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Wild Oats Workers Say Natural Foods Store Stifles Union Drive

By Stephanie Dunlap - Cincinatti City Beat, July 30, 2004

Tom Kappas believes he was fired from Wild Oats in order to suppress his and others' efforts to unionize the Norwood store.

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 discounted 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 says.

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 discounts on waste produce, so Kappas clocked out for the last time a few minutes later. That manager later admitted he "made a mistake," Kappas says.

He sure did, say other Wild Oats employees. The informal policy of discounting 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 discounting 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.