By Hunter Buen
Hunter Buen gave this talk Jan. 15 at a protest outside Hollywood Whole Foods in Portland, Oregon. The protest was one of several nationally coordinated actions to demand an end to Amazon’s union busting.
It is imperative, now more than ever, that workers stand up for themselves and others. A wave of unprecedented labor activism has struck the United States in the last several months. This wave must be ridden into a better future for the working class. My store is but one example of corporate influence on workers and how the world’s most profitable company morphed a grocery store that once held a strong set of values.
I began working at Whole Foods in 2018. The store was vibrant in both culture and character. As a college student in need of extra funds, this was the perfect job for me. I could not have predicted how much this summer job would impact my life over the coming years. Amazon had just purchased Whole Foods Market and began to treat it as another of their corporate pet projects.
“Amazonification” is my term for the phenomenon, named after the infamous international monopoly, that describes its poisonous effect on business practices. The shift I witnessed at Whole Foods Market was unlike anything I could have speculated when I accepted the job offer. I proudly wore a blue “Prime” apron and hat the day the acquisition took effect. We now kindly asked each customer “Do you have Amazon Prime?” and explained the many discounts and benefits available to such customers.
To begin with the innocuous: self-checkout. A staple of modern grocery infrastructure, but something that Whole Foods swore against prior to Amazon. East Coast UNITE HERE organizer Jeremy Pollard puts it best: “How many children does that machine need to feed?” Amazon’s favor for nonhuman laborers corrupted a once human-focused company.
Pay and benefits faltered significantly under Amazon’s rule. A process called “gainsharing” would distribute excess profits to employees in a show of good faith and a working example of sharing the wealth. Under new ownership, this was obviously cast aside. While base pay did rise upon Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, that pay grade has yet to rise since, despite a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that has raised the cost of living for all Americans. Instead, wealth has been concentrated in the hands of one man. In the musical and satirical words of comedian Bo Burnham, “Jeffrey Bezos, you did it.”
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, many Whole Foods team members thought it necessary to stand in solidarity with the Black community by wearing pins reading “Black Lives Matter.” The company reprimanded and even fired those who aimed to express this basic comradery. Pins of a different sort — union pins — were also the center of punishment and separations. Those in support of unionization saw haphazard accusations of lengthy bathroom breaks, dress code violations or other minor infractions not based in fact. The strategy here was obvious: to force out those who disagree with Amazon politically.
Whole Foods, under Amazon’s direction, also began to sink its fingers into the gig economy. Amazon Prime Now (APN) shoppers at many locations are contracted — meaning they have no guarantee for hours or benefits, similar to Uber and Lyft’s modus operandi.
Recently, as a replacement for increasing wages, a unique bonus incentive structure was devised. With low-pay and low-respect jobs being abandoned in record numbers in late 2021, the company prioritized retention and overtime above all else. Thus, they demanded workers stay put and put in as many hours as possible over the holidays. Leave the store, and your bonus is revoked. Work less, and your bonus will be significantly less. This, because of the pressure of housing insecurity, led several workers to work up to 70 hours a week for multiple weeks in order to stay afloat during the holiday season.
The transgressions continue, but the message here is unmistakable: Amazonification has taken over Whole Foods Market. The business now operates under an anti-worker, maximum profit model. To call myself and fellow workers “team members” is frankly a joke. On whose team are we?
Jeff Bezos earned over $120 billion in profits over 2021, while all these fears weighed on Whole Foods and broader Amazon employees. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is retiring this year off of this incredible sale.
Admittedly, Amazon delivery drivers and warehouse workers see far worse treatment than I ever did. Even so, it could not be more obvious what all of this strife is for. Profit. The only solution to this phenomenon is union power. Collective action can combat Amazonification.