Just Enough Workplace Democracy To Soothe A Liberal’s Conscience

Warning: This article may make your head explode if you think employment is a purely voluntary contract between equal parties. Reader discretion is advised.

I recently read a scathing commentary written by an employee of Whole Foods in response to CEO John Mackey’s remarks in January comparing  Obamacare to “fascism.”

This Whole Foods “team member” (Whole Foods-speak for employee) criticized Mackey’s choice of words, elaborating on a claim Mackey made in the Huffington Post. Mackey wrote, “While I’m speaking as someone who works hard to offer health care benefits to more than 73,000 team members, who actually vote on their overall benefits packages, I am very concerned about the uninsured and those with preexisting conditions.”

Mackey’s “team member” responded, “It’s true: Whole Foods employees ‘voted’ on our benefits package this year. What Mackey doesn’t (emphasis in original) tell you is this: On the health care portion of our benefits vote, we were presented with three choices that we had no voice in drafting, and all of them resulted in significant cuts in benefits and increases in out-of-pocket employee costs.” After votes were cast,  “… they handed us ‘I voted!’ stickers and thanked us for participating in ‘workplace democracy.'”

Workplace democracy? Really? Pick the least odious option and get a cheesy sticker? Well, it doesn’t get any more American than that!

To be fair, Whole Foods probably does allow “team members” more say than the average employer. And even Mackey’s dissatisfied “team member” concedes that  “… the working conditions at Whole Foods are better than they are at many other nonunion grocery stores, or at many big box retailers Wal-Mart (sic).” If workers lower their expectations enough, Whole Foods comes out looking pretty good.

Mackey sees himself as a visionary for treating employees less badly than Wal-Mart. In fact, Mackey is so sure of his benevolence that one of Whole Foods’ goals, according to documents obtained by Mother Jones, is to stay “100% union-free.” He’s convinced that his adoring “team members” don’t need or want unions. The guru of conscious capitalism knows what’s best for the team, after all.

Mackey’s well-to-do, left-leaning customer base may be charmed by the alternative feel of Whole Foods, but “team member” discontent isn’t new. In one classic example, Gawker posted a resignation letter from a Toronto  employee who referred to Whole Foods as ” a faux hippy Wal-Mart.” His concluding remarks to his co-workers were interesting: “Also, Whole Foods will try to make you feel like they are doing you a huge favour by employing you. It’s really a mutual agreement or transaction. Don’t fall for the guilt trips.”

Now this gets to the heart of the matter. Employers do act like hiring us is a supreme act of charity. But, if you think about it, who needs who? This employee’s conclusion is actually too moderate. Calling employment a “mutual agreement” ignores the power imbalance inherent in employment contracts. This blind spot gives rise to the “nobody put a gun to your head”  tautologies of right-wing economics. The alleged “voluntary” nature of wage labor may be the silliest myth of capitalist folklore. But what if workers understood their true power?

Labor’s focus must move beyond catching a few more crumbs from the CEO’s table. Economist Richard Wolff argues that, “A new strategy would not leave in place a corporate adversary with both the incentive and resources to first oppose and then undo what labor and the left can win. A new strategy would be micro-focused, aimed at transforming the internal structure of enterprises from capitalist to workers self-directed (WSDE).” Wolff’s Democracy At Work website is an excellent resource for those who wish to learn more about WSDE’s.

Even if Whole Foods is more generous than other employers, this “team member” and “workplace democracy” talk is just a PR gimmick designed to soothe the liberal consumer’s conscience. Authentic workplace democracy cannot flourish in hierarchical, publicly-traded corporations like Whole Foods. As Richard Wolff and other radicals suggest, real workplace democracy happens when you work for yourself or you work cooperatively with people, not for them.

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