So, here is, pretty much, the deal: John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of the Whole Foods Market grocery chain, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal,on August 11th of this year. In it, he espoused his views on the current state of health care in the United States and what he feels reform of that system should entail. Within this piece he expressed some conservative ideas such as equalizing the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits, repealing government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover and revising tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren’t covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
He also rejected the idea that health care is a basic right, stating that “A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This ‘right’ has never existed in America.” Very quickly, Mackey’s piece was roundly criticized by many who uphold a very different view not only of heath care reform but of what Whole Foods as a business entity purports to be its ethical basis. A boycott, called from many corners, ensued. For many ethical consumers and organizations these statements seemed to fly directly in the face of what Whole Foods markets themselves to stand for.
In his article, John Mackey provides numbers which apparently breakdown the Whole Foods health care plan. This is a combination of high-deductibles with Health Savings Accounts: “Whole Foods Market pays 100% of the premiums for all our team members who work 30 hours or more per week (about 89% of all team members) for our high-deductible health-insurance plan. We also provide up to $1,800 per year in additional health-care dollars through deposits into employees’ Personal Wellness Accounts to spend as they choose on their own health and wellness.” Mackey seems to feel this program is worth outlining as a model for a successful health care option, and might actually seem to start making sense if not for reality checkers like Dr. Joel A. Harrison at WholeBoycott.com, who quickly expose Mackey’s figures as sugar-coated: “80% of health care costs for individuals in the U.S. exceed $2,500 and 73% exceed $5,000, so people would rapidly exhaust their health savings accounts” [due to exceeding their high-deductible premiums]. Sick and injured people trust their doctors to make appropriate decisions and neither have the skills for making the decisions nor the availability of data to base such decisions on. High deductibles lead to reductions in both appropriate and inappropriate care, e.g. blood pressure monitoring.”
Another telling sign of Mackey’s corporate-cultural ethic towards the well-being of Whole Foods workers, in this case veritable union-busting, is illustrated by Sharon Smith, writing for Counterpunch.org. “Preventing Whole Foods workers from unionizing has always been at the top of Mackey’s agenda, and the company has been successful thus far at crushing every attempt. Perhaps the company’s most notorious attack on workers’ right to unionize occurred in Madison, Wis., in 2002. Even after a majority of workers voted for the union, Whole Foods spent the next year canceling and stalling negotiation sessions — knowing that after a year, they could legally engineer a vote to decertify the union. Mission accomplished.” There already seems to be a wide disconnect between the open, community-oriented and progressive-thinking image Mackey would like Whole Foods to project, and the somewhat shocking realities of its internal workings.
But perhaps one of the most interesting — and least-mentioned — aspects of the debate that has surrounded John Mackey’s article is his almost absurd inclusion of the Whole Foods corporation in his string of ideas. One is first affronted by the title of the piece: “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare.” Of course, Mackey and all who agree with him are entitled to their opinions, but would he really think to use the liberal, progressive-leaning image of the entire company, as well as speaking for it’s workers and even its patrons, as an umbrella to open his conservative rhetoric with in the midst of an internationally-recognized and read financial journal?
According to Deirdre Fulton, writing for the Boston Phoenix, apparently Mackey had intended his piece to be titled simply “Health Care Reform,” and an unnamed editor at the Wall Street Journal had rewritten the title before going to press. However, even if the article had remained title-less, there is no disguising his comparison of the Whole Foods health care plan with what he would like to see the United States adopt as an over-arching health care approach. It’s the same difference as the manipulated title; inadvertently speaking for thousands of people, disregarding and thus disrespecting his main demographic as well as those who work long hours for relatively minimal pay to help keep him a multi-millionaire. It was certainly his right to say whatever he wanted in the publication; this is not an issue of Freedom of Speech. It was simply an act of incredibly poor taste and laughable business tact, and serves as a small but poignant example of the power and danger of mixing business with politics.
In the meantime, the boycott continues to grow! And we at AP are not suggesting you join the boycott, but just want to give you our opinion of the issue. There are other great ways to support liberal, Fair Trade, organic, and local businesses without shopping at a major chain such as Whole Foods. For instance, we recommend shopping at your local Co-op, independent health food stores, or Farmer’s markets. Because after all, supporting the little guy is always a better alternative than funding major corporations, no matter what their politics are.