Jimmy Johns About to Become First Fast-Food Union
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Jimmy Johns about to become first fast-food union
So Unionized You'll Freak
Wednesday, Sep 29 2010
No one has ever organized a fast-food restaurant before, and
conventional wisdom in union circles has been that it can't be done. But
Jimmy John's workers have never been conventional.
If workers succeed, Jimmy John's could be the first fast-food chain in
the country to unionize
The sandwich makers and delivery drivers at 10 Minneapolis Jimmy John's
restaurants have begun the organizing process with the National Labor
Relations Board. If they succeed, it could change the fast-food industry
The conditions Jimmy John's workers are complaining about aren't that
different from what most fast-food workers endure. They start at the
minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Managers regularly schedule them for one-
and two-hour shifts, sometimes twice in a single day. The short time
handles the lunch and dinner rushes without giving workers enough hours
for them to qualify for health benefits.
Workers also don't get sick days—they can't miss work without a doctor's
note. Since most of the workers don't have health insurance, most
employees work through their health problems. Mike Wilklow, a long-time
employee who has worked at Jimmy John's across the city, says he worked
bicycle delivery shifts with a broken clavicle. Jared Ingebretson, a
24-year-old who works at the Riverside store, recalls working shifts
with colleagues so sick they had to periodically duck into the bathroom
"If someone's that sick, we try to keep them on the register and away
from the sandwiches, but still, it's not how you want to be working,"
Increasingly frustrated by their working conditions, Jimmy John's
workers began to talk about forming a union. The process started four
years ago, but progress was slow. Frequent turnover made organizing
difficult. For every worker who signed on to support the unionizing
effort, it seemed two more quit in frustration.
But through all the false starts, seeds were being planted. As workers
transferred between the different Jimmy John's locations, word of the
union spread. In early September, the workers staged their first
actions, picketing outside Jimmy John's stores and demanding a meeting
with the owners. To highlight the fact that owners could afford to pay
them more, the workers picketed the construction site of one of the
restaurant expansion locations near Stadium Village.
Finally, two weeks ago, they marched into the local office of the
National Labor Relations Board and filed the paperwork to force a vote
among Jimmy John's workers. If the vote is successful, the owners will
have no choice but to recognize the union.
Restaurants have historically been a tough nut for unions to crack—fewer
than two percent of all restaurant workers are unionized—and fast-food
restaurants are especially difficult. Employees were often teenagers
working after-school jobs.
"From the perspective of many of the big unions, it just wasn't worth
their while," says Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester
College. "If you're approaching it from the perspective of, 'We want
these people to pay dues to our union,' fast food just wasn't going to
provide the return on the big investment it would take to unionize."
But the Jimmy John's workers aren't depending on big union officials to
send them teams of professional organizers. They're allied with the
Industrial Workers of the World, a smaller union with a long history and
a loose, do-it-yourself approach to organizing. The IWW's grassroots
approach lets it go where bigger, more bureaucratic unions can't or
won't. Over the last decade, it helped unionize Starbucks workers and
got the company to cough up back pay.
Mike Mulligan and his son Rob have owned the local Jimmy John's
franchises since 2001, and have done well. They have expanded to include
10 locations in Minneapolis.
But that doesn't mean he can afford to pay his workers more or give them
health insurance, Mike says. "We're reinvesting our profits in the
business, sure, but if we had to pay our employees something out of
scale with what you see in other quick-service restaurants, we wouldn't
be able to be competitive."
Mulligan concedes it would be tough to raise a family on the wages of a
sandwich maker, but says everyone has an opportunity to move up in the
company. "What we're telling our employees is, 'Look, these are the jobs
we have to offer.'"
The stakes are high—not just for the Mulligans, but for Jimmy John's
corporate headquarters. The Minneapolis unionizers are already hearing
from other Jimmy John's workers across the country. If the Mulligans'
stores are unionized, other franchises might follow, driving up the
company's labor costs and driving down the value of its franchises.
"If these guys are seen to succeed, it could really light a fire,
because the level of dissatisfaction is unquestionable," says Rachleff.
"The corporation knows that, and they have a lot of resources. They've
got plenty of lawyers who will try to tie this up as long as they can."
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