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(en) US, norwood, Wild Oats stifles IWW union drive

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 5 Aug 2004 13:35:34 +0200 (CEST)

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Wild Oats' Norwood store might be more concerned with the fair
treatment of coffee farmers a continent away than with fair
treatment of its own workers. Though the sign in front of the
natural foods store in Rookwood Commons trumpets the fair
trade coffee inside, its store director fired Tom Kappas, who'd
been openly leading an employee union drive, for what many
consider a trumped-up charge: stealing 19 cents worth of fruit.

Before Kappas, a two-year veteran of the produce department,
ended his Friday night shift July 9, he rang up a bag of tortilla
chips, a bottle of Samuel Smith Organic Lager and $.19 in
produce. According to Kappas' written statement -- which he
provided to CityBeat -- the manager on duty for the night stopped
him before he left and asked to search his bags and see receipts.
Kappas produced the fruit and the paperwork.

The manager said Kappas shouldn't have dis-coubted the fruit,
but Kappas told him that the produce manager allowed his
employees to buy old or damaged produce at 10 cents per pound.
Kappas then threw the produce in the trash and left. The next
day Kappas says he was called before three managers, including
Store Director Fred Meyer.

"Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I asked for a union representative
to be present before I could answer any questions," his statement

He claims Meyer said there wouldn't be any questions because
he was being terminated for trying to steal the fruit.

The produce manager denied allowing dis-coubts on waste
produce, so Kappas clocked out for the last time a few minutes
later. That manager later admitted he "made a mistake," Kappas

He sure did, say other Wild Oats employees. The informal policy
of dis-coubting produce was widely understood and practiced but
unwritten, according to half a dozen workers who spoke with
CityBeat on condition of anonymity. (The Wild Oats employee
handbook says workers must get permission from the regional
legal department to speak to the press.) Ironically, say union
supporters, a union contract would ensure that Wild Oats
workers wouldn't be subjected to capricious firings or unwritten
workplace rules.

'Do not believe a union is appropriate' Employees interviewed
include members of the Wild Oats job branch of Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW). Kappas had been an IWW
delegate for eight months. Two employees approached at random
outside the store were sympathetic to Kappas; one said she also
was a union member.

Although individual employees might be IWW members, the
union doesn't officially represent the employees until the store
recognizes it or the majority of employees vote to join it.

Meyer referred inquiries to Wild Oats' corporate office in
Boulder, Colo.

"I can tell you with 100 percent assurance and confidence that
Mr. Kappas was not terminated for union activity," says
corporate spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele.

Firing someone for union activity is considered an "unfair labor
practice" under the National Labor Relations Act. Wild Oats
branches have been found guilty of similar anti-union behavior at
least twice before, when courts ordered stores in Ladue, Mo., and
Norwalk, Conn., to cease their anti-union behavior and to post
notices that employees have the right to organize, form, join or
assist any union.

The Norwalk store was successfully unionized. Wild Oats sold it
five months later, and today there are no unions at the company's
106 stores nationwide.

Explaining the national chain's position, Tuitele said, "Wild Oats
is not anti-union, but we are pro-employee."

Page 15 of the employee handbook reads somewhat differently:
"We do not believe a union is appropriate for our employees and
we will strongly oppose an organization attempt by any union."
Wild Oats wasn't kidding about mounting strong opposition,
employees say. When managers learned in November that
Kappas was trying to organize, they distributed anti-union
literature, promoted some union members to management and
systematically harassed others.

"There's a lot of other people who have quit, but there were at
least three union members who have quit based on the way they
were treated," one employee says.

Fellow employees say no one's buying the company line.

"Most people, I think, are not under the delusion that Tom was
fired for dis-coubting bananas," another employee says.

'Carry on that activity' Union members and sympathizers now
weigh their options, which include picketing at the Norwood
store and at the grand opening of a new Wild Oats store in
Mason, gathering employee and customer signatures on petitions
and filing an unfair labor practice charge.

Mark Damron, secretary of the IWW Ohio Valley Organizing
Committee, had been helping Kappas lead the union drive. He
says 10 Wild Oats workers already carry the red union card and
twice that many seem interested.

Members of the IWW, also known as "Wobblies," aren't
recruited by paid organizers as in larger unions. Instead, they
organize themselves with the help of people like Damron. Union
dues are low, from $3 to $18 a month, and the IWW constitution
forbids automatically deducting dues from paychecks.

"What makes the IWW radical is that it never backed down from
its initial stand that there is a war between the employing class
and the working class," Darmron says.

"In general, I don't like unions," says one Wild Oats worker. "I
see them as the lesser of two evils but still an evil. But the IWW
is on the store level. It's autonomous, grassroots." He says he'll
definitely join the union now that Kappas is gone.

"When they fired him, they were squelching an activity, and the
obvious response is to carry on that activity," he says.

Employees say fellow workers are angry and scared. Some who
previously considered a union unnecessary are realizing how little
job security they really have.

"I don't understand how a company that has this image and
mantra can do something so completely oxymoronic to that
image and it's just pushed under the rug," says one employee.

She joined the union to support workers' rights and now is
considering quitting Wild Oats. Kappas' treatment was blatantly
illegal, she says. "Just because it's not based on race or sex
doesn't mean it's not discrimination," she says. Even if Kappas is
reinstated, she wants people to know what goes on in "this
environmentally-friendly company that doesn't recycle."

Though Kappas isn't banking on getting his job back, he hopes
his efforts haven't been for naught.

"I'd like to see, even if I'm not reinstated, the job branch use (the
firing) to organize and not to disintegrate," Kappas says.


We, are concerned about the termination of Fellow Worker Tom
Kappas' employment. We feel that it was an unfair termination,
and ask that he be reinstated without prejudice.

We are concerned about arbitrary or confusing policies, and ask
that a policy that can possibly lead to termination of employment
be committed to writing.

We are all concerned about the the work environment, and have
similar goals, along with management, for a functional and
profitable business. We do not feel our concerns are
unreasonable or detrimental to these goals, and ask that
employees voicing their concerns do not experience retaliation.


Wild Oats Norwood -513 531 8015 or email
edmstrdir@wildoats.com - Store Director Fred Meyer -
Wild Oats Custo-mer Ser-vice 1 800 494 WILD

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