Protesting Whole Foods: What About a Boycott?

by David Knuttunen

Boston DSA members helped round out a group of about 25-30 protestors outside a Cambridge Whole Foods store, on Friday Aug 21.  We were protesting Whole Foods CEO John Markey’s Wall St. Journal op-ed which attacked “Obamacare” and offered, instead, Libertarian “alternatives” to real health care reform. The rally was called by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice’s Health Care Committee, and had been organized in only 3 days.  The United Food and Commercial Workers Union had held a similar rally at a Framingham, MA Whole Foods store earlier that day.

The group in Cambridge was energetic and enthusiastic, holding signs and chanting continuously. One of the initial chants, which claimed that “Whole Food’s Greed” was showing was changed to “Whole Foods, We Say ‘NO!’  The CEO has got to GO!” We feared that the earlier chant would be taken by Whole Foods’ workers as an attack on them personally, which should not be our intent; our target was John Mackey, not “Whole Foods”. Whole Foods’ employees and customers, after all, do not necessarily share his positions, and our job should be to get them on our side.   The 20″x30″ poster board sign I had made for the occasion, in fact, read “CEO Mackey’s VALUES are NOT HIS CUSTOMERS’. HEALTH CARE REFORM NOW! – Democratic Socialists of America.” It was by far the biggest sign at the rally.

What About a Boycott?

A sort of a movement has arisen to boycott Whole Foods over this issue. It apparently started with a single individual on Facebook, whose group now claims over 31,000 members. I have very mixed feelings about this. Boycotts should not be called casually. Boycotts have “opportunity costs” — they potentially waste the resources of your friends, who must either do without things, or look for other sources. The extra time we spend running around shopping for alternatives is time we could have been making signs, or phone calls, or whatever. This cost only make sense if your boycott is actually going to be successful — if it will change something. What are the chances this boycott will actually change anything at Whole Foods? Also, collateral damage must be considered. What is the effect of a boycott on workers? Or on their perception of you, and your goals?

On the other hand, 31,000 people is nothing to sneeze at. In the past, I would have argued that successful boycotts take a powerful cause, a vigorous, costly campaign, and a long time to work. Has the internet changed all that? I tried to find some sort of estimate of how large Whole Foods’ customer base is. I didn’t find one, but I did find (on the company’s web site) that they have over 270 stores, so 31,000 people is over 100 people per store. Also, if I’m reading their annual report correctly, in 2008 the company reported gross sales of almost $8 billion. If the average customer spends about $200 a week, that would give an estimate of over 700,000 customers, worldwide, and the Facebook group represents some 4% of the companies customer base, not a bad start for a few weeks worth of online organizing. (Of course, we can’t be certain how many of the Facebook group members were actually Whole Foods customers before joining the boycott call. And my $200/week estimate may be way off base.)

The Unions Jump In

One of the things being touted on the web page for the Whole Foods boycott campaign is that an “Investment group wants Mackey out”. The “investment group” in question turns out to be the CtW Investment Group, which is associated with the pension funds of a number of Change to Win unions. While it’s great to see union pension funds putting their investment muscle to use for progressive social causes, the viewpoint of this group is obviously tied up in Change to Win’s overall political and organizing strategy, and their opposition to Mackey doesn’t have the same meaning, in terms of gauging the success of the campaign, as if this protest had come from a mainstream, strictly-bottom-line oriented investor. You can read the CtW Group letter here: it calls on the Whole Foods board to replace Mackey as Chairman of the Board and CEO. It does not call for nor threaten a boycott.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has also been targeting Mackey. The UFCW has been protesting outside Whole Foods stores (as at the Framingham, Massachusetts protest, mentioned above). They also have set up a web page where people can send a message of protest to a “decision maker” calling for the Mackey’s removal ). As far as I can tell, the UFCW has not made a boycott call, nor expressed support for the online boycott, either.

Whose side is he on?

The irony is that Mackey has probably done more for the movement SUPPORTING real health care reform than for his own, anti-reform position. As the prominent leader of a company with, probably, a broadly liberal customer base (and certainly one that is likely to be perceived by the media as broadly liberal), the contrast with his own Libertarian nutcase views has given progressives a perfect target. So join a protest, write letters, join the boycott movement if you’ve a mind too. Whether or not the Whole Foods board ever takes notice and sacks Mackey, the ultimate result is bound to be more awareness of, and more support for Health Care Reform than there would have been if he’d never written his infamous op-ed.

David Knuttunen is a member of the Boston DSA Executive  Board and the DSA National Political Committee.

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5 Responses

  1. Well, I’ve never actually shopped at a Whole Foods in my life – I’m NOT a health food guy, it’s prices are WAY too rich for my blood and I prefer to shop at UFCW-represented union supermarkets (Pathmark, in my case) so it would be dumb easy for ME to boycott Whole Foods!

  2. Back in 2008, this Whole Foods, CEO John Mackey (how old is this kid?), was caught posting negative comments (trash talk) about a competitor on Yahoo Finance message boards in an effort to push down the stock price. So now I am suppose to take this loser seriously? Please, snore, snore.

    It’s funny we hear Republicans say that they do not want “faceless bureaucrats” making medical decisions but they have no problem with “private sector” “faceless bureaucrats” daily declining medical coverage and financially ruining good hard working people (honestly where can they go with a pre-condition). And who says that the “private sector” is always right, do we forget failures like Long-Term Capital, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Enron, Tyco, AIG and Lehman Brothers. Of course the federal government will destroy heathcare by getting involved, Oh but wait, Medicare and Medicaid and our military men and women and the Senate and Congress get the best heathcare in the world, and oh, that’s right, its run by our federal government. I can understand why some may think that the federal government will fail, if you look at the past eight years as a current history, with failures like the financial meltdown and Katrina but the facts is they can and if we support them they will succeed.

    How does shouting down to stop the conversation of the healthcare debate at town hall meetings, endears them to anyone. Especially when the organizations that are telling them where to go and what to do and say are Republicans political operatives, not real grassroots. How does shouting someone down or chasing them out like a “lynch mob” advanced the debate, it does not. So I think the American people will see through all of this and know, like the teabagger, the birthers, these lynch mobs types AKA “screamers” are just the same, people who have to resort to these tactics because they have no leadership to articulate what they real want. It’s easy to pickup a bus load of people who hate, and that’s all I been seeing, they hate and can’t debate. Too bad.

  3. DON’T BOYCOTT UNTIL YOU MAKE ONE LAST TRIP TO WHOLE FOODS! EVERYONE CAN BE A ‘MYSTERY BOYCOTT SHOPPER!!”
    Load up your cart as you always would, then slip a note to Mr. Mackey in between the frozen food telling him that this is what you WOULD HAVE BOUGHT except that you changed your mind because of his idiotic ideas. Park your cart somewhere, and walk out of the store. Especially if you stack your purchases very randomly in your basket, returning all this to the shelves, ITEM BY ITEM, will take much longer than it took you to shop it, and it will send a REAL MESSAGE to Mr. Mackey about the consequences of his opposition to fairness in healthcare. I imagine the cost of paying employees to put all this back will hurt if it is widely practiced. I know it is kind of aggressive-passive but I sure had fun! (Remember this TACTIC when you have a Union strike and picket line AT A SUPERMARKET in your community. Nothing drives SCABS crazy faster than trying to return hundreds of items to the shelves, one by one.) We are ALL MYSTERY BOYCOTT SHOPPERS!!!

  4. Paul,

    You said

    “Medicare and Medicaid and our military men and women and the Senate and Congress get the best heathcare in the world, and oh, that’s right, its run by our federal government.”

    Not exactly.

    Medicaid is run by the states and is actually a tragically limited program, that provides very limited coverage for poor people – it doesn’t cover abortion services, or organ transplants, for example (my brother found out about the transplant rule the hard way – he needed a heart transplant, Medicaid would not pay for it and – partially because of that decision, he is dead now).

    Medicaid is a disproportionately Black and Latino program – which explains the underfunding and the huge gaps in coverage

    Medicare has been ruthlessly cut back over the years so there are huge out of pocket expenses for the elderly and disabled people it covers – the “spend down” that requires an old person sell everything they have and go into the poorhouse to get covered.

    CHAMPUS – military health coverage – and CHAMPVA – veteran coverage – also have huge gaps in coverage – gaps that can be expected to increase with all the wounded veterans coming home from the imperialist wars in the Middle East.

    Bottom line, American federal and state funded health care is actually pretty bad.

    That’s why it’s better to advocate Canadian, British or Cuban style health care, instead of the present truly awful public health care available in America.

  5. I will boycott Whole Foods until Mackey is gone and they support single payer. I’m sick of this kind of abusive behavior by corporations and their CEOs.

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