Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 17, 2009

The Whole Foods brouhaha

So apparently a lot of high-minded liberals are annoyed by the reactionary WSJ op-ed written by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Mackey is afraid that Obamacare will take us further down the Road to Serfdom. The money quote: “The last thing our country needs is a massive new health care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health care system.”

HuffPo and Daily Kos types are doing what they do best: furiously venting in comments sections and vowing a boycott. The boycott probably an empty threat—so far, the stock market, for what it’s worth, seems to think so. But the suddenness of this attack of righteous indignation is a little strange. Mackey has long been rabidly anti-union; he once famously compared organized labor to herpes.

But the outrage is only a little strange. The NPR demographic that is the Whole Foods base has never been fond of unions. Yet you do have to wonder if the venters have any idea what’s actually in the awful health care reform bills circulating around Congress. They’re probably just outraged that Mackey’s dissing a Democrat. And we all know how much better Dems are than Republicans. Republicans are just so icky.

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Responses

  1. Perhaps because I am one of your targets, I think you are painting with too broad a brush here. I go to Whole Foods for various reasons: for some foods (e.g: YoBaby yoghurt for children) WF is actually cheaper. The environment makes me feel less like I am in a morgue. This Mackey chap has been somewhat responsive to animal welfare issues — which I know we don’t agree on, but the reason I mention that is that there are reasons to prefer WF other than those you paint. Mackey, as you say, has always been anti-union, equating the union in a previous comment to herpes. But I am not sure any evidence points to WalMart or Stop & Shop or the Piggly Wiggly are any better. Further, while I am fine with some level of disdain for “NPR types”, I think you will be surprised by the results if you were to poll them regarding unions. For instance, I would wager that a good number of them oppose WalMart for its union-busting tactics, no doubt among other reasons. My own feeling is that the chief flaw of liberals (“NPR types”) is that many of them do not look far beyond the surface. As the old bit goes, do not attribute [so much] to malice that is easily explained by ignorance.

    BTW, I started my Whole Foods boycott today. ;-)

  2. There are many major unionized grocery stories out West, including in some very tough places like Arizona. There was also a large strike a few years ago that succeeded in some respects.

    The reality is that too many liberals prefer cute marketing and the rights of our furry friends (even as they eat them) over humans. Even if the stores are owned by murky billionaire industrialists or frothing libertarians.

  3. purple,

    the truth is in the data. We (human beings) slaughter more than 6 billion animals every year, most of them kept and killed in the most inhumane manner possible. There is little awareness, let alone protest, against such treatment.

    Most of those concerned with animal welfare attempt their best to reduce their participation in this horror: many of them are vegetarians, for instance.

    If non-animal welfare leftists (who support unions, or the upcoming grand proletarian revolution, etc) showed a tiny fraction of concern or action that animal welfare proponents do towards these issues (universal healthcare, etc), I would take it. Today, the solidarity runs one way. Worse, in many cases, the solidarity is reciprocated with hostility.

    BTW, this is not restricted to animal welfare. A lot of it is true for immigration as well. I recommend a googling session on CWA or other unions on foreign or undocumented workers. Heck, if WBAI has archives, I recommend giving a listen to the computer show people on the H-1B visa.

  4. yeah, organizing in this country with these worthless labor bureaucrats is a tough proposition. They don’t want to get their hands dirty or they don’t want to fight for a real wage settlement when they get a contract and the last thing they want to do is internal organizing for democracy and power in the workplace.

    otoh, many of these whole food types are hyper individualistic and we’ve been through a bad 20 or 30 years for organizing cultures of solidarity. However, I think that as things get worse, more of these idiots will stop being so idiotic, maybe Trumka and a more activist layer in labor can encourage some new forms of organizing, etc. I think we’ll see riots and chaos and repression on some level before we see mass labor and independent political organization. The next five to ten years will be interesting.

  5. My favorite John Mackey quirk was his insistence that women never show any part of an unshaven leg (it was in employee handbooks for many years and could very well still be in it). This may seem anachronistic but he started in Austin in the 70’s (so . . .).

    The herpes quote’s true charm is in the nervous attempt to extend the metaphor: “It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.”

    If anyone has Punk Planet #26 (1998) just take a look at “In Love With a Food Hole”!

  6. Thanks for this, and sorry that my previous comment was mere advertisement. Instead of the link, I’ll just repeat what I’ve asked many people: how does boycotting Whole Foods move us one day closer to health care reform?

  7. My wife & I had never even heard of Whole Foods until they acquired Fresh Fields in the late 1990’s. We quickly learned of their anti-union position from the picketers who used to stand at the Montclair, NJ location. We haven’t purchased anything from WF since then out of principle. This latest bit, along with the 2007 brouhaha regarding Wild Oats, adds to our convictions.

  8. I love the way he calls people “unfunded deficits.”

  9. As a liberal leftist I am getting a little fatigued with the constant battering by ‘The Left’ of the so called liberal left.
    We need to unite across the left spectrum. We need to listen, talk, focus on areas of agreement.
    SO please, get on with it.

  10. Ed – get on with what? There are real differences. The “liberal” left is basically going along with an awful health care package because Obama’s doing it, and because it’s somehow “realistic.” The right doesn’t do this. It stands on its principles, however nutty, and never gives up. And that gets them pretty far, really.

  11. Your purer than thou attitude makes me giggle. It is my birthright as an American to have government provided healthcare, and I have every right to fight back against CEOs who would deny me that right.

    I refuse to shop at Whole Paycheck again until Mackey is gone and the company supports single payer.

    This boycott is a perfect opportunity to promote the value of solidarity, and you are wasting it on trying to feel superior to the people the left should be organizing.

  12. Doug–Get on with agitation, organizing, pushing back–together (liberals and leftists). I guess I long for some kind of ‘United Front’. I have no wish to argue with you and I know you are correct in general but as long as the pristine true Left stay on the side lines then the ‘pragmatic’ liberals will work with only what they think they got; pro corporate ‘moderates’. Fundamentally as a life long democratic socialist with pathologoical liberal tendencies I really thought that this might be that historical moment where the whole left united and created real possibilities for change. Instead all I see in the left blogosphere is constant berating of liberals and all I see of the liberals is their usual spinelessness. Sorry for the vent.

  13. Doug-I’m with Ed on this. Why pooh-pooh the whole foods boycott? If people can get active (whatever their reasons) in opposing the right, personified by Mackey here, that’s a good thing. If the boycott has some success, it may even lead some to further and more progressive political involvement.

    Moreover, http://www.singlepayeraction.org, which definitely stands on principles, has called for the boycott too.

  14. If people can get active (whatever their reasons) in opposing the right, personified by Mackey here, that’s a good thing. If the boycott has some success, it may even lead some to further and more progressive political involvement.

    And if a meteor falls from the sky, it might land on the Republican side of the Senate, and then it wouldn’t be so hard to pass good legislation.

    People should get active, not distracted. Shop wherever you want. Build campaigns out of tactics that get you closer to your goal. Play to win.

    Ed: being a pragmatic liberal is fine, but “whatever works” is a better definition for pragmatism than “whatever shiny nonsense is on Twitter”.

  15. I am in total agreement that boycotting WF will not bring us closer to anything. That wasn’t my point. I am just taking this opportunity to speak to the liberl/left divide and my personal frustration that there isn’t more of a united push. I agree, play to win (whatever that looks like).
    As my fav folky sang ironically I assume ‘The revolution is only a tshirt away.’

  16. Agreed with the whole post.

    Surely you support the boycotts, though, Doug?

  17. Ed- Sorry for putting words into your mouth (implying that you support the WF boycott). Didn’t mean too.

    k-sky- I’m all for whatever works. But have you seen much (from the left) in the health care fight? You think the WF boycotters would be on the barricades if they weren’t being “distracted?”

    My best bet is also that the WF boycott won’t change anything, but who knows? It has a better chance than smug lefty commentary about liberals.

  18. On the one hand, its all well and good that the rightwing demonstrates organizational discipline and the christofascist family types are gaga over Lenin and Rush practices Gramsci even if he don’t read none. But to marvel at the success of the shit for brains that passes for American conservatism has its limits. Authoritarianism and thuggery can get places faster than the arguing and bargaining and brokering and posturing and plotting and plodding and the general messiness that represents the left.

    On the other hand, but of course you’re right. The whole mess does seem like a brawl between different factions of middling classes, NPRsters versus the Clear Channelites. And the netroots are indulging in some wishful thinking that the agenda they’re pushing even represents real change, let alone having any chance of succeeding.

    On the third hand, is there a compromise between Huffpo and LBO?

  19. Compromise between Huff and LBO would be nice. Taking a page from Gramsci as far as getting left ideas to a wider audience and influencing the culture. As a liberal I think liberals are susceptible to more direct left argument if they have easy access and little hard left verbosity.

  20. “Yet you do have to wonder if the venters have any idea what’s actually in the awful health care reform bills circulating around Congress”

    The question I am left with is: what might I read to outline — from a LBO perspective — the awfulness of the currently circulating bills?

    Is fighting for a “public option” a waste of time?

    Will the circulating bills with or without a “public option” make the health care situation worse?

  21. No, fighting for a public option wouldn’t be a waste of time, but it is a terrible compromise at this point. It’s not clear whether “reform” without the public option would make things slightly better or worse. For details on what’s in the bills, check out my interview with PNHP’s Len Rodberg: July 16, 2009 show.

  22. This is part of the problem, in that the boycott isn’t predicated on effecting political change, it’s predicated on being dissatisfied that the guy who sells overpriced vegetables turns out to be, surprise surprise, an icky Republican CEO.

    This isn’t like a boycott of South African companies to end apartheid. This is like a boycott of a company you shop at because they didn’t put you on their Christmas card list.

    In short, it’s hardly a political action. It’s an aesthetic one.

    W/r/t the liberals and their usual equivocations on policy matters where they have not only the principles but the political support for something socially democratic, well, maybe I have Stockholm syndrome, but at this point the passage of a watered-down Massachusetts plan travesty is still to the left of the current regime. The Right thinks in terms of shifting debate and values (“Overton window”) (hence their willingness to tap the retardo-fascist John Bircher/Minuteman crew whenever the going gets tough), and even a compromise is a shift to the left from what we’ve got.

    Also, the comment Mackey made about “low fat” is just wrong, but that’s neither here nor there.

  23. Nathan’s premise and conclusion are self-sustaining but the premise itself is questionable. People are boycotting WF not because Mackey “turned out … icky Republican”. They are boycotting it because he wrote a polemic against a programme that they believe benefits a large section of people, including the working class. With that premise, the action becomes once again a political one. The politics may be different of course.

  24. Doug,

    I think such a boycott is/would/could be much more meaningful to the extent it emphasizes a) the Democrats’ (non-HR 676) health bill is also awful and b) focuses on demanding “Medicare for all” (a la HR 676).

    That message is slightly more complex to convey/explain/convince with, however, and therefore exponentially less “viral.” This is a problem in general. Spreading even slightly complex ideas/information/context (or much context at all, for that matter) among a by-and-large massively ignorant audience, especially ideas/information unapproved by “the Complex” (and therefore uniformly ignored, smeared with disinformation or otherwise marginalized by “both sides”), is no small challenge – even, perhaps even more so, in this “information age” – no matter what facts or logic one might have to support them.

    But regardless, I have to agree with commenter Bart’s comment above:

    “If people can get active (whatever their reasons) in opposing the right, personified by Mackey here, that’s a good thing. If the boycott has some success, it may even lead some to further and more progressive political involvement.”

    This comment from “k-sky,” on the other hand, really leaves me dumbfounded:

    “People should get active, not distracted. Shop wherever you want.”

    Uh…

  25. An ideological commitment to revolution (or resurrections!) compels animosity towards evolution. ;-)

  26. Bjorn, I am sorry my comment found you dumb. I think if you consider the Coke boycott, which had a specific change in mind and connected the tactic (boycott Coke) to the desired outcome (change Coke’s racist employment practices), you will understand why I am not enthusiastic about the Whole Foods boycott, in which the tactic (boycott Whole Foods) and the desired outcome (achieve health care reform) have no meaningful connection.

  27. k-sky,

    I misunderstood that comment as being a rejection of the value of boycotts altogether. Thanks for clarifying that.
    Bjorn


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