Whole Foods drama continues: Unions join in fight against CEO

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In the latest move in the John Mackey/Whole Foods (WFMI) health care brouhaha, two unions have joined in the chorus of voices opposing the embattled CEO. The Change to Win (CtW) investment group and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) have released statements attacking Mackey and calling for a boycott of the store.

This ongoing drama traces its roots to an op-ed article that Mackey published in The Wall Street Journal. Endorsing a cocktail of tax breaks and charity-based initiatives, he came out strongly against the universal health care policy that Obama (and, not coincidentally, many of his customers) endorse. Needless to say, many of Whole Foods' patrons felt stung by what they perceived as a corporate betrayal of their core policies. In addition to a torrent of attacks across the internet, this has led to a growing call for a boycott of the company.
In some interesting ways, this issue mirrors the battle between liberals and libertarians. Whole Foods' target demographic tends to be fairly liberal and, as such, is attracted to the company's socially-aware corporate governance as much as its high-quality food. From its decision to install fuel-cell generators in some of its stores to its commitment to philanthropy, many of While Foods' policies are designed to make its customers feel good about spending money there.

And then there's the way that the company treats its workers. Whole Foods' employees are paid well above the market average, have full health coverage, and are reimbursed for their gym memberships. The company offers same-sex partner benefits, allows telecommuting for many of its workers, and has a strict nondiscrimination policy. In short, it's everything that a good liberal could want in a supermarket.

Of course, all these benefits and donations come at a price, and Whole Foods passes much of this on to its consumers. But customers who are willing to pay a guilt premium for free-trade radicchio are likely to be the same sort of forward-looking, society-oriented liberals who support universal health care.

Mackey, on the other hand, is a self-identified libertarian, which means that his politics tend more toward self-policing and a small role for government programs. In the case of Whole Foods, this perspective generally dovetails with the beliefs of his customers, in so far as responsible corporate stewardship and pro-employee policies are the kinds of things that both groups could support. However, big government solutions -- like universal health care that is funded by increased taxes -- is where liberals and libertarians part ways.

From a business perspective, as far as Whole Foods is concerned, the politics of its customers are probably more important than the politics of its CEO. As previous battles against Bolthouse Farms and Coors (TAP) demonstrate, controversy and foodstuffs don't mix, particularly when one's target audience is noted for its political awareness. Given that Whole Foods' market position is inseparable from its socially activist image, Mackey's op-ed seems like an exercise in self-defeat.

However, while it is pretty obvious that Whole Foods should quickly and decisively move to distance itself from the statements of its CEO, it seems like the current boycott rivals Mackey's original move in its shortsightedness. By withholding patronage, Whole Foods' detractors convey the message that they require strict adherence to a hard liberal line. Never mind that Whole Foods does more for the environment, the needy, and its own employees than any other supermarket chain: its CEO has dared to utter heresy and must be clipped from the herd.

Beyond this, CtW and UFCW's decision to jump on the boycott bandwagon seems more than a little disingenuous. As Mackey has made very clear in the past, he is firmly anti-union; although Whole Foods reached a compromise with organized labor back in March, it is fair to say that relations between the two sides are probably strained. In this context, it seems likely that the union boycott has little to do with health care and everything to do with Mackey's anti-union policies.

If Whole Foods' customers are really liberal, then they will, perhaps, remember that true liberalism endorses the free flow of information, ideas, and perspectives. While they may not agree with Mackey's statements, their eagerness to censor him has effectively transformed righteous anger into bald-faced hypocrisy and bad business into bad politics. Even if Mackey isn't better than that, his customers certainly should be.

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