe Fitters, high-tech workers, and United Students Against Sweatshops—as well as, of course, socialist groups such as Seattle Revolutionary Socialists.
Workers are demanding a change in company policy but also a formal apology from management. They are determined to win. They are demanding the following:
1) The Right to Wear BLM Gear Without Retaliation.
2) Back Pay of Lost Wages for Workers Not Allowed to Work Their Shifts in BLM Masks
3) Ridding our Store of Armed Security Personnel
One worker said, “This is a much bigger movement than just us. If I get fired over this, it is fine with me.”
The racism of Whole Foods is coming out in other areas as well. Management has taken a similar racist stand in Philadelphia and New Hampshire. The policy is up to individual store managers.
At the Westlake store, management delayed closing the store for cleaning after an employee tested positive for COVID 19. Earlier, workers reported that sexual harassment was not taken seriously by management. In spite of formal COVID limitations on numbers of customers in the store at one time, the store is often over-capacity and is therefore unsafe.
Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, a company headquartered in Seattle that tries to proclaim progressive credentials. It says that it aims at carbon neutrality. It recently purchased the naming rights to the old Key Arena in Seattle Center and will reopen it after renovation under the name of “Climate Pledge Arena.” It has contributed a small amount of money to homeless issues.
Yet its major actions belie its rhetoric. Amazon and Whole Foods recently rescinded the $2 per hour hazard pay instituted to respond to the COVID 19 crisis—even though the crisis is far from over. Whole Foods workers in Seattle now make barely above minimum wage. Whole Foods also took back its policy of allowing employees to call off for any reason due to the COVID crisis.
Amazon is fighting hard against the “Tax Amazon” movement. Tax Amazon would create a very small tax on the largest businesses in Seattle and provide thousands of units of low income, green and union built housing. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, whose wealth has increased by $35 billion just this year, is the largest shareholder in Amazon. He could order Whole Foods management to give the workers what they want. Instead, he allows open management racism to continue. See: https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-wealth-150-billion-since-pandemic-2020-6
The fight at Whole Foods is not just about racism. It also highlights lack of democracy at work. Employers in the U.S. have the right to stifle their workers’ free expression. They can tell workers what they can say at work or wear on their clothes. The very limited political democracy people in the U.S. have ends at the workplace door. Workers spend over half their waking hours under an authoritarian regime that denies basic human freedom. In fact, this repression sometimes extends beyond work hours. Workers have been disciplined for social media postings outside work!
Union organizing can give workers more free speech at work. Some of the workers at the Whole Foods picket line enthusiastically favored organizing a union for this issue and for higher wages and better working conditions.
Workers and anyone else who opposes racism and values free expression should support the workers at Whole Foods! As the workers finished their picket on Friday, June 26, they let management know that “We’ll be back!” They chanted, “No Justice , No Peace!” “ Whose lives matter? Black Lives Matter” and “Whole Foods, You Can’t Hide; Protect Your Workers and Black Lives!”
Support the workers by signing their petition here: https://bit.ly/WFMSaysNotoBLM
Videos/Pics/Media from our actions over the last week can be found here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/14rgJ-L2N81BoOFQrFpY_lBZiesH-Xqyh?usp=sharing
The next thing folks could do is print the attached leaflets and organize their own protests at wholefoods – sharing photos of the leaflets/actions at #WFMSaysNotoBLM #Wholefoods @JeffBezos
These actions have spread through Whole Foods stores in several other cities: