Whole Foods Union-Busting?

Whole Foods Market employee Debbie Rasmussen says she was recently fired after giving a botched latte to her co-worker Julie Thayer, who didn't pay for the latte and was also fired. Both women have been leaders in organizing workers at their Madison, Wis., Whole Foods store -- an effort that proved successful last July, when full- and part-time employees voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1444. As the first Whole Foods employees to unionize, Rasmussen and Co. put a crack in the Austin-based organic and natural foods supermarket chain's spelt-and-spirituality vibe-ology and tickled the angry bone of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who has compared unions to herpes.

The store manager directly responsible for firing Rasmussen and Thayer did not respond to our request for comment. Austin-based Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Monteilh wouldn't discuss why the two were fired, citing company policy, but said the grocery chain's listing in the Fortune "100 Best Companies to Work for in America" list illustrates its "respectful, supportive" work environment. "We provide a work environment where workers can excel," she said. "We've been tremendously successful in doing that." If Rasmussen and Thayer felt they were wrongly terminated, she said, they could have explored the store's peer-review process, which makes such employee decision-making more egalitarian.

Not so, says Rasmussen, who worked at Whole Foods for almost two years and made $10.50 an hour at the time of her firing. She fired off a litany of reasons -- from clamping down on the employee dress code to overly expensive health insurance and fair-pay issues -- as reasons why she and others voted to join the UFCW. She and Thayer were dismissed when it became obvious that Thayer hadn't paid for the latte. But as juice bar supervisor, Rasmussen thought she had the right to use discretion in such everyday situations. "Julie and I are excellent workers," she said, adding that she was promoted after the union election. "We never got in trouble."

Rasmussen remains on the union's bargaining committee, which entered into contract negotiations with Whole Foods management last week. Local 1444 President Dan Welch says that as far as the union is concerned, "This issue hasn't been resolved." The UFCW has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on both women's behalf. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has found work in a locally owned coffee shop in Madison, but says she wants her old job back.

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