It seemed like any normal workday for Kimberly Jones at the ALDI grocery store in Utica, New York– as normal as it can be for a frontline worker during a pandemic. Jones had worked at ALDI for nearly three years but on June 16th, she was shocked to learn that her employment had come to an abrupt end. The reason for her termination: she wore a Black Lives Matter face mask on the clock.
“I had been wearing that mask for maybe about a week and a half with no issue and no incident. My store management saw nothing wrong with it and never said anything to me,” said Ms. Jones.
The district manager, Coreena D’Alfonso, came into the store and talked to Jones. “She was thanking me for being a great employee and handling the curbside pickups. Everything seemed fine,” said Jones. D’Alfonso left the store but came back a moment later.
Jones was first told by her manager, then by Coreena D’Alfonso to remove her mask for “violating company dress code.” She refused. Another employee was also wearing a Black Lives Matter mask and instructed by management to take it off, but unlike Jones, she complied and was allowed to stay. Still, other employees were also wearing masks with various designs not issued by the company.
“When they asked me to remove my mask, it seemed like discrimination to me.” Jones was never informed of any company policy about mask designs. She knew that only she and her coworker who had the same mask were targeted.
Fighting back tears, Kimberly Jones said, “It’s like they want us to leave our Blackness at the door. And that’s not something we can do.” After a pause, she continued, “But one thing I cannot leave at the door is my color. That goes with me every day, 24/7. I have children out here and I want to show them the right way to handle things, to stand up for themselves, not to back down out of fear.”
She refused to take her mask off, then was told to only come back to work without her Black Lives Matter mask. She saw her decision to refuse to take her mask off as her right as a worker and as a Black woman. She walked out the door, went to her car, and drove home.
The Fight for Black Lives Matter at ALDI
Jones’s family, friends, and other supporters immediately stepped into action and made her story public on social media. On her behalf, supporters launched a call-in and email campaign to pressure ALDI.
The pressure campaign worked. Later that day, ALDI offered Jones her job back. But it was too little too late. She thought the move was disingenuous and that management was more concerned with the company’s public image than her wellbeing. She first heard about management’s about-face from a post on a supervisor’s personal Facebook page. She was upset that the only Black manager that she knew in ALDI never reached out to her to check on her. This seemed to be the final straw that added to a pattern of racist incidents at ALDI over the years.
The company did not respond to repeated attempts for comment but did release a statement.
“In this pivotal time, we stand in solidarity with our black employees, communities and customers. While we have a standard uniform policy that all store employees are expected to follow, masks or other face coverings have never been a part of the ALDI uniform. Our team members are welcome to wear a face mask that supports racial equality, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and no employee will be reprimanded or terminated for doing so.”
The company’s stated policy stands as a sharp contrast to what Kimberly Jones actually experienced.
The earliest racist incident Jones recalled occurred in 2005 when she first applied to work at the store located in the bordering town of Yorkville. “I remember shopping in that store and never seeing anyone that looked like me.” She asked for an application and the white manager “looked at me and told me I have to go to Syracuse,” an hour’s drive west, to get an application to work at that store. She recalls the manager acting in a rude, demeaning manner and thought the request abnormal.
When she started working at ALDI three years ago it was at that very same location. Since then she has dealt with a number of racist comments, mostly from managers but on occasion from coworkers.
She recalls another incident when the manager at the Yorkville store told her, “Well it’s the first of the month. So make sure you stock a lot of corn. You know you Black people love your corn.” That manager was reported and the incident investigated but Jones says that nothing came of the investigation. In the summer of 2019, the same manager said that “ALDI only started hiring Black people because they were desperate.” Investigations seemed hollow and led nowhere, apologies were never made and on one occasion Kimberly Jones was asked if she, rather than a racist coworker, wanted to be transferred to another store to address the problem.
Jones does not see these events as isolated incidents but part of a deeper problem of institutional racism at the company. Commenting on the rarity of Black workers hired, she said, “ALDI itself is just a racist company.” To add more pressure, she is encouraging supporters to boycott ALDI.
This firing is part of a recent spate of retaliation against workers who wear items of clothing, masks, or buttons expressing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Similar firings (and in some cases re-hirings) of workers occurred this past week at Taco Bell and Facebook. Workers at Whole Foods in Seattle were asked by management to remove their Black Lives Matter masks or leave. One manager there equated BLM masks with Confederate flag masks. Starbucks reversed a corporate policy that forbade workers from wearing clothing in support of Black Lives Matter, but only after mounting public pressure to do so. ALDI is owned by the Albrechts, the same company that owns Trader Joe’s whose workers at stores across the nation are organizing for a union, fighting against keeping stores open after workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and experiencing similar struggles as Jones with wearing accessories in support of Black Lives Matter.
The IWW Model: “Direct Action Gets the Goods”
While this kind of pressure certainly helps in making these changes, workers have also taken matters into their own hands on the shop floor through organizing against racist policies and the broader exploitation they face from their bosses. Many of these actions have happened through unions.
The IWW has organized at a number of grocery stores and food co-ops across the US. ALDI however is currently non-union, and the company has bitterly fought unionization efforts in Germany, Ireland, and Australia for years. Although the IWW is not present at ALDI, the union has carved out some wins over very similar issues in other industries.
Most recently, workers with the IWW’s Burgerville Workers Union in Portland, Oregon successfully pushed the company to allow workers to wear Black Lives Matter buttons on the job. In August of 2018, union members at Burgerville effectively used collective action to force the company to give back wages to ten workers who, like Kimberly Jones, were forced to leave work for wearing political buttons. The following statement was released by the union on August 23, 2018:
Let’s be crystal clear: the only reason they changed this policy is because of the actions of our coworkers. When workers at Montavilla chose to not take off their “Black Lives Matter”, “No One Is Illegal” and “Abolish ICE” buttons – knowing they would be forced to go home – they used their collective power to denounce white supremacy and shut down the drive thru and dining hall, pushing Corporate to change their policy.Luis Brennan, BVWU
Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) member Luis Brennan who has worked at the company for six years said in a recent interview, “The company released a very milquetoast version of a Black Lives Matter solidarity statement with the slogan ‘allies for change.’” This practice of verbal support for the movement but retaliation against workers who express support with the movement is not unique to ALDI. Brennan added that recent events caused a manager at one BVWU location to go on a racist rant about BLM. Workers then organized to successfully get the manager removed from their store. It is not clear if they are still employed by Burgerville.
Brennan strongly emphasized that since he and his coworkers have a union presence at work, where workers are willing to fight and take collective action, has made all the difference. “Workers standing together, being in solidarity together, and holding the line put the company in a corner and they had to do something about it. The company finally came out and said union-made buttons can still be used.”
To Luis Brennan, the IWW model of direct action, is essential, for workers in all industries to come together and change the balance of power. He has seen that unfold in real life as a worker at Burgerville. “The reality is that because there is an organization – a union – in the workplace we’ve been able to track company behavior over time and continue to put pressure on them. And because we have solidarity on the shop floor, the company has to deal with an organized workforce.”
Another example of this collective action comes from IWW members organizing in the Minneapolis public school system who staged a successful action to show visible support for Black Lives Matter four years ago. An educator and union member, who requested to remain anonymous since their organizing is not yet public, talked about an action where organizers brought 100 Black Lives Matter buttons to school and distributed them. Because so many were wearing buttons, the administration was unable to retaliate against everyone.
“So they just gave people on our organizing committee a scolding about ‘being divisive and not coming up with a schoolwide plan’ (because we didn’t include bosses, snitches, or racist coworkers in our plan),” they said. They continued, saying that, “One of the things that was cool too is that the students at our school (90% students of color) quickly noticed that a ton of staff were wearing BLM buttons, and noticed which staff weren’t wearing them, and so the questions from students of ‘Why don’t you have a BLM button’ really created more social pressure that led to more staff asking our organizing committee for buttons. For the rest of the school year probably a majority of the staff wore BLM buttons without any issue from the bosses.” As the old IWW adage goes: “direct action gets the goods.”
In an example of mass collective action, on Juneteenth of 2020, workers and unions across the nation went on strike in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, including the IWW Freelance Journalists Union, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union which shut down 29 ports all along the West Coast. These strikes were two of many recent mass actions. According to Payday Report, a surge of over 500 strikes have occurred in the last three weeks. This is the most recent example in the long history of interwoven struggles of Black liberation and the labor movement.
Black Lives Matter and Beyond
Kimberly Jones credits collective action and the Black Lives Matter movement with providing a win for her at ALDI. “I definitely feel like they offered me my job back because the heat was so turned up on them,” she said.
“Black people, brown people, white people who were standing together and saying enough is enough,” is how she got her job back according to Jones. “They know they messed up and realized I was not one of those people who was just going to lie down and allow them to treat me unfairly. They realized I was loved and respected not only by their customers but also by my community.”
After much deliberation, Kimberly Jones decided to go back to work at ALDI. On her first day back she wore her Black Lives Matter face mask and was happy to see other coworkers wearing Black Lives Matter masks in an act of solidarity with her.
Kimberly Jones is no stranger to the power of collective action. She was one of the few people in the city of Utica who became active with Black Lives Matter in 2016. Because of her activism, she and her family were harassed by the Utica Police Department. Recently she attended the thousand-person strong Black Lives Matter protest in Utica and felt inspired by the multiracial group that assembled in Utica’s historic Oneida Square that day.
But to Kimberly Jones, her fight for racial justice is not just at ALDI. “As a black mother, I don’t just have as my only concern going into work and making statements there. I have to worry every time my son goes to work and I have to wonder if he gets stopped and says the wrong thing or reaches for his license the wrong way. Am I going to get that call to say I’ve lost a child? It makes it hard to sleep, function; it makes it hard to breathe.”
“It’s not fair that one group of people has just been so oppressed for so long and society and community and people will just turn their backs and act as if nothing happens, no matter how many videotapes we’ve seen these days,” she said. “It still continues to happen until we start taking care of real things, letting people know that enough is enough and letting all people know together that if we fight long enough and hard enough then eventually the movement will see progress.”
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is a member of the IWW and the IWW Freelance Journalists Union and organizer in Utica, NY. He writes for the Industrial Worker and his work has also been published in The Indypendent, Le Monde Diplomatique, and elsewhere.