MOM’s Organic Market boasts its values on walls and placards throughout its stores. Among the images of small farms, from which the company sources organic produce and meat, and infographics on the environmental harm of pesticides, a small quote attributed to Greenpeace USA’s Annie Leonard sits tacked onto an endcap displaying reusable storage containers: “There’s no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere.”
But workers at the MOM’s store in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood say they have felt disposable to the company, and that’s why they formed a union. On the evening of their secret ballot election on Friday, Aug. 26, a group of workers congregated on the sidewalk near the store. “I think it’s going to be a landslide,” someone in the crowd said while they waited for the verdict. Their hunch was right: With 58 voting “Yes” to just five “No” votes out of 75 eligible workers, the Hampden MOM’s workers won their union in a landslide and are now represented by the Teamsters Local 570.
A few days before the election, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, MOM’s workers and Teamster organizers held a rally outside the store in the parking lot of The Rotunda building—a popular shopping center a stone’s throw away from the central campus of Johns Hopkins University. They handed out fliers and stickers to dozens of customers and urged them to let their CEO, Scott Nash, know what they think about the union. In an address to the crowd and the press, City Councilwoman Odette Ramos (whose district includes the store) echoed that call and expressed her own support for the union.
“I have to tell you, I started getting worried about what was happening at MOM’s at the beginning of the pandemic when I walked in and they had no PPE. They were very worried about their own health and no union to help them,” Ramos said. “I’ve heard even more stories about some of the problems about discrepancies and pay disparities and all of the things that you think that this particular market actually says it prides itself on doing, they are not doing.”
The Real News Network reached out multiple times to Nash and to the MOM’s press team for comment on the union and has not heard back.
With their union, workers plan to negotiate for higher starting pay, better paid time off (PTO) benefits, improved safety measures, and a general sense of job security—and to lock the negotiated terms into a binding written contract. The current starting wage is $15 an hour, and the cap for hourly workers’ pay is $20 an hour, according to the MOM’s Wage Review policy.
One worker, who spoke with TRNN on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, noted that although $15 an hour is more than the city, state, and federal minimum wage, it’s not enough to live on. They cited the MIT Living Wage calculator, which presently considers $18.07 an actual minimum “living wage” for a single person with no children based on the cost of living in Baltimore City.
“Living wage means subsistence, not prosperity, not having access to travel or savings, or getting rid of debt, or doing fun stuff,” the worker said. “It means you have a bed and you have a meal at the end of the day.” They added that Nash “thinks that he’s paying a good wage, [but] the starting wage at MOM’s is not a living wage by any professional metric, and most people make very close to the starting wage.”
The MOM’s handbook says that wage reviews will occur biannually, but several workers said on Tuesday that this process is inconsistent at best. They receive a maximum of one raise per year—some around 25 cents an hour—and some workers have gotten the raise without going through the review process at all. Natalia De Oliveira, who has worked at MOM’s for a year and a half, said she just got a raise of 50 cents. “We don’t have any clear standards on what categorizes a raise, so you either get one or you don’t,” she says. “My coworker who’s been here for two years never got a raise. And my male coworker who’s been here for a year less than I have just got 75 cents.”
Some of the discrepancies are attributed to communication issues. “I didn’t get a review for three cycles, which meant I didn’t get a raise for three cycles,” says Mehret B., who worked at MOM’s for three and a half years and quit during the pandemic. “[The reasoning] was always like, ‘Your manager quit and this [other] manager doesn’t know how you work.’ Okay, well, talk to the other manager. When I come into work, I’m expected to know what I’m doing, to do my job and do it well, and you’re not upholding your part of the bargain.”
In its stores and on its website, MOM’s states its mission more like a nonprofit than a grocery chain typically would: “Our purpose: To protect and restore the environment.” That language runs throughout its marketing materials and even works its way into employee benefits. The signs inside the Hampden store highlight a few of those benefits, such as $5,000 towards the purchase of an electric car, and a 401(k) with “socially responsible” investment choices. According to current policy, the partial reimbursement for an electric car can include up to $5,000, and up to $3,000 for a hybrid/solar vehicle, but it requires one to have clocked 1,000 hours at MOM’s for the preceding 12 months and recipients must “be committed to MOM’s for 3 years.” Eligibility for the 401(k) also requires one to have worked at MOM’s for one year and for at least 1,000 hours in that time.
While the benefit sounds nice on paper, few current workers could actually afford an electric or hybrid car, even with the incentive of a small reimbursement. “What it really comes down to is this money,” says worker-organizer Matthew Rogers, who has worked at MOM’s for a year and a half. “We don’t make enough money to live. And they can [take] any sort of pay raise, any sort of little bonus, any sort of thing they want to give us—they can take it away because it’s not in a contract. And they have.”
From Jan. 10 to March 7 of 2022, for example, during a surge of the highly infectious omicron variant, employees could receive a “perfect attendance boost” to their pay (ie, an extra $2 an hour if they did not miss a day of work during a two-week pay period). But that additional pay was presented to workers as less of a form of recognition of the sacrifices they were making during a pandemic to keep the store running, and more as a begrudgingly offered incentive for people to not get sick and call out from work. “When I read end-of-day store sales reports, the one metric that makes me cringe more than any other is a high call out [number],” Nash wrote to employees in an email announcing the bonus. The email was sent in January 2022, when Maryland experienced more COVID-19 cases and deaths than at any other point during the pandemic. Nash added in his email that calling out leaves other workers with a bigger workload.
But the workload is nearly always too heavy due to improper staffing, says De Oliveira, whose role as a generalist includes working in the grocery department. The Baltimore store is the chain’s biggest and most profitable, she says, yet when making staffing decisions, corporate uses the average number of labor hours per department across all MOM’s stores.
De Oliveira offers a hypothetical example to illustrate the issue: If a smaller store’s produce department required 80 labor hours a week, that department could only schedule two full-time workers (or more part-timers working the same allocated hours). “But that doesn’t make sense because our store is much bigger. We need at least, I would estimate, one or two more employees [per department] than what the average is saying,” De Oliveira says. “Because we are getting employees at the average of other stores, we are always understaffed, which means we are basically working for two and we’re doing a bigger workload that was supposed to be divided by more employees.”
Fewer workers having to do more lifting and stocking is also a safety concern. De Oliveira says that grocery department workers don’t receive in-person training on ergonomic maneuvers and safe heavy-lifting practices; they watch training videos depicting what to do. “I’ve hurt myself twice because I didn’t know how to lift boxes with the proper form,” De Oliveira says.
Although the company promotes an open-door policy between employees and leadership—and also between customers and leadership, as Nash’s contact info is printed on every bag—workers at MOM’s say that when they’ve raised concerns with higher-ups, they’ve been ignored. After notifying leadership they had filed for union recognition in July, workers were subjected to mandatory captive audience meetings led by hired union-busting consultants. Workers said that Nash himself has participated in some of the meetings. An anonymous worker said of those meetings, “[Nash] doesn’t seem to be in touch with our issues. He doesn’t think that our issues are problems. He thinks that we’re already paid enough, and [that] he’s the most progressive boss in the world: ‘Google me.’”
If you do Google Scott Nash, you’ll encounter many articles about the lifelong environmentalist and pro-taxation multimillionaire who is referred to (by himself or others) as an “activist CEO” and a “food waste warrior.” Nash has advocated for raising workers’ wages, generally and in his stores specifically, calling it an “investment” in the company’s people. You’ll also find reporting from early in the pandemic, when workers at a Philadelphia MOM’s demanded better COVID safety measures and Nash said it didn’t seem possible; you can also find a blog by writer and union organizer Jon Reynolds about Nash’s views on unions, in which Nash is quoted directly, saying “corporations suck, so do unions, often for the same reasons and in the same way.”
Ostensibly liberal and nominally progressive CEOs at many other companies have expressed similar anti-union sentiments. Reynolds himself is a former employee of the vegan meat company No Evil Foods, which fired him and a coworker after they joined a union effort. (The NLRB later filed a complaint against the company and the matter was settled out of court.) “I personally believe the supposedly progressive mask these companies wear is there to detract unionization efforts—and when that doesn’t work, the mask comes off,” Reynolds told TRNN, pointing to similar union busting at “progressive” companies like REI and Starbucks. The latter’s CEO, Howard Schultz, has said that employees at the chain don’t need unions because of the company’s existing benefits.
Schultz, it would seem, is not the only one using this line to dissuade workers from unionizing. According to the anonymous worker who spoke with TRNN on Tuesday, MOM’s commitment to recycling even extends to anti-union talking points: “That’s another lie that they told us in the union-busting meetings: ‘People don’t need unions anymore. That’s why union leadership is down. The unions already did their job and they already did everything they need to do and we have the 40-hour work week and we have weekends.’ It’s funny saying that to grocery workers who often don’t have two days off in a row.”
Rogers, a worker-organizer, has labored in the service industry for most of his life and says he’s over the grind of a 50- and 60-hour work week. “I thought [working at MOM’s] was going to be a job where people would respect me and I can sort of have a chill existence in Baltimore,” Rogers says. “But basically right off the bat, I could see and hear and feel from my coworkers a lot of strife and a lot of just being pretty unhappy and pretty stretched thin. And it reminded me of, you know, every single other job I’ve ever had.”
MOM’s outwardly champions organizations engaged in advocacy work around environmental and racial justice causes, fair wages for workers, and ethical trade practices, among other issues. Its internal messaging seems to align with its public image, promoting a holistically healthy work environment through things like its “green” benefits, along with its standard benefits, including a paid leave policy with language that affirms employees’ need for “a healthy balance between professional and personal lives.” According to the current policy, salaried employees start accruing PTO hours on their first day of work, but hourly workers only begin accruing PTO after two years of work. All workers begin accruing Sick Leave hours from their first day. (A separate “one-time” COVID-19 leave policy offers “up to 5 scheduled consecutive days of paid time off for recovery/isolation” for fully vaccinated workers.)
Concern for employees, customers, and the environment is fairly common verbiage for a grocery chain these days, but the sustainability efforts at MOM’s often succeed in attracting “conscious” customers and workers alike.
Lesly Scott, a frequent MOM’s customer who showed up for Tuesday’s rally, shops at MOM’s because she appreciates its environmental efforts. She also disclosed that she has a family member who works at the store. Having worked in cooperative and collectively owned businesses in the past, Scott finds the current union wave across the country exciting. “It’s very encouraging and I feel like it’s really important to MOM’s,” she says. “It’s really critical that we be able to work one job and support ourselves and support our families. And we know that that’s not in any way feasible on $15 an hour.”
“The longer we decide that people’s livelihoods are disposable and replaceable, then the more we perpetuate the general illness of this society,” Scott says.
After the “Yes” votes came in on Friday, workers took turns making small speeches, expressing gratitude to the Teamster organizers, to each other, and to the public for showing up that week. “We’re just really excited to have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of our employment here at MOM’s, and we’re hoping to make this place a business where people can actually grow their life,” Rogers said on Friday. “The community has been so absolutely amazing, supporting us; it’s been incredible. We really pride ourselves on how we treat our customers, and I feel a legitimate sense of community here.”
While the union vote itself is a major victory, workers at MOM’s are under no illusions about the fight that still lies ahead to get to a first contract. Nevertheless, after last week’s rally and Friday’s union vote, the Hampden store’s workers feel bolstered by the community and ready for the next steps. “We need to stay with the fight,” Rogers said.