Whole Foods shut down in Oakland

An article about the shut down of a Whole Foods during Occupy Oakland's 'general strike'.

In the weeks leading up to the Oakland General Strike on Nov. 2, Wobblies across the bay in San Francisco circulated agitational leaflets calling on workers in unorganized shops to “sick out” for the day. The city, under pressure from local labor groups, adopted a sick leave policy in 2006 which entitles most employees to paid days off if they’re sick or caring for a sick family member. We recognized that most workers in San Francisco don’t belong to unions and could probably not pull off an official strike, so we appealed to them to sick out en masse and potentially get paid for withholding their labor. This approach was received with enthusiasm by many workers and it encouraged several to sick out on the day of the general strike.

One particular group of workers we targeted was the low-wage food and retail sector. As it turned out, it was in that sector that we forced the first workplace shutdown during the strike. We approached a group of radical workers in the morning who we heard had called out of work from their food service job to participate in the strike. Their coworkers, whom they had agitated to call out as well, expressed a desire to join the strike but reported to work instead for fear of retaliation from their notoriously abusive management. We were told that if a picket went up at their workplace, the workers would feel more emboldened to walk out.

Wobblies jumped on the opportunity. We coordinated with a contingent of 25-30 militant organizers from a few different radical organizations to march the few blocks from the main rally to Whole Foods, splitting up along the way to avoid being routed by security or police. Our arrival was timed for the beginning of the lunch rush, and we converged inside the store at 11:30 a.m. Massing suddenly inside the doors, we called out the customers and chanted “Let them strike, it’s their right!” Overwhelmed, management conceded and told us they’d shut down and pay the workers the full day’s wage. For our own assurance, we stayed and threw up a lively picket at the entrance while the boss locked the doors, keeping the workers in and customers out. Several bewildered office staff looking for their soup fix were politely told that the place was shut down for the general strike, with some staffers vainly tugging on the locked glass doors anyway.

We asked one of the workers who was bold enough to talk to us through the doors whether they’d prefer us to stay or leave. “Stay” was the answer, and for the next hour or so we held our ground and chanted. The same worker who told us to stay said “You did it! You shut it down!” and gave me a fist bump through the glass door! We received very vocal criticism throughout the shutdown by one worker who screamed insults and attempted to persuade us that none of the other workers supported the shutdown. Shortly after she left, the largely Latino kitchen staff began to dawn smiles and a young female black worker met us at the entrance with her coworker to openly share their enthusiasm and express their appreciation. The display of a Spanish-language strike banner was a decisive component of the shutdown, especially with the kitchen staff. It was clear to us that this shutdown was well-received by the workers.

It was an inspiring start to an extraordinary day of working-class mass action. We hope our recounting here will offer even a minor contribution to those who plan to carry out similar actions, hopefully on a much larger scale.

We want to emphasize that shutting down the flow of production is not in and of itself a revolutionary act. In fact, as we saw in the shutdown of Whole Foods that took place later in the day, without the support of the workers such actions have the likely consequence of alienating and isolating majority sectors of the workingclass, thereby weakening our message and missing the broader aim of overthrowing capitalism.

Much was made of the Whole Foods shutdown in the press, and in the Occupy movement as a whole. During the scheduled Anti-Capitalist March midday, the crowd of several hundred or more snaked their way from downtown Oakland to the nearby Whole Foods, where it was rumored that workers were being threatened with firings if they joined the demonstrations. The Wobbly contingent saw an opportunity to picket the grocery chain and call out the workers in solidarity, shutting down the store by the workers walking out. Instead, as soon as the march arrived several demonstrators started tearing the storefront apart—throwing rocks at the windows, pulling tables and chairs into the street, and so on. This had the effect of scaring and confusing the workers inside who didn’t know what to make of the melee taking place outside. While we understood the rage being expressed by these acts of vandalism, we felt that an important opportunity to engage workers and expose the contradictions of liberal capitalists like Whole Foods was missed. Imagine if the several hundred of us on the march had surrounded the store with a picket line, and some of our number addressed the workers inside to get them to walk out with us. The store would have had to shut down immediately and I have little doubt that a significant chunk of the workers would have gladly joined us. The impact of a successful action like that could have had wide reverberations, emboldening many thousands of workers to engage in similar actions and challenge their bosses.

While it’s important that we stand together as a movement and not allow certain groups to be “thrown under the bus” so that we appear acceptable to the media, it’s also important to be critical of actions in a constructive and comradely spirit. It’s our hope that we can reflect on what took place at the Whole Foods shutdown and draw lessons that will allow our movement to more fully mature to its revolutionary potential.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2011)