Valued at nearly $1 trillion, Amazon is one of the most powerful companies in the world. The Seattle-based retail giant employs over 600,000 people and operates 100 sortation and fulfillment centers in North America, sometimes sending out as many as 1 million items per day to customers. But Amazon does more than just retail. Amazon publishes its own books and comics, finances TV shows and movies, operates a Texas wind farm, builds robots, streams music, delivers prescription medications, and operates web services for everyone from Medium to the CIA. And that’s not even counting its high-profile acquisitions, which include Twitch, IMDB, Zappos, and Whole Foods, among countless others.
Nearly all of us use Amazon, one way or another. But what is it like working inside the beast? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you stories from workers at every level of the Amazon empire to find out.
Welcome to The Amazon Diaries.
In June 2017, Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.4 billion, not only extending its reach as a food delivery service but also picking up some 430 distribution centers — otherwise known as Whole Foods stores — with lucrative, built-in customer bases. As Derek Thompson pointed out in The Atlantic, Whole Foods’ real estate was at least as valuable to Amazon as Whole Foods’ business itself, if not more so. But where did the acquisition leave the human beings who worked in those stores?
One Whole Foods worker OneZero spoke with, “Tyler,” started at the company about 10 years ago. (Tyler requested anonymity for this interview to speak freely about his experience.) In 2008, Tyler had lost his finance job at a health care company. “I started stocking shelves part time, and then after I’d been there for eight or nine months, I decided to see if I could make a career out of it,” he told me. “I’m a food nerd, I like to cook, I used to go and get things at Whole Foods and just really liked things at Whole Foods. And there’s still a lot about Whole Foods that I really love.”
After five years on the sales floor, Tyler, who is based in the Rocky Mountain region, moved into Whole Foods’ tech division. Even before the Amazon acquisition, he says, things at the company began to change: stores had less autonomy in what to stock and how to stock it, hours were cut, and teams consolidated. But it was the 2017 sale that pushed Tyler into action. He was specifically concerned about the news that the newly acquired Whole Foods would cease its practice of profit sharing with lower-level workers.
It’s a self-organizing network of workers across the country, commiserating over shared experiences and strategizing over how to respond to labor cuts, layoffs, and meddling from Whole Foods Corporate.
Tyler is now a core organizer with the Whole Worker movement, which announced itself to management with a letter in September 2018. “Without our hard work and dedication today, Whole Foods would literally be worth next to nothing,” it read. “We cannot let Amazon remake the entire North American retail landscape without embracing the full value of its team members.”
Although Whole Worker members in some Whole Foods locations are leading union drives, Whole Worker itself isn’t a union. (In 2013, CEO John Mackey said that the company was “not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”) Rather, it’s a self-organizing network of workers across the country, commiserating over shared experiences, swapping gossip and information, and strategizing over how to respond to labor cuts, layoffs, and meddling from Whole Foods Corporate. “We just wanted to get together and do something. It wasn’t necessarily about unionization,” Tyler says. “When we launched, we just made a Slack channel, made it easy for employees to come on anonymously. Within a few weeks, we had a few hundred people on there.”
OneZero spoke with Tyler about what working at Whole Foods is like both before and after Amazon, and how the Whole Worker movement has continued to develop since going public. Amazon and Whole Foods have not yet responded to requests for comment for this article.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OneZero: How did life at Whole Foods change with the Amazon acquisition?
Tyler: In the media, we typically see narratives like, “Amazon is changing Whole Foods.” I don’t think that’s very accurate. Whole Foods was changing for a long time — going downhill for a long time. That really began in 2014, which was the year that Costco and Walmart outsold us on national organic goods. For most of its early years, the 1980s and 1990s, Whole Foods had this long stretch where it just faced no serious competition. But when conventional retailers started getting into natural, organic products, Whole Foods just couldn’t compete for a number of different reasons — the biggest probably being that those big national chains do national buying. That’s when they started cutting back, laying people off, consolidating positions. That’s when the relationship with their stores and the people that work on the sales floor really started to change.
What did that look like?
It got really serious when an activist investor group started buying up shares of Whole Foods and putting a lot of pressure on the board of directors to either sell or make labor cuts — that’s when they did the Whole Foods 365 thing. [Ed: An effort to open cheaper, smaller stores marketed to millennials.] Basically, how this manifests for people on the sales floor is that… you start getting tasked with more things to do than you have the time for in a day, and they get rid of people that have been there for longer, or are making a higher wage.
If you were a team leader, you may have had 30 people on your team, you may have been managing one department, and you had two associate team leaders [ATL] helping you, plus buyers and people underneath. In 2015, they started consolidating those teams aggressively, which means now you’re heading two departments or three departments, and you have one less ATL. You still have just as many team members, just as many responsibilities, but they started really aggressively consolidating those positions. Most team leaders I know work 60 hours a week, all the time. A lot of them work much more than that. [Ed: According to Glassdoor, the average team leader is paid $24 per hour.]
On the sales floor, that’s just extremely stressful and demoralizing. Whole Foods has these really high retail standards — execution standards, organic compliance. If you cut back on labor and consolidate positions and give people less resources but you don’t change the standards, then that is extremely stressful. Any team member that’s been in a Whole Foods in the past five years would probably describe it like that — it’s just a lot of pressure.
The biggest surprise to me when we launched our movement was that we didn’t reach out to people in leadership, but most of the people that have come forward to leak stuff, help us get things off the ground, are like, mid-level management. For instance those union videos, the anti-union trainings — those were leaked to us by a team leader. A lot of our best sources are people who wouldn’t even be able to be in any kind of union.
Why do you think some of the employees in management are turning on Whole Foods?
Mid-level people, and even some higher level management, don’t trust Whole Foods Corporate anymore. It’s not just about being nice to their employees and giving them more hours or whatever, but the decision-making process. When we talk about Whole Foods Corporate in Austin, Texas [Ed: Where the company is headquartered] — they used to be a much smaller outfit. When I started, Whole Foods was really run regionally and then locally. People at the store level had a lot of control over the products they carried, how they merchandised.
They’re told what to do, they’re told what to stock, how to stock, how to do their jobs, and there’s just no deviation.
You have a company full of semi-intelligent individuals, or above-average intelligent individuals, who are making choices at their store, and they’re passionate about their jobs. And then, more and more they are no longer part of that decision-making process. They’re told what to do, they’re told what to stock, how to stock, how to do their jobs, and there’s just no deviation. It’s just a really top-down thing. I think that’s what people are angry about. So anything that can alter that power dynamic, I think, resonates with people.
How did the Whole Worker movement come together? And why has it taken this form?
One of the things that attracted me to Whole Foods was that they used to be a really progressive corporation. There was a lot that was attractive, given my core beliefs and politics and all that. Even for retail, their benefits are well above average. There was really good profit sharing. We got stock grants once a year, options, there was a good bonus structure, good incentive structures.
For me, the organizing started when, after the Amazon acquisition happened, I learned that there were mass layoffs planned at the store level. They laid off a lot of marketing people, graphic artists. And we found out that profit sharing had gone away, that it wasn’t something Amazon wanted to bring back, and that they had already given store team leaders Amazon stock grants.
We launched with a company-wide email just saying, “Hey, this happened, and there’s no reason we should trust Amazon — in fact there’s no reason we should trust Whole Foods Corporate.” We spoke to issues that had been happening for a long time — labor cuts, layoffs. We talked about future layoffs. People were just angry, and they just saw the general direction in which Whole Foods was going was the opposite of their values. I think a lot of people who work at Whole Foods, especially those who’ve worked there for a long time, are passionate people. So we tried to appeal to that, just saying that we thought it was bullshit and there was no reason we should trust these people.
How many chapters of Whole Worker are there? How are they distributed across the country?
I’d rather not say how many there are, but they’re kind of all over. There are some on the West Coast, the East Coast. The most prominent one is probably in Chicago. That’s the one Whole Foods knows about and is most worried about.
Whole Worker is a small movement still. We’ve done things that have been impactful. We were talking to people in Bernie Sanders’s office about the $15 an hour wage increase. There were a lot of factors at play leading to Amazon announcing the minimum wage raise, but we felt we played a small role. But whatever impact we’ve had, we’ve done it at zero cost on old smartphones and Chromebooks. Anyone can do that.
Why do you think it’s been so difficult to organize unions at Whole Foods?
I run into people that are just afraid to do anything, all the time. And it’s totally rational. If you work retail and you lose your job, you lose your health insurance, what do you do? Are you gonna deliver food? You gonna Uber? In 2019, if you’re a person who has a job with health insurance, it’s an increasingly rare thing.
So it’s appropriate to be afraid of speaking out. They can’t fire you for organizing without risking a lawsuit, but it’s easy to fire someone for any number of technicalities. But if you have a smartphone, there’s so much you can do. If you see unsafe things at work, if you see unethical business practices, if you see people being harassed or bullied or abused in any way, it’s so easy to record and document and share that with people online or in the media without compromising your identity. It’s a very real fear people have of becoming unemployed and not being able to support yourself or have access to health care. A lot of people are afraid of that. But it’s also easier, now than ever, to get involved.