What happens when a commune dweller from the 1960s grows up into a corporate mogul? You get John Mackey, self-proclaimed libertarian, former socialist and current “fierce competitor” who runs the ever burgeoning, $5.7 billion Whole Foods supermarket chain.
As a guru-cum-CEO, Mackey has chomped up nearly every healthy grocery store with a regional claim on the organic food market and saved room to spiritually enhance the lives of all his Team Members (corporatese for “employee”). Or so he seems convinced. Mackey envisions Whole Foods as an enlightened beacon of environmentally and fiscally benevolent management capable of bringing inner peace to its employees. But just as he unilaterally cornered the health food supermarkets industry, he intends to provide for his employees on his own uncompromising terms.
Where he sees himself as a benevolent, caring force, others see nothing more than the top-down noblesse oblige of Medieval feudalism. Debbie Rasmussen was one of the employees who headed an ultimately unsuccessful union drive in Madison, Wisconsin four years ago. Less than a week before the union was ready to vote, Mackey landed in Wisconsin to speak: “He offended a lot of people, because he was very patronizing. [He] would let people ask questions but wouldn’t let anyone make comments without a question… He kind of made a lot of people mad.” It was at this meeting that “he used the Star Wars analogy and warned us not to go to the Dark Side.” His response after the store voted to unionize was issued in the form of a letter: “When confronted by great stress in life, we have but only two choices: 1. Contract into fear, 2. Expand into love.” If only the Madison Whole Foods knew that expanding into love was the fastest path towards expanded medical coverage and higher average wages. Besides, do the unionizers really think that old lefty strategies can get the workers better benefits and wages than Mackey can offer them? Not as long as Mackey stays on the throne.
While in many instances, Whole Foods workers receive better treatment on average than most grocery workers, the danger here is the idea that employees must rely on the generosity of the CEO, rather than a union-negotiated contract. Above all else, Mackey believes in the unalloyed power of the Free Market, which leaves workers’ rights vulnerable to economic uncertainty.
As he explains it, unions “harm the flourishing of the business for all stakeholders,” or, unions hamper management. Without unions, Mackey is free to maintain standards on his own terms; he can claim benevolence over his employees without risk of rebuke. As Rasmussen puts it, “Mackey’s response was pretty much what you’d expect, only, it was covered in this green-washing thing of trying to pretend that they have the workers’ interests at heart, that one of their number one priorities is worker happiness. Of course, that’s not true.”
In a written debate featured at Reasononline.com, Milton Friedman argues that Mackey essentially operates under the same business strategies as your average neo-con capitalist (like Friedman himself). Mackey’s response to this claim is a vacant syllogism that reveals the lack of distinction between profit and ideals within his business schema: “While Friedman believes that taking care of customers, employees, and business philanthropy are means to the end of increasing investor profits, I take the exact opposite view: Making high profits is the means to the end of fulfilling Whole Foods’ core business mission.”
It’s not really up for debate whether Whole Foods succeeds in its mission to “satisfy and delight” its customers (as quoted in its core values). It’s also a fact that Whole Foods looks out for its employees better than most supermarket chains — but that’s not saying much in an industry where baggers will work for $2 an hour, if not simply for tips.
Mackey’s alternative to giving employees leverage through unionization is to elevate all Team Members to a benevolent state of mutual understanding. Team Member wages are an open book: the lady bagging groceries at $9 an hour can find out what her manager makes, or even Mackey, who has capped his annual salary at $430k, 14 times the average for all employees. (That figure doesn’t include the $1.8 million he took in stock options and the $460k that went back into the company from employees who didn’t exercise their own right to options.)
But mutual understanding begins in our hearts: “We believe in helping support our Team Members to grow as individuals — to become ‘Whole People.’ We consciously use [Abraham] Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model to help our Team Members to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy.” To those uninitiated, the hierarchy is a five-step program towards transcending basic human needs, with physical needs starting the program and ‘peak experiences’ marking the height of human experience. Maslow constructed his handy hierarchy in the 1940s by studying extraordinary people like Einstein, since “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a crippled psychology and a crippled philosophy.”
But Whole Foods does have to deal with imperfect specimens, since we’re all protected under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A visit to the pro-union Whole Workers Unite website offers a quick survey of employees’ disgruntlement about Whole Foods’ management. There’s no union to protect someone registered as “fired prego” who alleged, “I am getting “seperated”[sic] from Whole Foods for being pregnant. They say they do not have to work with my doctor’s restrictions which limit me to lifting only 12lbs.” (“Fired prego” has yet to respond to requests for further comment.) Another woman emailed me with a story of management firing her for muttering under her breath that she “worked in a pit of despair” (she won unemployment compensation in court). And Rasmussen was fired (after leading the union drive) for giving a customer-ordered latte to a fellow team member, since she’d accidentally made it with soymilk instead of skim milk. (Whole Foods has yet to respond to request for comment.)
Minor mistakes, slips of the tongue, pregnancy; these issues don’t come into focus within Mackey’s abstract vision of his corporation. Instead, he imagines his employees easily won over with nifty hierarchies and open access to everyone’s exact location on the wages totem pole. In his 60 Minutes appearance, Mackey extended this plane of relativity into the realm of lobsters. When Dan Rather asked why it mattered whether lobsters lived in comfortable water temperatures during their short experience, Mackey rebutted, with the slightest irritation, “Does the quality of your life not matter, since you’re eventually gonna die, get dropped in your own pot?” (Whole Foods discontinued selling live lobsters within the same week as the interview aired).
What would happen if Mackey’s approach to business became the norm, and a generation of hippie moguls ran their corporations with a benign and loving hand? Maybe the economic system would hold, and life would be good for the healthy Whole Foods class, those urban professionals and suburban sets who would still be able to afford guilt-free, green-stamped luxuries. But labor would lose a whole history of representation and a whole class in our society would be further silenced, beholden to the caprice of PR-savvy Mackey types, vulnerable to the same brand of laissez faire conservatism found in the boardrooms of Wal-Mart.