Tag Archives: unions

The Whole Foods Language Police: Keystone Cops or Company Thugs?

Whole Foods now denies that Lupe Gonzales and Bryan Baldizan were suspended for speaking Spanish on the job. While the company does, in fact, have a written policy requiring employees to speak English while “on the clock” — in order to maintain what one Whole Foods manager calls “a uniform form of communication” — the employees, Whole Foods now says, were fired for being “disrespectful.”

The proof? A letter Gonzales and Baldizan wrote, asking why workers in the Albuquerque, New Mexico store could be dressed in Mexican bandito costumes (“sarapes and sombreros with fake mustaches”) on Cinco de Mayo, but are “forbidden” to speak Spanish on the job.

Nothing says respect like grotesque parodies of Mexican culture. As for the actual, living culture of New Mexico (where, by the way, not just Spanish but Ladino is spoken) — just keep it off the clock and preferably outside the store.

Ralph Arellanes, New Mexico director with the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he “almost fell off [his] chair” when he first got wind of this; now the League is threatening a nationwide boycott if Whole Foods does not drop the policy. The company says the English-only policy is necessary for “safety” and — incredible though it may seem — inclusion: if workers speak Spanish, “team leaders” and customers may feel “excluded.” How is a leader expected to lead, or customer able to shop, or feel that they belong at Whole Foods, or in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for goodness sake, with all that Spanish being spoken around them?

It’s tempting to write this off as yet another example of the folly of top-down corporate policy-making: policies imposed from above usually hit the floor with a thud; hilarity or disaster ensues. There’s also a cautionary tale here about policing language, which hasn’t worked since the days of Babel. The language police usually turn out to be Keystone cops.

keystone-cops-granger
Or, worse, they end up offending people, and the policy-makers look historically ignorant, culturally arrogant and out of touch.

I wonder, however, if there’s something else at work here. People who speak the same language — a language “team leaders” don’t speak — are able start their own conversations about work and other topics. They can talk about their lives and their families. They can form new bonds and build networks within and beyond officially recognized teams.

Those informal bonds can pay off. It’s been repeatedly shown that unofficial, loose, self-directed, peer-to-peer social bonds help people learn from one another and develop new approaches to their work: people who share a language can share practices that have proven effective, find new ways to do things, or create unwritten rules and new combinations that will help them collaborate.

On the other hand, of course, workers can use a language they share to talk about the realities of their jobs, the possibilities they see for themselves within the organization, the conditions under which they work as well as the barriers to their advancement. And they can talk about their Anglophone leaders, too. I suspect those are conversations Whole Foods — “a staunchly anti-union enterprise” run by a man who sees himself as the benevolent father of his workers — probably wants to nip in the bud.

It’s 1913 Again in Michigan

Crossposted from 1913massacre.com

I’ve run across a few people drawing connections between the Italian Hall disaster and the school shooting yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut (e.g., here). Maybe listening to Woody’s song helps people register Newtown’s loss, or the horror of Newtown helps us understand a little better what it must have been like for the Italian Hall parents and the Calumet community as a whole in 1913. But beyond that I don’t think there’s a very meaningful connection to be made.

It is, however, worth reflecting on what happened in Calumet in December of 1913 and what’s happening in Michigan right now. This week, the Michigan legislature — without allowing much debate or deliberation, and over the protests of thousands — handed Governor Rick Snyder a bill making Michigan a “right to work” state. They added insult to injury a couple of days later when they passed Emergency Manager Legislation that Michigan voters had rejected on November 6th. This one-two punch is supposed to remedy Michigan’s economic woes and get the state back on the road to recovery. It looks more like a last-minute power grab before the next legislature is seated, enabled by another big-money subversion of democratic process.

Indeed, a provocative piece by labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein published last week cast the “right to work” legislation in Michigan as part of a “coup.” Lichtenstein sees here “a serious defeat not only for the unions but for the very idea of social solidarity.”

this conflict is about something far bigger — the meaning of solidarity, a way of feeling and thinking about the world of work that is the basis not just of the union idea, but of a humane cooperative society.

I am not entirely persuaded by Lichtenstein’s argument: I just don’t think the “idea of social solidarity” goes down in “defeat” so easily.

It was under attack in Calumet in 1913. The Christmas party at the Hall was itself an exhibition of solidarity, six months into a brutal strike. And after the Christmas Eve tragedy, the town came together, again, to mourn. They grieved, but they didn’t give up, even after they lost their bid to unionize and the strike was over. As Joe Krainatz says in our film, “They did go on. They did survive. They raised their families. They went to work in the mines again.” And what’s most remarkable is that they rebuilt their community; their feeling of solidarity and shared humanity survived even the closing of the mines and the ruin that came in its wake.

Maybe the lesson of Calumet is that human solidarity runs deep. Money and power have never really won out over it. So far, I haven’t seen any white flags waving in Michigan.