69. Vegan Union-Busters: Lush Cosmetics w. Hannah

Rundown

In this episode, Mexie talks with former Lush Cosmetics employee, Hannah, about the company’s gross union-busting tactics and why she and others formed the Global Lush Union. As the mainstream vegan movement continues to focus itself on consumption under capitalism, it’s no wonder that vegan brands are replicating the same kind of colonizing and inequality-producing tendencies of capitalism itself.

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Transcript

F1:  [MUSIC] How can we not only discover more compassionate relations with human beings but how can we develop compassionate relations with the other creatures with whom we share this planet?

F2:  There’s an us before the wound, there’s an us before oppression, and to me pleasure is the way that we tap down into that.

F3:  We live in capitalism.  Its power seems inescapable.  So did the divine right of kings.

MEXIE:  Hey everyone, welcome to the Vegan Vanguard.  It is Mexie and today we have on Hannah who is a former Lush Cosmetics employee to talk about the company’s union-busting and why she and others formed the Global Lush Union.  We have talked previously on the podcast about vegan companies engaging in union-busting and other anti-labor practices.  If you will remember about a year ago, we had on workers from No Evil Foods which is a vegan company that branded itself using socialist iconography which not only busted up unionization efforts a year ago but recently fired all of their employees without severance.  Absolutely unbelievable, so please go follow @soevilfoods on Instagram to see how you can help support those workers.

I believe they’re on Twitter as well, but as you probably know, I have deleted my Twitter.  But it’s really sad that the mainstream vegan movement has been so co-opted by capital.  It’s been so focused on consumerism and just trying to get everyone to buy vegan products that it hasn’t been terribly effective in actually transforming government policies.  I mean, certainly there have been great victories, right, but it hasn’t been terribly effective in transforming our global food systems for lasting animal liberation.  As we talk about a lot, we’re killing and people are eating more animals today than ever before.

Yes, of course our population has grown, but meat consumption is also rising at a pace that is outstripping population growth, so it’s just really sad to see the mainstream vegan movement so co-opted, amenable, so fused with capitalism that it’s just becoming yet another capitalist industry that harms workers who are human animals, right?  On this podcast we’ve talked a lot about how we can’t consume our way to animal liberation.  That’s not a path to victory.  I’m hoping to have on Vegan BatGirl from Instagram at some point to talk about the importance of actually lobbying governments to change policies and enacting more spicy actions for more transformative change, because policy changes don’t happen based purely on consumer choices, right?

No matter how we are consuming, whether or not we are consuming 100% vegan products, our tax dollars are still largely going to prop up the animal agriculture industry.  Again, consumption alone is not a root to transformative change.  In that understanding — in broader understanding of capitalism and colonialism and how these systems oppress and exploit and harm both human animals and other animals, it’s understandable that in the mainstream movement that has become so amenable to capitalism and so focused on policing people’s grocery lists rather than looking critically at global systems, it’s unsurprising that many vegan companies, even the ones like Lush and So Evil Foods who market themselves as equitable and sustainable end up being just like any other big capitalist company and are very anti-worker.

I’m going to link a few articles below the people can check out which show details of the letters that Lush sent to employees which are egregious.  If people don’t know what Lush Cosmetics is, it is, I mean, exactly that; well, it mainly sells soaps and shampoos and things like that, but made out of natural products.  Their products are — I think about 95% vegan and the rest vegetarian.  So, anyway, Hannah goes over some of the letters that Lush sent to employees, which I mentioned are quite egregious.  But if you’d like to see more and learn more, check out the pieces that I’ve linked.

Just to clarify the timeline, the unionization drive started at Lush manufacturing plants in Toronto and then when the company basically crushed that and ended up threatening workers in the US and elsewhere who expressed support for the Toronto workers, Hannah and others began the Global Lush Union to raise awareness and garner support for workers wanting to unionize at Lush stores globally.  They’ve also started a petition demanding that Lush refrain from anti-union tactics and asking it to publicly state it will bargain in good faith with any union chosen by Lush employees.  We have linked to that petition below in the show notes.  Please go check that out.  Lastly before we dive into it, thank you to our new patron supporters Alli, Kurt Krueger, and Rae.  This is a donor-funded show.

We rely on all of you and your generous donations to keep this show going.  If you would like to become a sustaining member, you can go to patreon.com/veganvanguard and for just $2 a month, you can join our Total Liberation Discord server.  I co-host that with Kathrin and Mad Blender.  We host chats, political chats on there, community chats twice per month which are always a really great time.  There’s other perks you could check out as well if you wanted to support.  As always, giving us ratings and reviews on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us really helps us out, really makes a difference.  If you can’t support us monetarily, take a minute — you must, you must take a minute to go do that.  Anyway, enough with all the calls.  Let us get into the interview.

[MUSIC]

HANNAH:  My name is Hannah.  I have been with Lush for five going on six years now, and I work in the retail sector, so I am actually in a shop in New York City, Lush Upper West Side.  I’ve gone through all the roles at Lush, so I’ve been a seasonal sales ambassador all the way up to my current position which is a floor leader.  That’s essentially — you’re in charge of not only selling but also developing your team as well and doing coaching and feedback for your sales ambassadors.

MEXIE:  So, for people who are unfamiliar with the brand, how does Lush market itself with regards to equity and sustainability?

HANNAH:  So, Lush doesn’t necessarily state it’s an ethical company outright because they do believe that being a ethical company should just be part of your daily business practices, but a lot of their brand values are based on ethics and sustainability.  So for example, they’ve done a lot of campaigns around gay is okay or refugees are welcome to highlight different human rights crises and issues.  They also have an ethical charter where they’ve done a lot of work with fighting animal testing, and they do a lot of naked packaging to help with the environment.  So, they do — even though they don’t want to promote themselves as ethical outright, if that makes sense, they do do a lot of — like, ethical is part of their brand values.

MEXIE:  Mm-hm.  Yeah, absolutely, and they are — I think I said that they are about 95% vegan and the rest vegetarian, so they do brand themselves that way as kind of conscious of animal cruelty and in support of animal liberation.  I believe also they are kind of careful about their sourcing or they say that they try to source materials — I found this interesting; they try to source materials from sellers that have good labor practices, and they define that as being pro-worker and pro-union and things like that.  So, a bit hypocritical, no?

HANNAH:  Yes, definitely.  It’s very different working directly with Lush versus how they — the expectations they have for suppliers.

MEXIE:  Right.  Yeah, so very hypocritical there.  So, I guess let’s get into what it was like working for the company.  What were some of your concerns and grievances and if you know about it, maybe some of the experiences of workers in other places, right, so in Canada or globally?

HANNAH:  Yeah, so I will say in the beginning working at Lush — and I think this also speaks to a lot of people’s experiences; it feels really good to feel like you’re — like, you’re bought into the company.  You think that it’s amazing that they take a stance on so many different issues and that they have all these brand values such as what we’ve been talking about; animal testing — fighting animal testing and being vegan and vegetarian.  So, there was a large honeymoon period.  Then I think that for me working through the pandemic is what really shifted my viewpoint of Lush.  I feel that that’s exactly why workers started to unionize to begin with.  A big complaint that we’ve always had with the company is our wages.  They do consider themselves a company that pays above minimum wage, but they use the Mercer Report for a lot of their wage grids, and that’s only paying a little bit above the market level of what people are being paid.

So, it’s not like they’re paying a living wage for their employees.  The expectations that you have as a salesperson just exceed that of other retailers.  Like, I’ve worked at Sephora, I’ve worked in other beauty retailers and it’s so different, the amount of knowledge that you need to have, the expectations of the entire customer experience, so to only pay a little bit above what other companies are paying and then to say you’re not a minimum wage company just feels like a slap in the face.  So, that is a major issue that’s been around for a long time.  Then through the course of the pandemic, it’s been a struggle in retail.  I feel for all my retail employees because there have been so many shifts within the company since reopening.  Like, they said that employee wellness and safety were top priority and so, it just doesn’t seem that way.  It doesn’t translate.  For example, when we first reopened — New York is different because our shops didn’t open until later because of mandates, but the company relaunched — launched a reopening guide, and originally masks weren’t mandated last year.

MEXIE:  Wow.

HANNAH:  Yeah, and that drove a lot of people to leave.  Then finally they were like oh, no, we’re gonna have customers wear masks, we’re gonna have employees wear masks.  We started with doing storefront shopping, and that was — it was a little bit of a struggle to get into just ‘cause we were all concerned with the pandemic and not knowing.  Now it’s been a year, so we all are living through it.  But in September of last year, they shifted to in-store shopping.  They were just like yeah, we’re gonna go to in-store shopping every shop.

Then after that, it was like they were gonna increase capacities in the stores when they did that, and finally what drove me to put in my notice is just recently they’ve removed mask mandates for all shops.  Even without verifying if employees are fully vaccinated, so it’s just scary to work with the public.  I have a child that’s under the age of vaccination, so for me that was a big factor in needing to take a step back from the company.  But I feel like a lot of those grievances and feeling like our health and safety are not top priority even though they say that they are.

MEXIE:  Right, absolutely.  In your work with other employees of Lush globally, would you say that those are similar grievances elsewhere?

HANNAH:  Yeah, definitely.  Those are similar grievances with everyone I’ve spoke about in retail.  In terms of the drive for organizing in Toronto, when that started in last October, it was because the manufacturing workers were working all through the pandemic.  I think there was just a — maybe two or three weeks where they closed everything, and then they went right back to work.  Prior to the pandemic, those workers were being paid bonuses based on how much — their quotas they met, and due to the pandemic, Lush completely got rid of that and then didn’t pay a hazard pay.

For retail, I think for — I’m not sure exactly what staff members, but a bunch of people are being paid a dollar extra an hour premium, but that’s not hazard pay, especially when you consider that we used to have bonuses, and they’ve taken those away.  When they first started doing the premium — or before they did the premium, they weren’t even supplying hazard — like, PPE until there was a big backlash, and then they started providing PPE.  You know, a dollar is not much.

MEXIE:  No, that’s absolutely unbelievable.  Okay, so could you tell us a bit about how the union drive came together?  I guess you’ve addressed a number of concerns, but what specifically workers were or are continuing to fight for?

HANNAH:  Yeah, so, when the — like, when they started the organizing drive in Toronto, the main grievances and concerns were the living wage.  There was a lack of transparency within the company, especially regarding favoritism for employees who are getting promoted or getting their seasonal contracts turned into permanent positions and the low, unreduced wages.  So, not only not paying a living wage, but also taking away part of your pay, part of their pay.  That’s what they were all unionizing for, and then they were met with a lot of union-busting from the company.

MEXIE:  Right, so the — sorry, the union drive started in Toronto and then has now become a global movement, right?

HANNAH:  Yes, yeah.  So, when it started, it started October 2020, and we’ve now reached out to a lot of different retail employees, so retail is now part of this where originally it was just manufacturing and distribution that were gonna be a part of the unionizing efforts.  We’ve also reached out to Australia, so we’ve been in touch with them, and we’re — the Global Lush Union is a — it’s a show of solidarity with all workers throughout Lush and allowing us to have a platform to talk about unionizing without repercussions.  I don’t know, just to have workers connect with each other and feel like they’re not alone in that — in their experiences.

MEXIE:  Right, yeah, absolutely.  So, I guess in terms of the initial union drive in Toronto then, how did Lush respond and what union-busting tactics did they pull out, and how did these impact workers, so both those who were fired — I guess it’s a spoiler alert of some of how they responded — and also those who remained?

HANNAH:  Yeah, so, the company’s response to that unionizing drive was to pass out anti-union leaflets which suggested that union workers were giving false information.  Well, workers trying to unionize were giving false information to other workers, but within those leaflets they said that unions in Canada are businesses.  They tried to frame the workers who were unionizing as villains.  They hosted anti-union meetings and then they made it so that the workers who were attempting to unionize were being met with intimidation; like, they were being followed or they weren’t allowed to work with other workers.  Then, like you said, spoiler alert; one of the main unionizers lost their seasonal contract because of that.

They were called back in I think — I think it was March of this year, but they only had a six-week contract and then that was terminated as well.  When we’re talking about those types of seasonal contracts, Lush is a seasonal business when it comes to their distribute — like, when it comes to their manufacturing because times like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day and Christmas are big drives for the company.  So, they’ll call workers, offer those specific periods of time on seasonal contracts, but someone like Chris, he was on seasonal contracts that had to be signed every two weeks for like, two full years.  To me, that doesn’t seem like a seasonal contract; it just seems like a way for the company to not give employees benefits that they deserve for working for two full years with the company.

MEXIE:  Absolutely, yeah, having to sign again every two weeks?  That is absolutely ridiculous.  I guess could you speak a bit more to the kind of information that they were circulating in the leaflets and at the meetings?  I saw something about them really trying to scare people into thinking that they were gonna have to pay so much in union fees or union dues, and just a number of ridiculous things.

HANNAH:  That’s exactly what you said, like, they were stressing that unions were businesses.  They were stressing that you’d have to end up paying more being in a union through union dues, and to ultimately scare people out of unionizing.  Yeah, so, in the main lines, it’s like, many of us have never been unionized.  Many of us do not know what unions are or how they work.  Don’t get tricked signing a union card or signing anything through a handout or a web page — means you are agreeing to a legal contract with the union.  That legal contract could over be over — could be over a hundred pages long.  You should not sign anything you have not read.  Ask questions about — yeah.

Then, they say that in the days ahead, we — this was in the holiday season so this is already passed, but in the days ahead, we will give every current seasonal employee more information about union dues, union initiation fees, union special assessments, union strikes, union discipline, and union fines.  Your right to not be harassed or pressured into signing a union card.  So, even what they are talking about, the four key points that they’re listing are all — not necessary — like, their way of spinning that union strikes are negative or union dues are negative, versus getting into what union dues actually cover and the reason that they’re there.  My partner’s in a union, so for me reading those things, it’s just ridiculous.

MEXIE:  Yeah.  Just really — I mean, it’s just so naked, naked self-interest.  I guess tell us about how the Global Lush Union formed kind of as an offshoot of that, right?  So, that all happened and then workers decided to stand in solidarity together globally and form the Global Lush Union.  So, how did this materialize?  How did you get involved with it?  You mentioned a bit about its aims before, but maybe also how has Lush responded to this new Global Lush Union?

HANNAH:  Yeah, so, let’s see.  So, the way the Global Lush Union started was we have at Lush an internal communication server called the Hive, and they — one of the key organizers was posting information on different articles that were released, ‘cause the Hive, they launch different news pieces or they talk about retail numbers updates.  This person was — kept sharing.  They were like oh yeah, there’s gonna be a union drive in Toronto.  If anyone’s interested, reach out to us.  I guess I didn’t get onto my experience with the union-busting, so I’ll also talk about that.  But I reached out and I wrote a comment back and I was like hey, does this — do these unionizing — does this information apply to retail workers and if so, I think that there would be a really — there would be a incentive for retail workers to unionize.

I think that a lot of retail workers would want to unionize and so, I wrote that back and immediately after, my shop was called.  I don’t remember who it was but it was someone from HR who called and was like, who’s this person Hannah?  What do they do at your shop?  What’s their role?  You know, just asking my manager all these questions and my manager was like well, you know, she’s really into social justice and so, she wants to support people unionizing.  So, that call was really awkward ‘cause I wasn’t even there and they didn’t speak directly to me.  So, the next time I was in the shop, everyone was like hey, someone called about you.  Yeah, it’s crazy.  Then after that, we had — there was a lot of change through upper-level management at the company because of the pandemic.

A lot of positions were removed or consolidated.  So, our manager’s manager, our RST retail support person, was new and came to our shop.  They had a scheduled visit to sit down with our shop and get to know the staff and see how they could support us.  So, this visit was already scheduled pre-phone call, and I got to meet with our RST because I was next in line to be the assistant manager at my shop.  So, she wanted to get to know me.  After that meeting, she was supposed to have another meet — like, another visit with us, and she explicitly stated towards the end of the meeting — she was like, your shop is doing so well.  You have no problems here.  I would rather give my support and my time to another shop that needs it so if it’s okay, I’ll cancel my second visit.  We were like yeah, sure, fine.

A day before her second visit was scheduled — was canceled, she had e-mailed us and was like hey, I’m coming to your shop just for like — you know, just to see how you’re doing.  The purpose of her coming was a — she was literally at our shop for an hour, two hours max.  She came, had a conversation with my manager for like, half an hour.  They called me into the office to have a conversation with me, and asked me what I know about unionizing.  I cut the conversation short; I was just like yeah, I don’t want to talk to you guys about this, ‘cause it was just so awkward.  I was like, my partner’s in a union.  I don’t need Lush to tell me about union organizing.  It did make me feel really — like, parental supervision, right?

It’s like, I write this comment and now I’m sitting down in an office with my manager and my RST talking about why I wrote what I wrote on the Hive.  So, that’s what I experienced, and some other retail workers also had similar experiences with regards to posting information that seemed pro-union on the Hive too, where they would get called into their manager’s office.

MEXIE:  That’s unbelievable.

HANNAH:  Yeah, and of course, nothing is — of course it’s not like they’re saying you can’t unionize, but it does make you feel that way.  The intimidation behind it is real.  It makes you feel like uh-oh, what’s gonna happen if I do continue to do this?  Yeah.

MEXIE:  Yeah, absolutely.  So, after that, I guess you were compelled to participate in the Global Lush Union.

HANNAH:  Yes, yeah.  So, for me, it was like okay, let me reach out and start to have a — to communicate with the people that are in Toronto.  I learned that they were already communicating with folks in Australia as well and that there was someone in San Francisco that was involved.  So, we started to have meetings where we would all talk and communicate, and that’s when we decided to create the Global Lush Union website, which the main goal of it is to be a watchdog.  Lush will not stop to intimidate employees unless they’re — it’s in the news that they’re doing it, because their entire marketing scheme is based off the fact that they do ethical buying and sourcing and they are handmade and there’s happy people making happy soap.

Like, it’s — you know.  We really wanted to be able to have a platform first, because there’s no way we’re going to get a — the amount of people we need to try to organize unless they’re — those people are educated on both sides, and right now it seems like Lush has the — they have the upper hand.  They have HR, they have their internal website that they can post on.  They can schedule the meetings.  We can’t do that; we have to have people come to us and see us and be like oh look, there’s more people that want to do this.

MEXIE:  Yeah, well, wonderful.  I guess how is that work going?  Has Lush responded directly to the Global Lush Union?

HANNAH:  Lush hasn’t responded directly to the Lush Union.  They’ve posted on — internally on the Hive.  Essentially every time a article comes out, they’ll be like oh yeah, there’s a new article on unions and we just wanted to let you know and give you the proper information, and then proceed to give no information.  They haven’t talked to us directly as the Global Lush Union.  They’ve just done a lot of internal…

MEXIE:  Yeah.  I love when capitalist employers think that we want to hear their opinions on whether or not workers should form a union.

HANNAH:  There has been a lot of support from other employees on the Hive calling Lush out and being like hey, this isn’t really responding to these allegations.

MEXIE:  Well, that’s good.

HANNAH:  One of the key points they keep saying as — saying is for many of you, this may be the first time you are hearing about a union drive.  We’re focused on engaging directly with impacted staff.  We corrected union misinformation with [inaudible] and communications and answered questions in the workplace in the first week of November.  As many of you are aware, as a brand we choose not to engage in employee-related matters in the public eye and certainly not through any media campaigns such as this one by these unions and their supporters.  Lush was asked to comment on the story ahead of it running, and we provided the company’s position, but again choose not to share further details of employee matters in the public domain.  So, yeah.  It’s a lot of that over and over and over again and it’s just — yeah.

MEXIE:  That’s, yeah, just incredible.  So, in February the SEIU’s Workers Canada Council filed a charge against Lush with the National Labor Relations Board’s offices in San Francisco.  Do you know if anything has come of this?

HANNAH:  Yes.  So, that — San Francisco’s office of the NLRB concluded that there — they found merit in the complaints.  So what that means is that they issued a formal complaint to Lush that Lush was — could respond to, so they could either respond with a — not admission of guilt but just a settlement, or they could bring it to court.  They did not do the non — the settlement; they chose to take it to court and right now it seems like that court date is gonna be in August.

MEXIE:  Okay.

HANNAH:  So, we’ll hear more about that.

MEXIE:  Yeah.  Yeah, well, hopefully that’s able to push the company.  Where are things at right now in terms of organizing and the work that you’re doing with the Global Lush Union and how can people listening help support the union drive and the Global Lush Union?

HANNAH:  Yeah, great point, thank you for giving me the chance to talk about how people can help.  I think that people should really just go to the Global Lush Union website and sign our petition because the more people that do that, it shows the company that there are people that are there watching them and being critical of their actions.  I think signing the petition is key.  We also have a Global Lush Union Twitter where people can go on and learn more about the different day-to-day experiences at Lush and what’s happening currently.  A lot of what we’ve been talking about recently is the removal of the mask mandate and how that’s impacting employees.

We’re also gonna be talking about the wage grid because that’s supposed to be changed in July.  I think if people can just go to those social media accounts and see what we have there, that will be the best way they can help us.  Also, if anyone is going to their Lush shop, it would be really cool for your employees to hear that you heard about the unionizing and that you’re in support of it.  If you are someone who shops at Lush, that’s really cool.  Not asking you to, you know; you do you.

MEXIE:  Yeah.  No, that would be great.  Yeah, we’ll definitely put those links in the description box below.  I’m wondering even on Lush’s social media to even leave a comment saying I’ve heard about this union drive and I’m very in support of your workers and you should address this.

HANNAH:  A lot of people doing that, so if people did want to do that, please do it.  I find that most companies will only make changes when they feel that it’s going to impact their bottom line.  So, I think that that’s a great way to show the company that they should live up to their values.  Most of us — all of us who are in the Global Lush Union, I think that there’s a — sometimes it’s like oh, they’re just miserable workers or, you know, they’re unhappy.  That’s not the case.  We are unhappy but that’s because we see such a better future for Lush.  We really want Lush to live up to its own values and if they’re not doing that themselves, how can they create the cosmetics revolution that they want to?  Like, respect your workers.

MEXIE:  Yeah, it’s not vegan to disrespect your workers.  I’ll say that.

HANNAH:  Absolutely not.

MEXIE:  Yeah.  So, thank you so much for sharing all of this.  Is there anything else that you want to share with our listeners?

HANNAH:  I think we covered everything.  Yeah, I can’t think of anything else, but I do thank you for allowing us to be on here and giving us this platform so that other people can learn about this drive.

MEXIE:  Awesome.  Well, yeah, thank you so much for coming.  Do you want to just shout out quickly the website for the Global Lush Union and where people can find you online?

HANNAH:  Yeah, it’s globallushunion.com and then twitter.com/globallushunion.

MEXIE:  Awesome.

HANNAH:  If you just look up Global Lush Union, you’ll find us.  We also have an Instagram in the works too, but we’re mostly using our website and our Twitter account.  You can sign up to be a part of an e-mail group, so if you want to be more in-the-know, you can do that as well through the website.

MEXIE:  Awesome.  Well, thank you so much again.  Major solidarity with you and all the workers at Lush and all retail workers, honestly.  Yeah, major solidarity.  Thank you for the work that you’re doing and yeah, I’ll keep in touch and keep track of what’s going on here.

HANNAH:  Yeah, we’ll keep you up to date and maybe after the NLRB charge goes through, we can have another, you know.

MEXIE:  Absolutely.

[MUSIC]

[END OF RECORDING]

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