For many working at Nature's--and especially the handful of employees trying to pull together a union--the word "corporate" is an epitaph, on par with soulless and evil. At a recent interview at the Red & Black Café, several union organizers spoke wistfully about the jobs they held before Nature's became part of a national chain of Wild Oats grocery stores.
"It had the hippie sensibility," explains Katy, an employee. "I used to do the chalkboards that tell you what's on sale; it was a creative outlet." Pursing her eyebrows, she explains that the new owners have taken down the colorful chalkboard and replaced it with generic sale signs. "I didn't mind starting at minimum wage because (the job) fit with my lifestyle," she adds.
But four years ago, the company sold to GNC, a successful distributor of vitamins and nutritional supplements. In spite of fears that GNC would suck the life from Nature's, the new owners largely left the soul of Nature's untouched. It was not until two years later, in 1999, when Wild Oats, a Colorado-based grocery chain, bought Nature's. Although Wild Oats' mission statement seems to align with Nature's personality, employees immediately saw changes. To an outsider, these changes may seem marginal, but for Nature's employees, were dramatic departures from the company that had adopted them like family.
The new owners put in place a mandatory bag check; all employees were required to have their belongings searched when leaving the store. For employees, the policy was a stinging insult that spoke volumes about this loss of faith.
A more concrete loss was the subtraction of the company's so-called Wellness Benefits. Under the plan, Nature's covered $200 annually towards any expense aimed at improving an employee's health--like the purchase of a bike or acupuncture. Without notice, this benefit was yanked. According to employees, some people had already made purchases expecting to be reimbursed.
But the final straw came just a few days before Halloween with the emblem of corporate culture: a dress code. Suddenly, employees were required to wear black polo shirts embroidered with the company's logo. Employees were angered partly by the shirts, but more so because they were never consulted. This decision confirmed suspicions that a rift had divided the former coziness between management and employees. For months, employees had voiced concerns that managers were turning deaf ears to their opinions. (Not until plans for a union were announced did managers address some 60 safety issues, including a lack of identified fire escape routes and burned-out bulbs in most of the exit signs.)
At times, the demands from the union organizers sound more like complaints heard in couple's therapy--more trust, better communication, more opportunity for expressing individuality. Yet, in spite of the demands from employees, Wild Oats--the corporate owner of Nature's--has struck back at them. A bulletin board located upstairs has been commandeered by the managers to post anti-union messages. For years, employees were free to pin up notes, fliers, and inspirational quotes. But a month ago, that informal board was encased with a glass panel--locked so that only management could post notes. According to several employees, those notes have been anti-union propaganda, explaining that a union will force employees to strike.
Wild Oats has hired a high-powered attorney from Seattle to consult them on how to proceed, and last Friday, they enclosed notes in some employee paychecks, explaining again how the union will force them to strike.
"Management is really instilling the fear of strike," says Katy, who affirms that strikes are not part of the intent or plan for their union. "Because 'union' means working together."