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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.
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 forever.
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 to vomit.
"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," Wilklow says.
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."