As the coronavirus pandemic continues to highlight the struggles of essential workers, those same workers—who are performing considerably more dangerous jobs than they signed up for—are getting more organized and more sophisticated in their organizing tactics. Case in point: Whole Worker.
The grassroots group for Whole Foods employees, Whole Worker was one of many that held a labor action last month, as fears around the disease’s spread were first mounting. They’re planning another sick-out for tomorrow, on International Workers Day, fittingly in solidarity with other frontline laborers. “We’re going to be doing this in a coordinated way with Amazon, Instacart, and Target,” an organizer with Whole Worker and current employee in Chicago, told Gizmodo. (The organizer asked not to be named over concerns of retribution.) “Most of those companies wound up independently planning protests of one form or another, basically the same week that we did our sick-out, unbeknownst to us, [and so] there was a lot of enthusiasm in the group to try to combine our energies.”
Helpfully, the coronavirus has united these workers in their demands, which largely focuses on transparency, access to a clean job space, better healthcare coverage, and increased pay. These groups’ awareness of each other has also been a boon to the overall appetite for mass action. “Even the people in my store who aren’t super involved with organizing talk about the Amazon warehouses all the time, and look at those warehouse walkouts as an inspiration,” the organizer said.
While Amazon, Whole Foods’s parent company, made some adjustments to its policies and pay—such as a $2 raise and unlimited time off—it’s already begun sunsetting those policies, even though the virus shows no sign of being contained.
“Our focus right now is ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our Team Members, which remains our top priority, while continuing to serve our customers and communities,” Whole Foods told Gizmodo via a spokespersons. “Statements made by this group misrepresent the full extent of Whole Foods Market’s actions in response to this crisis and do not represent the collective voice of our more than 95,000 Team Members. Along with increased pay and benefits for Team Members in our stores and facilities, we have implemented enhanced cleaning protocols, social distancing and crowd control measures, we require temperature screenings and face masks for in-store workers, and in addition to providing face masks, we offer gloves and personal face shields for added protection. We are auditing all of these practices on a daily basis to help protect the health and safety of our Team Members, which remains our highest priority.”
With more than 30 million Americans out of work, the calculus of engaging in a strike or sick-out becomes all the more difficult. “A strike fund is becoming more of an essential thing because, second to the fear of being retaliated against, the big fear for workers is just not being able to miss hours,” the organizer said. For many, the will to hold their bosses to account is not the issue, it’s the loss of income that it would necessitate. “We’re hoping that we’ll have a system in place where we can actually compensate—at least in part—for the hours that they’re missing by calling in sick.”
A GoFundMe page for this strike fund seems to have launched publicly earlier today, seeking $50,000. Typically, a strike fund would be managed by a union and derived from union members’ dues. But then, Whole Foods does not yet have a union.
That’s no accident, of course. Amazon has long trained its managers on how to resist union organizing efforts. Whole Food, specifically, maintains a “heat map” of which stores are more likely to attempt to unionize, Business Insider reported earlier this month. “Definitely management is on hyper-alert right now,” the organizer noted, “ever since the first sick-out was announced.”
Increased scrutiny from management might normally be enough to quell unrest at Whole Foods, but the pandemic has crystalized what may have felt to some like purely political concerns into matters of life-or-death. “A lot of people who I thought were unreachable in regards to organizing have approached me unsolicited, asking how they can get involved, both in my store and in other stores,” the organizer said. “People understand that they’re in physical danger. They understand that they’re the only people they know who are still going to work. They understand that there’s no safety net in place for them if they do get sick.”
It’s not clear how many Whole Foods workers plan to call out sick tomorrow, or which stores will be most affected.
Updated to include comment from Whole Foods