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Working In These Times

Sunday, Jan 16, 2011, 5:59 pm

Jimmy John’s Workers Win NLRB Ruling Negating Tight Election

BY Kari Lydersen

The campaign to unionize workers at Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in Minneapolis seemed to be heading toward victory last fall, with workers, students, customers and other supporters nationwide enthused about the possibility of the country’s first unionized fast food franchise.

Thanks to the company’s signature “attitude” and promise of “freakishly” fast service, people were hardly surprised to hear Jimmy John’s workers are forced to work unrealistically fast for low pay on arbitrary schedules with few benefits, like other fast food workers frequently going to work ill because they lack paid sick days.

Workers chose the legendary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union and fought hard to obtain a union election, held on October 22. It was a nail-biter, where workers ultimately voted against unionizing by 87-85. Union supporters claimed franchise owners Mike and Rob Mulligan played dirty, as an IWW newsletter puts it, "resorting to unlawful tactics including threatening a wage freeze, intentionally fabricating rumors that the union engaged in sabotage, retaliating against union supporters, and numerous other labor rights violations."

On January 10, the National Labor Relations Board sided with the pro-union workers, nullifying the election.

The decision means that after 60 days the union can file for a new election, with a condensed campaign period of 30 days, instead of the usual 42 days. Pro-union workers say a new election is possible, but first they want to give the owners a chance to voluntarily come to the table and discuss workers’ 10 Point Program for Justice at Jimmy Johns, described as “a comprehensive package of reforms that will bring respect, dignity, and democracy to the fast food workplace.”

The program calls for specific provisions organized around 10 core values, with the requests reflecting common complaints at Jimmy John’s. The demands include:  time-and-a-half pay for hours worked between midnight and 6 a.m. and for bike delivery hours in inclement weather, free uniforms, one paid sick day a month, paid maternity and paternity leave, the guarantee of working a full shift, a half-hour lunch break for shifts of six hours or more and the offer of health and dental insurance.

They also demand that the employer, not workers, will need to find a replacement when workers are sick. And that there be monthly optional meetings -- on the clock -- where workers can air concerns to management.

The NLRB decision mandates that for 60 days Jimmy John’s prominently post notices of the ruling, and that the ruling be read in an employee meeting with the owner present within two weeks. The ruling also awards back pay to one worker who was denied a raise during the campaign. The union had filed Unfair Labor Practice charges alleging the company retaliated against a number of workers for their protected organizing activity and offered raises and promised future holiday pay to undermine support for the union. Among other things, they say the company began enforcing a sick policy that previously hadn’t been enforced; threatened to replace bicycle delivery people with car delivery; and threatened people would be fired for organizing. The union also complained about Jimmy John’s employee handbook’s “overly broad policy” about discussing compensation – a provision that could be used as a reason to fire employees organizing around low wages.

The invitation to discussions around the 10-point program represents an example of an increasingly popular organizing tactic in the restaurant sector, where employers are invited to “take the high road” and partner with workers to create more just conditions as opposed to having an adversarial relationship.

In a statement union member Ayo Collins said:

Mike and Rob Mulligan can either continue their losing battle against their employees, or they can work with us and distinguish themselves as leaders in bringing much-needed change to the nation's fast food industry. For our part, we're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. We are more confident than ever that in the end, we will win, setting an example for 3.5 million fast food workers to follow.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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