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Report Back from DC: Standing in Solidarity with Fellow Worker Julia Flores

By Anonymous Contributor - It's Going Down, May 20, 2017

On April 30th, the DC Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a picket in support of fellow worker Julia Flores, a member of the IWW and the Comité de Apoyo Laboral y Poder Obrero (the Comité), who was wrongfully terminated by Whole Foods in September 2016. After 15 years of service, Whole Foods retaliated against Julia for collectively organizing to win back a fellow worker’s job. Since Julia’s wrongful termination, she has made several appeals to the company’s local and regional leadership only to be dismissed without justice. In December 2016, the manager who terminated Julia, Victor Vazquez,  was fired along with eight other managers, for ‘stealing bonuses’. Our picket was not only in support of Julia’s Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) claim but to demand her reinstatement as well as restitution.  Our message to Whole Foods and the surrounding employers was clear: We, the workers of the District of Columbia, will not tolerate repression of fellow workers, retaliation for organizing our workplaces, or wage theft. An injury to one is an injury to all!

Our coalition was comprised of around sixty comrades including members of Many Languages One Voice (MLOV), the Comité, the IWW and its General Defense Committee (GDC), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Socialist Alternative, Future is Feminist, DC Stampede, DC Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and the Socialist Snack Squad. We assembled at 10:30 am to review our overall strategy, our contingency escalation plan, and individual roles. The fulcrum of the action was a delegation of five comrades that accompanied Julia to Whole Foods to present her demands to the store manager in advance of the picket. Unsurprisingly, Whole Foods refused to negotiate and demanded the delegation leave the store. While we had no illusion that the bosses had any intention of conceding, workers organizing an effective picket should clearly articulate their demands to both the bosses as well as to the wider community.  The delegation relayed the details of their meeting to the picket and then proceeded to canvas nearby businesses to put pressure on Whole Foods. At each stop the delegation explained the circumstances of Julia’s wrongful termination, Whole Food’s history of worker repression, and the delegation’s recent treatment by the store manager.

After giving the delegation time for negotiations, our picket began its two-block march to to Whole Foods at 12:30 pm. For the Sunday brunch crowd in the solidly gentrified Logan Circle neighborhood, the sound of militant workers demanding justice, loudspeakers blazing, and a sea of crimson banners and placards heralded our approach. Upon arriving and learning of the breakdown in negotiations, we initiated our escalation plan by forming a revolving picket that extended down the sidewalk across both entrances of the storefront. This tactic forced shoppers to join our picket queue to either enter or leave the store. Our marshalls reinforced this tactic by marshalling “facing out” to ensure the safety of both the picket and bystanders including de-escalating shoppers attempting to cross straight through our picket line. Similarly, workers were posted on our flanks to distribute flyers and speak with potential shoppers and bystanders. One on one outreach played a critical role in the action, turning many potential shoppers away and even inspiring some to participate in the action. Throughout the action, fellow workers took to the soapbox positioned at the center of our picket to lead us in militant (and sometimes clever and amusing) chants, as well as to share updates from the delegation. Every worker helped ensure a consistent level of energy and tenacity by periodically rotating roles and responsibilities.

Picketing in solidarity with a ULP claim is legally protected activity. It is explicitly unlawful for employers to fire workers for respecting the picket line or participating directly in the action. Nevertheless, workers cannot rely on the protection of a state and legal system designed to serve the interests of the bosses and maintain the economic, political and social domination of Capital. The police arrived within minutes of initiating our picket. Promptly intercepting them, our police liaison calmly explained the objectives of our picket (under the watchful eye of our NLG comrades) and requested that all concerns be funnelled to them. Fifteen minutes later a second wave of police arrived on the scene. The rapid multiplication of police presence was obviously designed to intimidate us. They were out for any excuse to bring down the hammer on us. However, much to the credit of our police liaison and the excellent discipline maintained by the picket, the bulk of the law enforcement  presence soon dwindled to single squad car.

The date of our picket coincided with the Workers March in DC, an rally and march through DC in anticipation of May Day, organized by a cross-section of workers groups from the DC, Maryland and Virginia area.  We had arranged with comrades organizing the Workers March to plan their route to join our picket at Whole Foods. At 4:00 pm the Workers’ March arrived. With our numbers bolstered, we expanded our picket from the sidewalk to the street where fellow worker Julia addressed her former employer from the bullhorn: “I gave you 15 years of my life,” she exclaimed, “It is not right that you threw me out.” Julia continued with determination, as a growing number of passers-by stopped to listen. “I would like to have a Whole Foods leader experience what I have went through. What it’s like for your children to ask you for food when you don’t have any. What it’s like to be without work, without money…” she continued defiantly, her voice clear and resolute. By the end of Julia’s speech it was clear that our demonstration had deeply affected the crowd gathering around us. “This isn’t the end,” she promised. “We will be back!”

Capitalism reduces us to mere commodities. So long as we are docile, dependent, and immiserated the Capitalist class will continue to exploit our labor and our lives to feed their ever-mounting fortunes. Whenever we stand up to better our condition, to agitate, organize, and take action against this system of organized theft, we are one step closer to dismantling it.  Though we did not succeed in winning Julia’s job back that day, the level of solidarity from the neighborhood was truly remarkable. An estimated one out of four potential customers respected the picket line. Some marched alongside us for hours on end. For many, however, we watched as their veneer of  feigned progressivism receded before the prospect of an inconvenient detour to a different grocery store. Of those that crossed the picket line in this predominantly white upper-middle class neighborhood, their indifference, indignation, and disdain only strengthened our resolve.  At the end of the day, we hit Whole Foods where it hurts them most: their sales targets on what would have otherwise been another lucrative Sunday afternoon. The bosses hate nothing more than lost profits, especially at the hands of organized workers. Sooner or later, worker solidarity and sustained direct action will always get the goods.