This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2012

How companies are capitalizing on teamwork, turnover, and a growing youth workforce that sees the labour movement as passé

Michelle Kaeser


This Magazine's May/June 2012 cover story

The meat counter at the Cambie Street Whole Foods in Vancouver is thirty feet long, filled with choice cuts of beef, lamb, chicken, pork, and at least 20 different kinds of sausages. Two clerks, dressed in white smocks, black aprons, and Whole Foods caps, hustle around behind the counter, making sure everything looks just right. One of them wraps up an antibiotic-free chicken breast; the other offers instructions on how to grill a $33/pound cut of tenderloin to a young, attentive shopper.

Philip Dunlop used to be one of these workers. From October 2009 to April 2010, he spent forty hours a week slicing meat, making sausages, and serving customers, all in workplace conditions he found increasingly depressing. The sturdy, dark-haired 30-year old recites the list: lack of respect, uneven  wages, uncertain pay bumps, short staffing, inability to rectify grievances, low job security—it goes on and on. He lodged complaints about these issues to store managers in letter after letter. Each time he did, the managers spoke to him, placated him, assured him things would change. Only they didn’t. Dunlop felt more and more like he was being handled—that he had no real voice in his workplace. After less than two months of working at what Dunlop calls “The Meat Pit,” he started thinking about unionizing the store.

Labour in the retail sector is notoriously difficult to organize. The position of retail clerk is now the most common job in the country, at over 1.8 million workers. Yet, the field remains one of the least unionized. In Canada, nearly 30 percent of all workers are union members; less than 11 percent of workers in the retail sector are unionized. Membership is particularly low among young workers. Just under 15 percent of those aged 15-24 are union members, half the rate of workers in any other age bracket. Even worse, labour organizers are grappling with a concerted effort among companies to change corporate culture—an insidious new way to convince workers that labour and management are playing for the same team. With such stacked odds, the future of unions in retail looks increasingly grim.

Dunlop lives in an old white house in the affluent Point Grey neighbourhood in Vancouver. It’s one of the few run-down homes. He shares the space with six roommates, all of whom are students or recent graduates like Dunlop, who has a Master’s degree in history. It’s a February afternoon and Dunlop is making everyone sandwiches with clearance deli meat. He’s dressed in old cargo pants and a much-too-large black sweater with rips along the seams, supporting his claim that he gets all of his clothes second-hand. The toonie-sized red sale sticker is conspicuous as he pulls slices of salami from the package. This is what he could afford to buy on his $11/hour wage at Whole Foods and it’s the kind of meat he still buys now that he’s unemployed and living off a combination of EI and meagre savings.

Dunlop was finishing up his Master’s degree when he landed the job at Whole Foods in late 2009. His thesis was an exploration of the Sino-American influence on the Cambodian genocide. There wasn’t much of a market for that slice of knowledge; he wound up working as a meat clerk instead. Dunlop had also studied labour history in school and had developed a sense of class consciousness. When he arrived at Whole Foods, he both was surprised and dismayed with working conditions.

Dunlop was impelled to act. He tried to build relationships with his coworkers and strengthen bonds with informal gatherings outside of the store. In conversations with his fellow employees, Dunlop suggested the possibility of alternative dynamics between labour and management. He outlined a place where workers weren’t obliged to accept everything they were told without question. He was in small ways trying to break the illusion that labour and management are always playing for the same team. Months later in his kitchen, Dunlop recounts the obstacles and feelings of impossibility in between bites of the salami sandwich he’s filled out with mustard, mayonnaise, tomato and a slice of Kraft singles cheese.

In January, Dunlop began to look for allies in an organizing drive. He started with his coworkers in the Meat Pit, but soon branched out into other departments, striking up conversations with grocery clerks, workers at the specialty foods counter, and a few cashiers. All of the workers he approached were under 30. The longest any of them had been at Whole Foods was a year and a half. As Dunlop flitted about the store, he sought to get a sense of workers’ attitudes toward their jobs and workplace conditions, as well as their feelings about organized labour. He was discouraged by the response. “Far from having an opinion,” he says, “some didn’t know what a union was.”

Canada’s early trade unions were established in the second half of the19th century in response to the spread of industrial capitalism. As production accelerated in the early 20th century, so did labour activity. Escalating tensions between wealthy employers and workers facing high unemployment and inflation led to the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, the largest general strike in Canadian labour history. In the 1930s, the Depression helped boost union appeal and by the end of World War II, workers were organized enough and militant enough to demand better wages, hours, and conditions. Strike activity surged. Unions continued to fight for rights and to gain strength, with union density (the proportion of unionized workers in the workforce) peaking in the 1980s. Since then, however, union activity has been on the decline.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to see how some workers, and particularly young workers, have become less aware of unions and the role they played in shaping the 20th century. Unions aren’t in the media as much as they once were—and labour news isn’t exactly a hot topic on social media. There is the sense that unions are a thing of the past, unnecessary now that Canada has labour laws and minimum wages. Corporations have capitalized on this sentiment, suggesting that unionized workplaces are inefficient and outdated, and that unions just get in the way of healthy, fluid relationships between workers and management.

Just as discouraging, the Conservative government is now encroaching on workers’ hard-won right to strike. In June 2011, the Harper government enacted back-to-work legislation after postal workers went on a rotating strike and were subsequently locked out of work by Canada Post. The Canadian Postal Workers Union is challenging the legality of this legislation. In March 2012, similar legislation was used to prevent Air Canada workers from striking. Without the right to strike—or even to present a legitimate threat of strike action—unions lose one of their key bargaining chips.

“The influence of unions has slowly been diminishing,” says Andy Neufeld, director of communications and education at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, which, along with UFCW local 247, represents most of the unionized supermarket workers in B.C. (As the largest retail union in Canada, UFCW would have been the most likely union for Dunlop and his coworkers to join.) Flagging awareness is exacerbated in the retail sector by the huge number of young workers with no previous union experience, he says. About 65 percent of workers in his local are under the age of 30. Many have little or no previous experience with unions.

Neufeld makes an extra effort to capture the enthusiasm of these workers, many of whom are disinclined to pay union dues and don’t see the benefit of membership—proven wage premiums, increased job security, better benefits, and a chance to have a stronger voice in the workplace. Neufeld says the union is trying to get this message out there, but is sending information into a glutted market. “We’re competing for people’s attention,” he adds, “just like everybody else.”

Young workers also have a high turnover rate (the turnover rate in Canada’s retail sector is 25 percent), making it difficult to keep a strong, stable core of workers in place long enough to push an organizing drive through to success. Dunlop has firsthand experience with this phenomenon: During the course of his rabble rousing, half a dozen potential allies quit or were fired. Neufeld says high turnover is the number one cause for stagnating unionization rates in retail. It’s no happy accident, either. “Employers can rely on this churn in the base of the workforce,” Neufeld says.

In fact, at Whole Foods many of those interested in the idea of collective bargaining were afraid of reprisal to the point of inaction. Even Dunlop worried his union talk would find its way to management before he was ready—lest he prematurely land in hot water. As Dunlop puts it: “Nobody likes to stick their neck out.”

Kyle Attwaters and Jillian Brooks were fellow meat clerks at the Whole Foods in Vancouver. (Brooks was employed from April 2009 to October 2009; Attwaters from January 2010 to May 2010.) Both are in their mid-twenties and both say they would have signed union cards despite their fear of being fired at a time when unemployment was high. When asked how they perceived the store’s attitude toward unions, their responses are unqualified.  “It was very frowned upon,” Attwaters says. “They told us that right off the bat.” Brooks is more frank: “The mention of unionizing would piss so many people off.”

Attwaters says that when he first started at Whole Foods, he had to watch an introductory video with a segment on unions. Although the video didn’t expressly forbid workers from unionizing or engaging in organizing activity, he says message was clear that workers didn’t need a union—Whole Foods’ employment system worked fine without one. That system, it turns out, is to dictate the terms of employment and working conditions, leaving workers to accept them or find another job. Neufeld explains that employers are able to exploit their daily interaction with workers to influence opinion: “They’re able to convince employees that they’re better off without unions,” he says. “Employees are very quick to pick up on those cues.”

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has been infamously outspoken in his contempt for unions. He once told a reporter in the ’80s: “The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient and stops a lot of people from  becoming your lover.” This strong anti-union sentiment is woven into the ethos of his 300-plus stores. (As of press time, Whole Foods had seven stores across British Columbia and Ontario, six in the UK, with the rest in the States.) Like many corporate retail stores, Whole Foods carries its fight against unions—and its own boosterism for the company—right down to the language workers are required to use. Whole Foods doesn’t have employees or workers or clerks; it has “team members.” And, despite clear distinctions in authority, there are no bosses or managers, only “team leaders.”

In December, for instance, Dunlop submitted a long list of grievances to store team leaders. Among his complaints was unpaid overtime. At closing time, he’d observed workers clocking out and then returning to finish tidying up the area, readying it for the next day. Dunlop participated in this process once, on his first day. But when he realized nobody was getting paid for this extra work, he raised the matter with his superiors. Dunlop says that in the resulting conference between himself and an assistant store team leader, the team leader insisted on stressing the distinction in terminology—namely, Dunlop’s use of the word manager—before addressing any of his actual complaints.

Such workplace jargon exists to influence the way employees perceive their relationship to the store—and it works. The idea is to create a feeling of allegiance to the company and not to fellow workers. “It was extremely difficult to convince people that workers and management have mutually antagonistic interests,” says Dunlop.

In a list of things to expect during an organizing drive, the UFCW cites the “We’re a family, we’re a team” line as a likely scare tactic employed by companies. In some cases, as at Whole Foods, this team approach is undertaken pre-emptively to stop workers from even considering an organizing initiative, as it might be seen as playing for the other side. But capitalism by nature pits labour and management against each other. Management is interested in minimizing costs, which means keeping wages low; labour is interested in maximizing wages. These fundamental differences in interest make it impossible to be part of the same team.

Once obtained union certification is a challenge to maintain. Wal-Mart shut down its Jonquière, six months Quebec store in 2005 after workers voted to unionize (and failed to reach a collective agreement). More recently, in 2011, Target expanded into Canada, buying out over a hundred Zellers stores, including a handful of unionized locations. It refuses to honour any union contracts and is planning to fire all current Zellers employees. Instead, Target welcomes employees to reapply for non-union positions, foregoing any accumulated wage increases or benefits they may have earned over years of work. Whole Foods biggest push to unionize a store was in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 2000s. Although workers voted for union certification, contract negotiations were drawn out for years and the union effort eventually ran out of worker support—especially after Mackey showed up at the store to hand out pamphlets titled “Beyond Unions.” When Madison decertified in 2004, Mackey went on a nine-month “Beyond Unions” tour of his stores.

If unions are to stay relevant, they have to adapt. In some ways, they seem to be trying. The UFCW now requires every one of its locals to devote 10 percent of resources to organizing initiatives, leading to some positive results. Earlier this year, a Future Shop in Montreal gained union certification. And in late 2011, an H&M store in Mississauga became the first in Canada to unionize, prompting organizing activities in many other locations. Notably, the campaign used social media to keep young workers interested in the drive. The UFCW has also launched a campaign to fight the anti-union Target takeover of Zellers. The “Target for Fairness” campaign raises awareness of Target’s plans for Zellers workers and awareness billboards have been erected in cities across the country.

More innovation is still key. Unions need to be more creative in their organizing approaches, says University of Manitoba labour studies professor David Camfield. One of the best ways for unions to increase appeal, he adds, is to engage in significant action—something they’ve been doing less and less. This may mean more strike action, more political action, or even stronger responses to concession demands by employers. “It’s not a question of sticking with the tried and true,” Camfield says. “There’s a lot of room for experimentation.”

Part of this experimentation has to include greater democracy within unions, allowing for an increase in both worker participation and worker control. Enduring change must come from the bottom up. Currently, most unions are controlled by a small number of officials, who dictate how the organization will run. “Unions need to become more worker-driven, worker-run,” says Camfield, “and that will only happen when workers themselves make it happen.”

Unfortunately, current economic conditions aren’t exactly encouraging workers to engage in union activity. Camfield says that higher unemployment and low job security have contributed to an environment in which workers are encouraged to compete amongst themselves. Such a situation is disastrous for the idea of solidarity, but it’s terrific for employers, who constantly promote it, even with initiatives as seemingly harmless as Employee of the Month awards. In the difficulties and discouragements, though, Camfield also sees opportunities for workers to find commonalities with each other, to identify and work with each other rather than submit to competition. “There are all sorts of ways,” he says, “in which people could see that collective action would be a much better way to solve our problems than by being pitted against each other.”

Recent activism have proven the power of solidarity and collective action. The Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, the student protests in Quebec have all brought huge masses of people together to resonating effect. Camfield says that these examples of effective collective action outside of the workplace can serve as inspiration; they could have the potential to feed into the workplace by influencing the way workers think about what they can achieve and how they can achieve it.

Had Dunlop stayed at Whole Foods longer, he might have been able to do more—of course, that’s largely the point. Dunlop was fired after six months. He says he arrived to work one day in April, was allowed to work for one hour, then told to go home. He adds a store manager alleged he’d uttered a threat of physical harm against his immediate supervisor, a claim Dunlop disputes. Whole Foods has faced previous allegations of firing pro-union employees on trumped-up charges. During the campaign in Madison, two of the workers involved in the organizing activity were reportedly fired for dubious reasons. One of them made a latte the wrong way and gave this defective beverage to her co-worker instead of throwing it out. Both were let go for their parts in this breach of store policy.

Dunlop filed a claim with the labour board in November 2010 for having been fired without cause or notice. He says although Whole Foods maintained that they had sufficient grounds for dismissal, they decided to settle the matter without litigation. Dunlop was paid the week’s worth of wages to which workers are entitled when fired without notice. He is now using his knowledge of labour law to help former coworkers challenge the power of the corporation. He has written a letter to the store managers offering his experience free of charge to anyone who’s been fired from Whole Foods. It’s a small, but cheeky contribution that helps him feel like he and his fellow workers haven’t been pushed to resignation.

As Dunlop sits in his kitchen, finishing his budget salami sandwich, he says he’s not surprised by his lack of success—he feels the deck was stacked against him. He doesn’t regret the effort, though. “We have to try to stand together,” he says. “If we don’t at least try, where are we?”

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