An update on the No Evil Foods campaign and the ongoing irony of using that brand name.
For a business named No Evil Foods (NEF), you might be surprised to know that nearly a third of its workforce have left since management busted the union drive.
Since the vote to unionize failed earlier this year, not only has the company taken retribution against anyone they believed was part of the organizing effort, there has also been a significant number of workers who no longer felt welcome and chose to find an employer with less hostility directed towards them. In the three months following the vote, at least 19 of the 60 production floor workers have been fired or have quit. All of this in the midst of the worst unemployment since the great depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Industrial Worker spoke with many of these workers for this follow up article, including Jon Reynolds and Cortne Lee Roche, the two workers who have pending cases with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against NEF, for illegally firing them as retribution for organizing. Due to the small community of foodservice type business owners in Asheville, most of the workers continue to request anonymity. For purportedly not being evil, the workers and ex-workers of NEF seem very concerned about being bullied by management even beyond its own factory doors.
As of the writing of this article, the NLRB has not provided a final decision regarding Jon and Cortne’s cases. However, the battles fought by all of the courageous workers involved in organizing have resulted in certain positive impacts for the workers still on the NEF factory floor. Specifically, the workers organized and demanded hazard pay, protective equipment, and paid sick leave; NEF management has claimed these concessions as their own ideas and generous actions. Speaking with the workers who paid the price for these victories tell a different story.
Management taking credit is “absolutely what happened while the union drive was going on,” an anonymous ex-worker said. “It was not a coincidence that shift differentials kicked in days before the union filed. It was not a coincidence that almost no one was written up or fired for the duration of the union drive. It was not a coincidence that Mike and Sadrah suddenly decided to come out of their office and talk to people and ‘get to know them’ during the union drive either.”
Cortne said it even more directly, “Sure, we didn’t win a right to negotiate a contract for a legally binding agreement on conditions, but we did make an impact.” On the company website, NEF has provided a list of ways they say they are taking care of their workers.
“Many of those points are certainly misleading and mischaracterize what it actually is like day to day on the work floor,” Cortne continued. “I feel to an extent, annoyed because these changes were not simply done out of the kindness of the owners’ heart, we pushed them for these things. We pushed for immediate and permanent hazard pay. We pushed for safety protocols and then those same protocols which cannot always be followed were used against workers to fire them (inarguably the least safe course of action during a pandemic). They claim to have done all this ‘11 Days before Stay Safe order in NC’, but that was because Buncombe County and the City of Asheville declared the order at that time. They used the stress of the situation against people by forcing workers to choose between 3 options and by threatening the employment of those who stayed whenever possible to keep us quiet.”
Early in the life of NEF, when founders Sadrah Schadel and Mike Woliansky were selling their seitan-based meats at Asheville farmer’s markets, there were warning signs of the deceptive practices later to become a serious tension between workers, management, and eventually customers.
“Back in their beginning farmer’s market days, when asked what the product was made of, the booth attendants were instructed to never mention the ‘G’ word – gluten – unless absolutely pressed. Very telling,” explained one ex-worker. Seitan is made of vital wheat gluten as opposed to tofu, and NEF wanted to avoid their product being connected with the general public’s increased concern with wheat and gluten allergies.
When they were small and doing everything mostly by hand, this ex-worker said they were excited about the people he worked with and for, and the company in general. Once the investment money started pouring in, he said it became very adversarial to work there with management doing whatever it wanted regardless of the rules while workers were being punished left and right.
“They pushed the facility way beyond capacity where production was dangerous and unsanitary, and they just didn’t care. They took on Walmart before they got a new facility and it was really the final straw for a lot of us because there is no business in this country that has been as detrimental to small businesses like Walmart,” this ex-worker said. “So, to push that image we’re a mom and pop shop but sell to Walmart was terrible.”
The donation of $5,000 to Schools for Chiapas as a way of proclaiming some sort of alliance with the Zapatista movement was another sleight-of-hand for the sake of branding. In reality, NEF is merely appropriating and co-opting leftist imagery for the sake of branding.
“This commodification of the proletarian imagery is disrespectful to the people that actually fought, and in many cases died, for those causes, and here we are as workers suffering under [NEF management],” an ex-worker explained. “This is what really gets me upset.”
Even with the very public shaming of NEF by the Schools for Chiapas on twitter, the company is moving forward with the depiction of a female samurai warrior as the branding of their new “Sakura” cherry teriyaki jerky product. This move has caused many of those interviewed for this story to question whether the company is capable of learning from its past mistakes.
“I don’t think they’ll ever concede that they have done anything wrong,” said ex-worker Meagan Sullivan. “One of the reasons I quit was because no matter how much I wanted to keep fighting for a contract, the longer I was there the more I felt like they would never do the right thing.”
Meagan and others believe that NEF must be held to a higher standard than say a Tyson Foods because NEF is profiting off an image of leftist values. “Holding them to this higher standard is justifiable because they themselves say they are better than other companies. You see all of these posts recently on their social media accounts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but you won’t actually see them in the streets doing anything about it. There was a black, trans woman working for NEF briefly but they left after feeling bullied. Even one whole family had been working there, and most of them were vocally anti-union because they believed in what management was saying; but, most of them have left the company now too because of the retaliation.”
Online, more and more vegan activists have called for NEF to change course. Several have pointed out that NEF is not being intersectional and is not living up to the anti-oppressive ideals that veganism is meant to embody. The response to most of those activists has been NEF blocking their accounts.
One anonymous worker said, “I hope the pressure makes a change and allows for NEF to learn from the mistakes they’ve made. With who they have running the show I don’t know if anything will really change. I know for a fact they pulled the trigger on more pay because they found out that almost all the employees wanted hazard pay and had a petition.”
“I think if we could look at the list of banned accounts from NEF’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter it would speak volumes,” Jon said.
Those online actions have had some real-world impacts as well, however, including bringing the union-busting and worker abuses to light at the Just Economics of Western North Carolina nonprofit, which certifies regional businesses for providing a living wage. Due to the actions of NEF, the companies living wage certification has been suspended pending the results of the NLRB case.
Yet another organization that NEF claims an alliance with is UpSkill Western North Carolina to provide employment to formerly incarcerated workers. This is absolutely another cause that could be applauded if what many of NEF’s ex-workers claim that the UpSkill workers are being exploited by management were completely unfounded.
“They hire formerly incarcerated employees, and the trend I’ve noticed is those people do not really stand up to the owners or management. They do not get involved in organizing, because if they lose that job, they are going to end up at Burger King. They seem to look to hire people who aren’t going to question them these days,” said another anonymous worker. “No Evil uses the tactic of making all sorts of meaningless tiers to the positions as well, leading some workers to sell out the other workers for a dime or a quarter raise.”
Ultimately all of the workers that spoke with Industrial Worker said they’ve learned a great deal about the relationship between capital and labor – lessons they won’t forget.
“I didn’t really know which way to vote, [NEF] had good lawyers, which helped them run the busting campaign and they swung me to vote no because I thought they had good moral values and had our back. Oh boy was I wrong,” another ex-worker said. “I left before they could fire me, others weren’t so lucky. I feel like the firings weren’t warranted, [management] would write up a whole room of us and never tell anyone but then use that as a reason to fire people.”
When management is not held to any specific contract with its workers, there is very little recourse for the workers to take if they aren’t organized. Everyone interviewed who worked directly with either Jon or Cortne has recounted how both were genuinely hard workers who seemed to truly care about what NEF claimed to stand for.
“If I could go through the whole experience again, I would take a much more proactive and vocal role during those surreal captive audience meetings,” yet another ex-worker said. “However, at the time they were incredibly divisive and hostile, and I felt too overwhelmed and outnumbered to speak up. Seeing as I didn’t even get the courtesy of an exit interview, it was clear that staying quiet in an attempt to not make myself a target didn’t matter in the end. This whole experience was incredibly demoralizing and made me personally lose all respect for NEF. The worst part is that they seem to truly believe they did nothing wrong.”
Ultimately, Cortne, who said she would be willing to return to NEF if they took responsibility and started doing the right thing. She didn’t seem to think that was likely to happen, but said, “there is always hope because there is always change. Through experience, trial, and error, true knowledge is formed. I think my mindset generally did not change, but specifically, I was exposed to the novel ways anti-union propaganda divides workers. It also exposed further the inability of any capitalist business to be any kind of revolutionary or pro-worker, for the two are in direct contradiction to one another. As well as the limitations of veganism, which is a part of individualist purity politics as praxis. Though I have been through previous union campaigns and have gone through IWW organizing training, the circumstances of organizing at this company were quite difficult and eye-opening to the depths that a real ideological struggle is needed to unite the working class.”