The following piece was written by Jon Reynolds, co-host of LaborLab's podcast 43-15.
From No Evil Foods, which has "revolutionary" founders who sell products like "Comrade Cluck", to MOM's Organic Market, which is led by the "most liberal" CEO one will ever meet, all of the companies we've covered so far on the 43-15 podcast have wrapped themselves in "progressive" branding.
Petco, however, does not meet this description.
Before our podcast interview with Sydney and Olivia, two pet stylists organizing with UFCW Local 3000 in Seattle, I spent a good portion of the day watching interviews with Petco's CEO, Ron Coughlin. Flipping through CNBC, Yahoo! Finance, Fox Business, and a dozen other YouTube videos with Coughlin, I took note of the topics he discussed: inflation, inventory, supply chain, input costs, demand, marketing, e-commerce. Not once did I hear him talk about wages, about benefits, or about his workers. Coughlin isn't spinning his ballcap backwards and pretending to be a "cool" boss. And his background makes it very clear why.
Four years at HP. Over a decade at PepsiCo. Bachelors in International Marketing, a Masters in Business Administration. Coughlin is a numbers guy and it shows. On Fox Business, he even made reference to the "furry annuity" concept, which is based around Coughlin essentially seeing an increase in pet ownership as an investment opportunity. "They're going to need to be groomed, trained. They'll need vets, they'll need food for the next decade. So in some ways, it's like the baby boom that happened post-WW2 but this is just the pet version of it, and we think we're really well positioned to take advantage of it."
The pets are one part of the numbers game; how fast employees can work with those pets is the other part.
"To make an amount that's livable, for me at least, I have to literally not take breaks, not take my lunches, squeeze on to my schedule as many dogs as I possibly can to make sure I'm making enough for that day to be able to make dinner or buy a tank of gas or to take care of my animals because this hourly wage is nothing for the area," said Olivia, one of the Petco workers we spoke with. "In the 2 1/2 years I've worked here I've only gotten a 70 cent raise."
Hourly pay is "subtracted from the amount you get in commission," Olivia told us. "Usually groomers can do anywhere between $1500 to $2400 a week in sales. And then after that, the number you get after you subtract those two numbers, you get a percentage of that, and that's your commission. So as pet stylists you get 50%, as pet stylist pro you get 55%, and it comes out to a very, very small number, I'm talking less than a couple hundred dollars when you're doing thousands of dollars in sales for Petco as a company."
"So basically this is incentivizing you to move faster and do more sessions with the dogs?" I asked.
"Absolutely," Olivia replied. "It's incentivizing you to not only do that, but to force these add-ons to all your clients packages, and all of their grooming things, some of which their dogs might not even need. It's incentivizing you to constantly push things down their throats instead of actually focusing on what does this dog need and how often they really need to get groomed. It's making you see the animals as a number on your paycheck rather than something you can connect with, a client you can form a bond with, and a dog you can make sure is actually leaving happy at the end of the day."
"We also have a certain amount we have to make in order to get commission," Sydney, another stylist we spoke with for the episode, told us. "For the whole week, if you don't make a certain amount of money, you don't get your commission at all. You can be $1 behind and you won't get any of your pay for that week."
There are no exceptions for stylists who get sick and therefore miss their required numbers. They only get tips, no commission. And adding insult to injury, stylists also have their numbers posted up in the store for all workers to see, which is yet another factor that increases pressure to work faster.
"This is something that could be fixed by a union, right?" I asked.
"Absolutely," Olivia replied. "I feel like a big problem with these big box chain pet stores is that a lot of the people at the top don't actually work with animals. They don't know anything about animals, about grooming, they're just corporate people and they don't understand what it's like to be in the store on a daily basis. Having a union means we get to show them what is happening, what is wrong, and what needs to be fixed. At they actually have to sit down with us and hear us out. Because at the end of the day, we're the ones doing the hard work and they don't know what's happening or they do and they just ignore it."
Meagan, my podcast co-host, asked our guests how management has conducted themselves since they went public with the union. Olivia told us they began with the "appeasement stage" and started being really "cool" with everyone, whereas beforehand they made it clear they didn't care. Management realizes the "whole store is upset, so let's try to make them happy. Meanwhile, their lawyers are in the background trying to figure out how to break up our bargaining unit."
So far, only one lawyer is listed on the NLRB website as representing Petco: Ron Holland, currently with McDermott Will and Emory LLP. Holland "has counseled many Fortune 500 companies on labor strategy, union avoidance, and responding to union-backed corporate campaigns," according to the National Law Review. The Labor Relations Institute, a notorious union busting firm, also listed Holland in their "Top 100 Labor Attorneys" from 2006 to 2017.
"Unfortunately, we had to withdraw from our hearing because our subpoenas didn't go out in time and they were able to get through with a loophole and they did not provide the information our lawyers needed in order to make a claim that would be substantial that our bargaining unit is valid, so we withdrew for now," Olivia told us. "And they took unprecedented action against us when they tried to appeal our withdrawal, which would've made it so we couldn't refile for six months."
"It's clear Petco is trying to drag out the process," Sydney added.
Right now, Olivia and Sydney are "regrouping" and plan to refile. They also expressed confidence that they have unanimous support in their store for a successful union push but are also disgusted by the amount of money Petco is apparently willing to pay for a union busting lawyer while letting staff work with a broken AC.
Towards the end of our call, I mentioned how unlike the other companies we've covered on the podcast, Petco doesn't advertise themselves as progressive. Of course since the union drive, that's now starting to change.
"They've been putting out the progressive stuff ever since we went public," Olivia told us. "We have this Petco Facebook page that all the workers are on and he [the CEO] keeps posting about how his workers are the secret sauce to the company and he wouldn't be where he is without us. All of this stuff that isn't true, he doesn't care about us. We're exploited for our labor, he knows that, we know that, and we all have to sit there and read it without being able to comment under it."
Petco is a company without the mask, only now putting it on, which is a perfect illustration of how such a disguise is used as a deterrent against union drives. For Petco workers organizing in Seattle, it's too little too late.
"We have such a strong foundation," Olivia said. "I don't think we're going to lose this, and at the end of the day, they can pull out all the tricks they want, it's fine, we're ready for it. We're here for the long run, we're going to fight them, and hopefully we're going to win. We're trying to do something positive for the company as a whole."
Published September 15, 2022