Dozens of protesters crowded the sidewalk in front of Whole Foods Market on South Street on Sunday afternoon, demanding that the company allow employees to wear clothes and accessories emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter.”
The protest came days after employees at stores in multiple states reported that management asked them to leave the premises when they showed up wearing “Black Lives Matter” face masks and pins. Protesters at the South Philadelphia store on Sunday said that several employees there were sent home for the same reason last week.
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And one former employee of the store at Ninth and South Streets who was fired believes it happened two weeks ago for making and sharing posts on social media that criticized the store’s management for providing food to police during recent protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Megan Murray, 22, worked at the store for almost two years but said management did not give a reason for the firing. “I was told it was a major infraction,” Murray said.
A Whole Foods spokesperson said Murray’s firing was not retaliatory, but stemmed from posts on social media that were deemed threatening.
“The Team Member was presented with evidence that showed clear violation of our policies against behavior and language that is threatening, vulgar and obscene towards a Team Member and was separated as a result,” the statement said. “(Murray’s) actions were specifically directed towards an individual in the workplace and perceived as a safety threat. They were brought to our attention by fellow store Team Members.”
Murray denied threatening anyone at Whole Foods. “The threat here was PR blowback,” Murray said.
The group of protesters on Sunday, which included some current and former employees, picketed for more than an hour, chanting, waving signs, and attempting to talk shoppers out of patronizing Whole Foods. Some said Whole Foods wanted the benefits of appearing inclusive and supportive, by posting that “Racism has no place here” on the website and handing out T-shirts labeling their staffers “heroes,” but that such gestures were at odds with the reality of a company that ended hazard pay amid a pandemic and has been accused of employing aggressive anti-union tactics.
“Go across the street to the Acme!” one protester urged a young woman who was about to enter the store on Sunday, as cars drove by, honking their support. “It’s unionized!”
Whole Foods is the latest major company to draw backlash over Black Lives Matter. Earlier this month, some called for a nationwide boycott of Starbucks after BuzzFeed News reported that the coffee chain would not allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter apparel. Last week, the company reversed that position and announced it would make 250,000 shirts with “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace” designs to give to workers.
On Sunday, a spokesperson from Whole Foods said the company’s dress code “prohibits clothing with visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising that are not company-related.”
Murray said that in the days after widespread protests erupted across the city this month, employees of the South Philadelphia store learned that management gave free food to the police officers at the local station, which shares a building and garage with the store.
The Whole Foods spokesperson said that the giveaway consisted of prepared food that would have gone to waste when the store was evacuated on June 1. But it angered some staffers, Murray said, and several posted about it on social media, urging members of the public to call the store and voice their opinions.
Murray was fired soon after members of Whole Foods’ asset protection team interviewed Murray, and asked questions about the posts.
Murray and the other protesters said they want the store’s manager to be transferred, and for the company to allow all employees to display their support for the movement.