With Labor Day ahead of us, I thought it appropriate to point out something odd I’ve noticed about the holiday over the years, which is that it’s hardly an occasion to celebrate actual work. The holiday is all about the day off from work and the store sales.
When you read the history of the labor movement in the U.S., though, this doesn’t seem so paradoxical. After all, most of the great 20th-century labor struggles were about reducing the hours worked each week and paying people enough to shop.
But there should be more to our national celebration of labor than relishing the fact that we don’t like doing it (or that we’d prefer being the customer at Walmart, cashing in on those Labor Day sales, than the cashier).
Beyond bringing us the weekend and higher wages, the labor movement was also about improving the quality of work and caring about the humanity of workers in the workplace.
Those are aspects often overlooked when we think about labor in America. And this oversight affects both workers and consumers.
Consider Whole Foods.
Amazon acquired the natural foods grocery store chain five years ago for nearly $14 billion. As a frequent Whole Foods shopper before the merger, I noticed the difference, and apparently, other shoppers have, too.
On Monday, I watched a YouTube video uploaded Aug. 25 by CNBC titled, “How Amazon Changed Whole Foods, Five Years later.” The comments under the video seemed more informative than the video itself (I’ve edited them lightly for clarity).
“I worked at Whole Foods,” wrote one commenter. “The turnover rate has gotten much higher the past few years and seems to only get worse. Most new hires at my store quit within a few weeks or even after just their first shift. Recently, a new hire during their first shift asked to go to the bathroom and never came back.”
“I worked there right after the merger happened, and my coworkers who stayed after the transition said they were extremely disappointed,” wrote another commenter. “They started having people work three different stations instead of just one (so literally one person running pizza, deli counter, and sandwich) and the quality dropped as well because how can you handle all of that and maintain the same quality as three to four workers?”
“They’ve drastically reduced variety,” someone else wrote. “As a shopper with allergies, this really matters. Plus, it was a specialty store and I came there for those unique items that no one else stocked (such as organic macadamia nuts). They got rid of bulk organic spices, and they got rid of them in the packets.
“Before Amazon bought them, I knew employees for a long time and they began to feel like friends and a small local grocery store,” the commenter added. “Since Whole Foods was bought, my store — which at the purchase time was the highest producing in my region — employee turnover has been so fast that it often feels like new faces every week.”
Amazon’s founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos has been rather open about his disdain for dignified labor. In an Aug. 22 report, Investor’s Business Daily Weekly noted that Bezos once told a colleague that “having an established, deeply rooted workforce was a ‘march to mediocrity.’”
Knowing this, it seems Whole Foods was bound to go the way of Amazon’s warehouse model, which “operates off burnout,” Adam Obernauer, the director of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union told IBD Weekly.
According to a New York Times analysis cited by IBD Weekly, the turnover rates at Amazon’s warehouses can be as high as 150 percent. Reliable data on the turnover rate at Whole Foods since the Amazon takeover has been harder to come by.
My experience as a decade-long, single-bag Whole Foods River Forest patron (one bag, whole paycheck) echoes those comments. Things haven’t been the same since Amazon took over. Sure things are more efficient, but the food quality has dropped and the workers don’t seem as happy. Even the smell has been more corporatized.
I don’t want to romanticize things. Whole Foods was a corporate behemoth even before Amazon came along. But that corporation’s values were clearly supposed to be different.
During a Rotary Club event at Thatcher Woods Pavilion in River Forest in 2019, Whole Foods co-founder Walter Robb said the chain had 475 stores by the time it sold to Amazon. Robb attributed the company’s growth to its “culture of inclusion and empowerment,” adding that a “company grows fast because you trust your team to serve your customers.
“Every team member was a literal owner,” Robb said. “I had team members come up to me and say, ‘Thanks so much for the stock options. Thank [co-founder John Mackey] for the stock options. I just bought my mother a house with your stock.’ They weren’t just team members, they were owners.”
When Whole Foods was sold to Amazon five years ago, Amazon stopped the practice of allowing workers to receive stock that could vest over four years.
According to a Yahoo Finance report published in 2018, the year of the acquisition, Amazon granted restricted stock that year “to only Whole Foods leadership above the Associate Store Team Leader level, leaving many employees in stores empty-handed.” That’s even as Amazon’s stock price had doubled since it bought Whole Foods.
Amazon eventually reintroduced the stock purchasing policy for lower-level workers — a week after those workers called to unionize. There is power in a union, after all, which is why so many service sector workers are trying to form them.
IBD Weekly reported last week that “union representation petitions jumped 58%, to 1,892 from Oct. 1 to June 30, or vs. the first nine months of the government’s prior fiscal year, the National Labor Relations Board said in July.”
But it’s not fair to put the burden of holding corporate behemoths like Amazon accountable on the backs of service sector workers, who are disproportionately Black and Brown (in a fascinating profile of former Amazon worker and labor leader Chris Smalls, published last month, New York Magazine reported that “75 percent of Amazon’s warehouse workers are Black or Latino” while “only 8 percent of its executives are”).
The people who fit the Whole Foods and Amazon customer profile — the degreed, credentialed, well-connected, relatively highly paid “knowledge workers” — need to be advocating on behalf of and alongside these workers who bag our groceries and cook our takeout orders and care for us when we’re ill.
For starters, as University of Chicago legal scholar Eric A. Posner argues, we can push politicians to apply old-fashioned antitrust laws to corporations that benefit from an unfair monopsony on labor by doing things like forming illegal poaching agreements.
“For example, Jimmy John’s, a sandwich franchise, routinely required low-wage employees to sign covenants not to compete, which apparently deterred those employees from moving to competitors,” Posner reported in his 2021 book, How Antitrust Failed Workers.
One 2014 study found that 12 percent of workers “earning less than $40,000 with education below the college level were bound by noncompetes.”
And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Dignified labor and democratic, human-oriented workplaces need to be the center of our focus this Labor Day holiday, not just backyard barbecues and shopping.