HelloFresh Layoffs Aren't Cause for Celebration
By Shiva Mishek
In his latest e-forum blast, Mayor Tom Butt announced the closing of the HelloFresh warehouse location in Richmond, which will result in the layoff of 618 workers. Butt triumphantly notes, “There was a union election that the RPA supported, but unionization was turned down by a vote of the workers.”
Given the brutal working conditions at the HelloFresh warehouse, I would hope that the mayor of my city would be right there, first supporting low income workers who are his constituents fighting for a safer workplace, and then expressing dismay and concern for hundreds of people who now have no income. These layoffs come in a fiscal year with abnormally high inflation rates and gas prices—and all in one of the most expensive regions in the country for housing.
Mayor Butt’s implication is, of course, that the workers’ attempt to unionize was at least partially responsible for the closing of the location. He ignores that HelloFresh isn’t doing well as a company. According to a Business Insider article published on October 14 about the warehouse closure, “HelloFresh's EBITDA fell nearly 23% in the six months through June 30, according to a recent earnings report. Shares of the Berlin-based company are down roughly 68% so far in 2022, falling farther than the broader market.”
Instead, Richmond’s mayor implies that the RPA tried to force a unionization effort on workers that they didn’t want. Conveniently ignored are the extensively documented efforts to aggressively union-bust at the location.
In 2021, as workers organized their union drive, HelloFresh brought in anti-union consultants to hold mandatory anti-union meetings (known as “captive audience” meetings, which diminish the success of unionization by 36%, according to one study, and are a tactic the National Labor Relations Board is considering making illegal). An anti-union firm known as Kulture Consulting, notorious for underhanded anti-union tactics and promoting right-wing conspiracy theories, was brought into the Colorado facility by HelloFresh management. Workers also reported multiple instances of management retaliation for their legal efforts to unionize.
An anti-union, captive audience session at HelloFresh, presented by Kulture Consulting. The firm was paid approximately $12,000*/day to disrupt the unionization drive. Photo courtesy of UNITE HERE.
That’s another important piece Mayor Butt excludes from his email: that the unionization effort took place in not just Richmond but also in Colorado— a bi-state effort that not only indicates the abuse endemic to the company’s working conditions, but also undermines his conspiratorial implication that RPA support for a union drive took down a mega-corporation.
And if Tom Butt had decided to meet with the workers at HelloFresh, he would know that they are residents of his city too: seniors, people of color, and undocumented residents who contribute just as much to the city as the corporations he runs so much cover for.
HelloFresh Working Conditions
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, HelloFresh did incredibly well: the company doubled its U.S. revenue to $2.4 billion. And as we’ve seen with other huge corporations who made a killing during the pandemic, these enormous profits did not make their way to workers. Instead, Richmond workers faced a host of issues many found unacceptable:
—Unsafe working conditions that led to serious injuries and chronic pain issues.
—Overt racism and abuse from shift supervisors and other management.
—Low wages. Many workers were reportedly unable to afford rent, and multiple workers were homeless while being employed by the company’s Richmond location.
—A degrading workplace environment, including being allotted only ten minutes to use the restroom.
—Illegal union-busting measures and retaliation.
—Poor COVID-19 safety measures. The Richmond facility had the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the entirety of Contra Costa County as of late 2021. After a warehouse inspection, the public health department recommended immediate action to improve safety. By then, families had reported that loved ones employed by the company had died of COVID-19.
As described in a Buzzfeed article dissecting the failed union effort: “'It’s hard for all workers to organize, but it’s especially hard for the more vulnerable workers to organize,' said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers. 'Campaigns of intimidation can be very successful because these workers know that they are living a precarious life. It really helps employers take advantage of employees when the employees feel fortunate to have a job instead of feeling they have a right to demand more.'”
From Labor Lab: "On the evening on January 31, 2022, a Redditor that goes by heftych0nk shared three images from HelloFresh's new employee orientation. The three slides are straight out of the union-busting playbook: workplace pressure, lies and intimidation, and delays."
With the warehouse closure comes 618 layoffs. That means people who need new jobs, who face new financial stress, and who will have much more trouble supporting their families and paying for housing. There are many things city leaders can do to support these workers, and I hope our mayor does at least some of them.
Mayor Tom Butt has worked hard to make Richmond hate and fear both the Richmond Progressive Alliance and our city’s labor unions. It’s certainly worked in some circles, and it seems to be the strategy the police union and Chamber of Commerce are relying on in this election cycle. Sinister mailers and billboards warn residents that people like me want to turn Richmond into a lawless hellscape.
For my part, I remain incredibly proud to volunteer with the RPA. I’m part of a group that supports unionization efforts in warehouses with bad working conditions. We walked the picket lines with USW Local 5 when Chevron denied their workers a fair contract and bussed in inexperienced scabs, thus endangering the whole city substantially (nary a word from Tom Butt during the months-long strike). I’m part of a group that has supported the $15 an hour minimum wage, made Richmond a sanctuary city for undocumented people, fought for rent control, and doesn’t revere Chevron as our benevolent benefactor, but recognizes the fossil fuel giant for what it is: a refinery that’s making our residents sick and has done untold, genocidal damage to our planet.
I anticipate that Mayor Tom Butt, who is terming out at the end of this year, will only be more exuberant in his denunciations of the RPA when he has more free time. He’s not going anywhere. But neither are we. We have actual work to do to support working families in our city.
Council member and RPA Co-chair Claudia Jiménez offers support to HelloFresh workers during their union drive.
HelloFresh warehouse workers at a union organizing meeting. Richmond Council members Claudia Jiménez and Gayle McLaughin pictured on the right. The banner behind Jiménez reads, "One job should be enough."
*Correction: This article originally said that the firm was being paid $3,000 per day. This has been updated to reflect the total amount paid to the firm per day, according to a report from the Department of Labor.