Mike Hellman recounts the solidarity union campaign at Whole Foods in the Bay Area, which lasted from 2010-2014. Interview by Marianne Garneau.
Tell me how and when you got involved.
I was involved from 2010 to 2014.
For the 2-3 years preceding my arrival on the scene in 2010, a couple of other fellow workers [IWW members] had been working there — at the store we ended up organizing in San Francisco. They had been trying to organize with the IWW but weren’t really sure how to go about it.
By that time, I had experience with courier organizing in three or four different cities, and had played different roles in the Starbucks campaign, among other things, and had been through a million Organizer Trainings and taught a couple. So I had some skills I could apply, and started mentoring some of the people [at Whole Foods] and helping them build a campaign. I quit the courier industry and became a salt.
I got in as a cashier, where I worked for a couple of years. [Then] I transferred to the regional distribution center, and worked there for a few years as an order-puller and a forklift operator. FW Rich and I both transferred to the distribution center together, with an eye to taking the campaign down the supply chain. That seemed to make the most logical and strategic sense to us. The distribution center was originally in San Francisco but a few months in, it was transferred to a much larger facility in Richmond. We did some organizing there and had some minor successes, but the epicenter of the campaign was definitely in that one store in San Francisco.
How many people worked at the store in San Francisco?
About 200 people. The campaign at any given time involved about a dozen workers.
What about at the distribution center?
We never were able to get a committee consolidated over there. That was a workplace of about 100-150 total. We were in the shipping department – we did all the outgoing stuff, which was the most critical and numerous department by far. There were about 40-50 people in that department alone. We had people who were sympathetic to what we were doing. There were only a couple we ever told about the full scope of what was going on. They were supportive, but there were a lot of issues in the distribution center that we didn’t have at the store: fear, social and racial antagonisms… We were able to engage in some low-level actions there, the kind of stuff you do that’s low-risk and low-impact, but demonstrates to workers the possibility of collective, direct action, so that you can build towards something better.
We did that stuff and it helped, and it involved maybe a dozen of the workers there, in a very passive way.
I’ll give you one example: I had gotten involved in an internal organization at the company called TMAG, “Team Member Awareness Group.” The idea was to get people like me involved who would otherwise try to form a union. They would basically contain that stuff and they would hear out grievances, or creative ideas, and implement those in the facility. Needless to say, it was headed up by management. But I thought I could use it to get a foot in the door to push the organizing forward. (That was short-lived.) They had these “We want to hear your thoughts” forms and you could fill them out anonymously and drop them in the box. The year prior, management had taken away a foosball table that was in the break room, because the shipping department workers would play it and get into it and rowdy, and the stuck-up people in the office felt intimidated by that and got management to take it away. That was bitter for a lot of people, cuz it was one of the few ways they could build camaraderie. I advanced the idea [of getting it back] at one of these TMAG meetings, and I was able to get people in my department to flood the suggestion box, and we ended up getting the foosball back a few weeks later.
What were conditions like at the grocery store, and what were people upset about?
At the store, it was hard to find any one or two issues that seemed to move everyone, or that everyone was concerned about. So initially it was really departmental: a lot of workers had to deal with pretty extreme temperatures for a long period of time, and didn’t have adequate equipment to deal with that kind of thing.
Our first worker action was around a system they called “spoilage” whereby they offered up the food they couldn’t sell (that’s either expired or the package was damaged) – they would offer x amount of that to the workers who closed, at the end of the day. I think it was three bags of crackers or produce, etc., for a quarter a bag. So for 75 cents they could walk out of there with some pretty good stuff. Because of how little we made – and a lot of workers were supporting a family on this wage – that was pretty important, as a supplement. For whatever reason, management decided to take it away completely one day. We put some feelers out there with our people, and it was a pretty hot-button issue. So that’s what we organized around initially. We did a petition, and a march on the boss, and we ended up winning. We got the program back in full, and they brought it back in an improved way over what it had been before. It was stuff like that that pushed us into finding more universal, catch-all issues we could unite more and more workers behind.
So was there a workplace organizing committee?
We looked at it like this: we had our core organizing committee of 5 or 6 people, and then we had a “periphery” of people who were kind of close to us in the store, who we had identified as supportive, but probably wouldn’t get involved at the level that we were, but would circulate a petition in their department, for example. So that’s how we extended out into the store, being such a small committee.
Who made up the committee of 5 to 6 people?
It was me and FW Neal. Lainey and Todd had salted in by that time and were recruiting workers to the committee. Then there was Cathy, who is someone Lainey had recruited from her department in the store.
Did you guys make an effort to sign other workers up with the IWW?
At this point, no. We had a pretty strict process for that. Our approach was to have workers involved on one of a number of different levels. I’ve already talked a bit about the “periphery.” The hardcore committee was all IWW. Oftentimes, when we recruited someone to the committee, we would have them come to a few meetings, have them participate in the organizing in some meaningful way, then we would tell them who we were and what we were about. We’d explain to them that we wanted them to join, but wanted them to understand what they were signing up for. We would go over the preamble [to the IWW Constitution*], why it was relevant to what we were doing at the store, and stuff like that. This conversation would take place at least a couple of times before people would sign up. We felt like we got better results that way, because we got someone who was generally a lot more committed.
So how many people did you sign up in that way?
I think it was somewhere around a dozen.
And did those people stay members of the IWW?
Well, they did during the course of the campaign, which was a few years. Once the campaign ended, there wasn’t really an adequate institutional home for them, which is its own story that has to do with the Bay Area branch, and it’s an unfortunate one. But those workers, their connection to the IWW was through that organizing, and once that was over, so was their membership.
Tell me about other issues you took on and other campaigns you ran.
Another big one was scheduling. That one took place in different ways, depending on which department you were in, but every department had a system – it was weekly, first of all, and you didn’t know what your schedule for the next week was until the Thursday before, which only gave you 2 to 3 days to plan. In our department especially, where the cashiers were, the schedule was completely different every time, so it was impossible to have a life, to be a student, to be a parent, or to just function.
So we formulated a demand for longer-term (2-week) scheduling, which would come out 2 weeks ahead of time, if I remember correctly.
We had used the spoilage struggle as an opportunity to grow, and we fanned out through the store through our contacts, through our periphery again, circulated the petition, and had a delegation of workers deliver it to the boss. We had to follow up once, but we actually got that one too. So that was kind of a big victory.
What was your biggest loss?
I don’t think we had any real losses, in the sense that we made a demand and then we got squashed. If anything we were too ambitious early on with our fights. Like for example, I think the first one that we did on a significant level was trying to get a coworker reinstated. It was really egregious: this worker had been around for years and was visible as a social leader among some of the Spanish-speaking staff, and she would often advocate for them, just because she was pretty proficient with English as well. So they found an excuse to get rid of her. We were hoping she would be part of the committee as well – and she was supportive of it. We mobilized a pretty significant action involving branch members and whatnot. We even effectively shut down the store, but we didn’t have the organized power on the inside at that point to really [win on the demand].
This is a tactic I’ve reevaluated a lot since, and I don’t know if I would repeat it, but what we did was, we got some of our friends who were in a solidarity network in the East Bay to publicly take credit for it, and they had members come into the store and we helped them coordinate it from the inside, and they did this disruptive action at the queue for the cashiers, which was a bottleneck in the store, and they handed out leaflets about what happened, which included the demand to reinstate this worker. So that’s who people thought it was. And it was, in part, but [our coworkers] didn’t know that we had really been leading the effort.
So we made this really visible action, which the workers saw, but we weren’t public at all, so we didn’t draw the connection between us and that action to most of our coworkers at that point. It [the firing] was still something we followed up about [with management], but the action did not achieve the desired result. In fact, all it achieved was the silent treatment from management.
Okay so this group shows up, and they do this action, and somehow they know this person has been fired… so to what extent were your coworkers not onto you – you and the other IWW members who were forming the committee? Or were they totally not onto you?
No, no one was on to us. We ran a pretty tight ship. I think there were a couple people who knew us socially anyway, and had a suspicion. But things like that aren’t exactly unheard of in the Bay Area anyway. So I think it was believable that some activist group had just come in and had done some sort of crazy thing, and life moves on, and no one expected anything to come of it anyway, and needless to say, nothing did.
What was the demographic make-up in the store, and how did the committee relate to that?
The makeup [of the broader committee] was really mixed: we had representation from Latin American / Spanish-speakers. It was roughly gender-balanced, although generally more males. I think overall it did a fair job of pulling in workers from the different departments, and the different national and gender and other “layers” in the store.
Tell me how you guys decided to go public, and what you did.
We had been ratcheting up our underground struggle for years. By the time spring or summer of 2014 came around, we felt like we had finally gotten to a point where, if we did another march on the boss like we did with scheduling, management was probably going to start finally cracking down. So we felt like it was the safest thing to do, if we wanted the campaign to last, let alone to grow – to announce ourselves publicly as a union. That’s when we started trying to formulate more universal demands. We settled on a couple. They were pretty simple. One was a $5 / hour raise across the board for all workers.
That’s simple but it’s pretty ambitious…
We knew that, and part of the reason we phrased it that way was, on the one hand, we knew a raise of some sort was possible, so if we set the bar crazy high, anything we got in the middle was going to be significant. We ended up getting a full dollar raise at the starting wage, not just for our store, but for the entire Northern California region of the company. Given that the starting raise for workers was somewhere in the $10-15/hour range, that was pretty significant. They kind of caved by giving us that.
That was the first demand, and then the other demand was no retaliation.
So we kind of left it open. We were basically just saying, “Here we are, motherfuckers. Throw us some peanuts.” And we planned to continue the struggle from there, going for demands that were more specific to a department or to a store, what have you.
But it was mostly for our own protection, legally. We felt like Whole Foods was going to… I don’t want to say honor, but they weren’t going to do anything really stupid, breaking the law to crush us, at that point.
So you hadn’t experienced any retaliation prior to that point, but you went public because you wanted to protect yourselves when asking for bigger, more widespread demands?
What happened after you went public?
It created kind of a flurry of excitement. In the store, it was really creepy quiet. Management was really on their toes, and on edge. They had clearly been debriefed about what was going on and were probably given very strict instructions not to say or do this or that. So they were really shaky and on edge. And workers carried on. Workers were able to be a lot more open about their relationship to the union than before, so some were wearing buttons, talking a little more openly about it… Which I think was kind of a relief for a lot of them, and felt empowering. Just in the week or two leading up to the action, management knew that something was going on. I don’t think they had any idea it would go down the way it did, but they had their suspicions. There was one worker in particular who was on the committee who they attempted to have one-on-ones with in like a secret closet, basically – they would pull him into this room and interrogate him. That happened a couple of times, but we had already inoculated ourselves about that possibility, so he handled it pretty well and they were none the wiser.
Did every worker in the store know about the union before you went public?
Not every worker. We had two open meetings before we went public. We also did a round of house visits. But we didn’t go to every single worker. We had essentially done years of social mapping. We would social map during almost every committee meeting we had, and we had committee meetings for the most part on a weekly basis. So we knew the store pretty well, and we targeted specific workers to go knock on their door, or to invite to the meeting, or what have you. So we already had a level of trust and security there, but it was definitely compromised, because we had workers coming to these meetings and finding out about the union who we hadn’t talked to before. We were taking a calculated risk: there was a possibility that one of them could go talk about the union to their manager, or to the wrong coworker, or what have you. And I think that some murmurs did happen, which traveled up the chain, and I think that’s why they [management] were suspicious that something was up.
The day we went public, I would say roughly a third of workers in the store knew about the union or knew it was coming.
And the other two-thirds found out when you went public?
I would say roughly that ratio.
Let me circle back: after you went public, there was no retaliation?
No, none that we heard of, and we kept our ears pretty close to the ground on that. We were pretty good at effectively putting management into a corner on that, and the way we did that had multiple facets: we had demonstrated that we had widespread organization (at least up to that point) –
How did you demonstrate that?
When we went public, the action that we did was, we had several workers leave their workstations to go to the middle of the store, by the entrance, and we had a delegation of other workers who weren’t working that day and a bunch of supporters file in, and then all of a sudden we assembled in this area with a bullhorn, and we had different workers take turns reading from our statement and our demands. So we just had this show of force, of people inside and outside.
We also had articles in the local and the national press go live that day and in the following week or so.
So you had planted these stories?
Yes, and the press picked it up and ran with it. They were really interested in it.
So they [Whole Foods] saw that this was being talked about in the media, and because of that, knew people were watching them. And we knew that Whole Foods in particular was going to be very sensitive to public impression.
So they didn’t retaliate, but they didn’t ask to sit down with you?
No. Their response to us was interesting, and I think it was unique, at least in the recent history of the IWW: I’ve never known any employer to respond with just dead air. And that’s exactly what they did. I think they had an attempt at a captive audience meeting about unions in the store (it’s been a few years now, so that’s kind of hazy), but it seemed like Whole Foods policy, their strategic response, was not to respond at all, because then they would have to acknowledge everything that had been said in the press, which was that they were unfair, abusive, and that they had created a situation where workers had organized a union.
And you guys were never going for an election; you just came out as a solidarity union?
That’s right. We were very adamant about not doing an election, in fact, and we were surprised at how eagerly on-board almost all of the workers were about that, because we had talked about it, especially in our committee meetings. We went over it really thoroughly, and in these bigger, more open-air meetings we had right before going public, we talked about direct action and all that stuff. We made a strong case for what we had done and intended to do; instead of harping on the NLRB and its shortcomings, we made a strong case for a certain kind of direct action.
Tell me about how the campaign ended.
There was never like a formal ending, it just fizzled out. It was already in the process of fizzling out in those last few weeks leading up to us going public. There were a couple committee members who moved away, for various personal reasons. One was having a second kid and relocating to Santa Cruz, which is about a two-hour drive away. Another long-time member had a kid on the way, and was planning on moving to Sacramento, which is also quite a ways away. A couple of the other people who had got involved over time had just sort of moved on to other stuff. Another person relocated to the East Coast. It all kind of happened pretty quickly, so it came down to just a couple of us, and we just felt like, based on what was going on in our personal lives at the time, we didn’t have it in us to carry it on.
It was unfortunate timing. We had brought in a lot more workers into the organizing in that last stage before we went public, but we didn’t have time to integrate them into the committee or the organizing effectively, so that by the time the committee moved away, the capacity wasn’t there to carry it on. I was personally going through a lot at the time, so I was just super taxed, and it was down to a couple of us, and we just looked at it objectively and said “We don’t have the capacity to do this,” so we just felt that that was that. It was kind of sad, honestly.
What happened to the folks who had been brought on?
They continued on that the store, and some of us have maintained relationships with them to this day. Some of them still work there. Most of them have moved on. There was never any overt retaliation: none of them got shit-canned for being supportive or being involved but the power we had built up dissipated pretty quickly. We just kind of left a vacuum.
Tell me about some of the lessons that you learned, and what you might do differently next time, and what you learned about organizing?
There’s so much. That’s a big part of why there hasn’t been a recap of this campaign so far: it really spanned so much time, and there is so much that happened.
Some of the things that stand out to me – one is to just not trust the business unions. When we finally went public at the store, we also made an attempt to exert pressure on the supply chain at the distribution center. We had kind of a symbolic picket action in front of it. We knew that it was symbolic, but we were only doing it to make them feel pressure. The truck drivers at the distribution center were represented by the Teamsters local, and we had reached out to that local ahead of time and told them that we intended to do this, and we asked them for sanction so that they wouldn’t cross the line. Well they eventually gave it to us, and we thought “Wow, this is really badass, we are effectively going to shut down operations here cuz they can’t get goods in or out.” So we were out there, and we had all these supporters out there with us, and sure enough what they had done is have the company hire replacement workers for the day who were non-union, so rather than have their members cross the picket line, they would have these replacement workers go through the line, and finish the job. Which was effectively not effective [for us].
We struggled a lot with the concept of leadership and how to do it in a way that encouraged the most participation in the group possible. I think that at times we stood back a little too much, hoping that just by providing some space, other people would naturally take it up, which works sometimes but not always, and we lost some opportunities to develop the campaign and develop some of the members by being a little too hands-off. That’s a tricky one, because organizers can often take on more than they should, and be overbearing, and do the work that other committee members should be doing.
Another thing that played out within the committee which was unfortunate was gender dynamics. There was some romantic interest / sexual tension in the committee that we were never sure how to address.
What advice do you have for other workers trying to organize their workplace?
Stepping outside your comfort zone can’t be overstated [the importance of it]. Reaching out to workers you wouldn’t otherwise. I find that I give that advice a lot to people who are organizing. It’s surprising how significant a hurdle that can be.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the IWW and its concepts. I think it’s really important to spend a lot of time deepening your understanding of what it all means, because the more you understand it, the more you see it operating all around you. And it’s a way that we can make sense of what we experience in our daily lives as workers. And the better we understand it, the better we are at reproducing revolutionary workers. And that’s the kind of thing that can help our organizing, because consciousness and action can have a relationship to each other.
What about in terms of logistics of organizing and committee-building?
It’s good to be thorough and not hasty. I think especially for the IWW, or revolutionary organizing, it’s easy to want to jump ahead, “time is of the essence,” there is a lot of pressure to produce a lot of results, if for no one else than for yourself. But being deliberate, and having a lot of forethought and follow up, is critical, and that goes just as much for recruiting workers to your organizing committee as anything else.
At Whole Foods, while we existed, we were very thorough, and we vetted people, and we had very explicit conversations with people about what it was we were asking them to get into. We conveyed that it was something they could benefit from, that could be fun or fulfilling to them, but we also made it clear that there were risks, and that this is part of a bigger thing than what is going on in this department or this workplace. I think that is one thing we got right.
All the obvious stuff we talk about in our 101s, we saw play out at Whole Foods: branch out beyond your one department, take into account the various racial antagonisms that exist in the working class, and be sensitive to gender components.
There is so much else…
*From the Preamble to the IWW Constitution:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth…