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August 19th, 2009 12:00 am Allison Ferre | News Stories

Chain Reaction

Your guide to the protests at Whole Foods.

WHOLE FOODS, WHOLE MESS: The company faces multiple PR cleanups.
IMAGE: Mike Perrault

For a chain store that does well among Portland’s arugula set, Whole Foods has a lot of protesters these days at its three, soon to be four, stores in town.

Dating back to when the United Farm Workers targeted Whole Foods in 2007 because Whole Foods was the largest customer of an Eastern Oregon feedlot in a union dispute, store customers have dodged picket signs.

But what gives lately? Whole Foods has protesters outside its local stores and on the Web over everything from charges of union busting to a tin ear by its CEO on the need for healthcare reform. Here’s a guide to the latest gripes:

Protesting group
Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters.

Protest over
Contracting with non-unionized carpenters.

The Whole Foods going in on Northeast Sandy Boulevard is using K2mg, an Oregon-based metal stud and drywall company, as a subcontractor. The carpenters union is in a labor dispute with K2mg, claiming the company “does not meet area labor standards, including providing or fully paying for family health care and pension for all of its carpenter craft employees.” The council thinks Whole Foods has an obligation to see that standards are met for construction work on its sites. Protesters can be found outside the West Burnside store holding giant banners that say “Shame On Whole Foods” and “Labor Dispute.” The company response? “The union hopes that by pressuring our customers, Whole Foods Market will get involved in a decision-making process that is entirely separate from our company. We have no practical or legal authority to intercede.”

Protesting group
Customers banding together via Facebook’s “Boycott Whole Foods” group. Supported by the blogs Daily Kos and OpenLeft.

Protest over
Company co-founder and CEO John Mackey’s Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare.”

Mackey’s proposed free-market healthcare solution has spawned a “Boycott Whole Foods” group on Facebook with almost 12,000 members. And the grocery chain has had to create a healthcare forum on its website just to field all the complaints. Commentary also has been popping up in opinion sections nationwide, not just on Mackey’s proposals, but also on the unexpected wave of liberal criticism crashing down on Whole Foods. The day after the op-ed ran, Brian Beutler offered advice to Mackey on the TPM D.C. website: “Here’s a thought: If you own a major supermarket chain that caters to a great deal of liberal-minded people with money, don’t rail against the evils of health care reform in the Wall Street Journal. ” Whole Foods claims the headline, which incited “antagonistic feelings by many,” was a WSJ edit. “At this time, we’d like to emphasize that John’s intent was to express his personal opinions—not those of Whole Food Market team members or our company as a whole,” Whole Foods said in a media statement.

FACT: Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was once quoted by union activist Sheila Payne as comparing unions to herpes. Yet Whole Foods also continually makes Fortune’s list of “Best Companies to Work For.”
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