Jimmy John’s Workers Hope Management ‘Freaks Out’ Over Union Drive

Kari Lydersen

Jimmy John’s, the sub sandwich shop popular on college campuses and metropolitan areas nationwide, touts its service as so fast it’s freaky.” But a selling point for frazzled commuters or sleep-deprived students equals stressful, grueling work for employees who are often paid minimum wage with no benefits.

So workers at Jimmy Johns outlets nationwide have launched a union campaign with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The movement started in Minneapolis, and workers at Jimmy John’s outlets in 32 states held actions on Labor Day and throughout the past week.

The campaign evokes the six-year-old Starbucks union drive by the IWW — the independent radical union targeting a popular chain food service chain which markets itself as hip, irreverent and independent, despite being a huge corporation.

Employees at all Jimmy John’s 1,000 shops nationwide are invited to join the Jimmy John’s Workers Union. (The IWW often does not seek official union elections or negotiate contracts at specific workplaces; rather, it is one big national union that any worker can join.) Company founder Jimmy John Liautaud, national management and managers of local franchises have reportedly not acknowledged or met with the union.

The Jimmy John’s website invites visitors to join our subculture,” and the company’s blog drives the idea of freaky” speed into the ground with race car driving news and other gimmicks. The company’s website touts its grassroots founding by 19-year-old Liautaud, and lauds its workers:

The culture that was created in the restaurants is the same culture that drives the corporate office. Make a deal, keep a deal” is the Golden Rule. Do it now – make it happen – be a go-getter, no excuses. Jimmy John’s employees are the ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They want to be the best. They don’t mind doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Their hustle is part of how they live their daily lives, and they enjoy the fruits of a hard-earned entrepreneurial lifestyle. Once again, Jimmy John’s wants only the best for the best.

Jimmy John’s workers say they are far from fairly rewarded for their celebrated hard work and hustle. They say the jobs typically pay minimum wage with no benefits or paid sick days. They complain of erratic schedules including often-changing and too-short shifts. Workers at both Starbucks and Jimmy John’s complain of widespread sexual harassment.

The Starbucks union campaign is ongoing, and employees report the company has doubled their health insurance premiums, cut their hours, forced them to work harder for the same pay and otherwise squeezed” workers and their families since the recession started.

Less than two percent of fast food workers are unionized nationwide. A study earlier this year by the Restaurant Opportunity Center found that nine in 10 workers at restaurants in five major metro regions don’t have paid sick days and likewise nine in 10 don’t have health insurance. Two thirds also reported going to work sick.

On Jimmy John’s Workers union website, employee and union member David Boehnke is quoted saying:

Working conditions are terrible- poverty wages, being forced to work while sick, inconsistent hours, management favoritism, the list goes on. We formed a union to fight for change, starting at Jimmy Johns today, and throughout the entire fast food industry tomorrow. These nationally-coordinated actions have shown company owner Jimmy John Liautaud that if he doesn’t clean up his act, we’ll take a bite out of his business.

In Minneapolis, worker Jake Foucalt was quoted telling local franchise owner and general manager Mike and Rob Mulligan:

We aren’t just hard-working employees, but students and parents; real people with real concerns. These are our lives. We’re tired of being ignored and degraded at job after low-wage job. We’re tired of being expendable. The pressure will continue to build until we are listened to.

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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