Another NLRB Victory for Minneapolis Jimmy John’s Workers

Kari Lydersen

Jimmy John's fired these six employees in March 2011. They say the company retaliated for their organizing activities, and a federal agency agrees.

Like knights in hipster armor the Jimmy John’s delivery team pedals on their mighty bicycle steeds through the University of Minnesota neighborhoods in rain, sleet, snow, or Armageddon so that you may have your sandwich satisfaction.”

That’s how a promotional website for the Dinkytown neighborhood in Minneapolis describes employees at the popular sandwich shop. But workers at 10 Minneapolis-area franchises owned by brothers Rob and Mike Mulligan say their dedication is hardly rewarded. For the past year and a half, they have been organized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), demanding paid sick days, better pay and other improvements in their working conditions.

On November 9, the National Labor Relations Board filed charges against the Mulligans and managers of Jimmy John’s Minneapolis-area stores for a number of incidents wherein they allegedly intimidated and interfered with IWW’s protected union activity. Davis Ritsema, one of six workers allegedly fired in March for organizing (and pictured in the image above), told me he hopes the Mulligans settle before the scheduled January 17 NLRB hearing by rehiring the workers and otherwise meeting their demands.

Ritsema, 25, and formerly a bike deliveryman at the Uptown store, was fired along with five others after they put up fliers around the University of Minnesota campus and other parts of town warning customers that Jimmy John’s workers often go to work sick since they get no paid sick days and are disciplined for calling in sick without finding a replacement. Four other workers were threatened with firing. The NLRB complaint includes charges that managers illegally took down pro-union fliers in stores including about the sick day issue.

Ritsema told me:

I definitely was sick three or four times last winter and I ended up going to work every time because I couldn’t afford not to. I remember working with the flu for a couple days.

Ritsema said he is one of the few fired workers who has gotten another job since, but he still wants to return to Jimmy John’s.

We want to go back to work. If they take this to court it might be a bad idea for them because it’s going to make it even more public… After we were fired, there was still organizing going on, and no matter what happens there will always be a union presence. That’s something the company can’t take away.

Along with the firing issue, the NLRB complaint alleges that an assistant manager at one store maintained a Jimmy John’s Anti-Union” Facebook page, where he threatened a mass firing of union-affiliated workers. A manager of another store posted the phone number of an employee on a website, asking other workers to text or call him. It says co-owner Mike Mulligan interrogated” a pro-union employee at the Dinkytown store, and in various instances last fall, winter and spring managers and co-owners are charged with disparaging” individual employees involved in the union effort.

The NLRB complaint says the above conduct constituted coercing, interfering with and restraining workers’ protected unionizing activity, and that Jimmy John’s also discriminated against people based on their union sympathies — another violation of labor law.

In January the NLRB ruled in the union workers’ favor in a separate matter, negating a unionization election which the IWW workers lost 85 – 87. The IWW charged the company with illegal anti-union tactics leading up to the election, including:

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.

The NLRB agreed that the company broke labor law and nullified the election, giving workers 60 days to file for a new one. A settlement was reached wherein the company agreed to respect workers’ collective bargaining rights. The union says the latest NLRB complaint is proof that the company did not comply with this settlement. Ritsema told me workers have not pressed for another election, since they see the union as having power even without formal recognition.

Jimmy John’s workers started organizing with the IWW last fall, inspired in part by the IWW’s organizing of Starbucks workers. Unionization of fast food workers is almost unheard of, even though they typically work for very low wages, have little control over their schedules, have few or no benefits and paid sick days and frequently report sexual harassment and unfair retaliation by managers.

The Jimmy John’s Workers website says:

Workers at Jimmy John’s began a campaign for the right to call in sick without being disciplined and paid sick days after a union survey of employees last Winter revealed that on average two employees are working while sick every day in the ten-store franchise.

Franchise managers Mike and Rob Mulligan stonewalled employee requests for reform of the sick day policy for more than two months, prompting union supporters to take their message to the public by posting 3000 copies of a poster explaining that workers are forced to work while sick at the chain. Franchise owner Mike Mulligan lashed out against his employees, firing six union organizers and disciplining others for the sick day poster action. He then claimed in writing that, the company has made more than 6 million sandwiches during its nearly 10 years in business-and no one’s ever gotten sick from eating one.”

But Minnesota health department records obtained by the workers show that the franchise was held responsible for two food-borne illness outbreaks in the past five years. The union says company policy is that workers are fired if they call in sick three times without finding a replacement. (Each incident gives them two points” in a disciplinary system, with firing at six points.)

Jimmy John’s main website touts the company’s dedication to fresh ingredients and overall integrity,” a position workers say the company should live up to in its treatment of workers.

It’s the real deal folks, no BS here, no fake stuff, no additives, no fillers — it’s the real deal. My momma always told me that all you have in life is your integrity. She also told me that the best cooks cook with a lot of love in their heart. Well I have lots of love, I try to live my life by doing unto others, and I could never ever BS you on ingredients. Besides, if I did, my momma would kick my butt real hard.

Ritsema thinks their campaign has been an inspiration to others in the fast food and general restaurant industry, where workers often make minimum wage or sometimes less, and rarely get paid sick days or benefits. He said:

I think this is setting a precedent for food and retail workers everywhere in all different types of stores – It’s kind of showing that sector of the working class that they deserve the same rights as people who work in big industries or have full time office jobs. We’re all humans and we all deserve the same dignity, to be respected.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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