People@Work: Jimmy John's Failed Union Vote Highlights Plight of Fast-Food Workers

It was a close vote, but efforts to unionize some 200 workers at a Minneapolis-area franchise of the Jimmy John's sandwich chain failed Friday, with 85 workers voting for the effort and 87 against.

The outcome was no doubt disappointing to Ayo Collins, 20, who delivers sandwiches and is a union organizer at Jimmy John's. Based in Champaign, Ill., the company has about 1,000 stores in the U.S.

Low pay, lack of benefits and other issues were what drove Collins along with three other Jimmy John's workers to enlist the aid of the Chicago-based Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, to help organize the 10 targeted Minneapolis stores, owned by Mike Mulligan.

'More Than Fair'?

"We make minimum wage, and if the companies could pay us less, I'm sure they would," Collins said, according to Bloomberg News. "We don't have health care either."

Mulligan told Bloomberg he has been "more than fair" to his workers, noting he has "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment and that the bulk of his employees earn $7.25 an hour, the federally mandated minimum wage. (It is curious, however, why Mulligan would view such actions as being "more than fair" when he's merely adhering to federal labor laws.)

Another bone of contention among workers was that Jimmy John's managers have required workers to find their own replacements when they are too sick to work, several employees said. If they couldn't or weren't able to find substitutes, they were sometimes reprimanded, resulting in some employees showing up to work ill, the Pioneer Press of St. Paul, Minn., reported.

The practice of having workers find their own substitutes is unfortunately common within the food-service industry, and one that makes little sense. "If you're ill, you're ill," says Michael Brandl, senior lecturer in economics and finance at the University of Texas at Austin. "You don't have time to be chasing down co-workers to try to be able to fill your position."

Brandl says few other professions require that workers find their own substitutes as sick leave and sick pay have become standard in many workplaces. With so few fast-food employees unionized, however, it's no wonder management has no problem making such a demand.

"It's a labor market where this unequal power exists," Brandl says.

Little Incentive to Stick Around

Just 1.8% of those in the fast-food industry are represented by a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And those who are unionized likely work at outlets situated in government buildings, hospitals or college campuses, where union labor is common.

The transient nature of fast-food workers is partly to blame for the lack of union representation. With few employers willing to pay much more than minimum wage and plentiful employment choices, workers have little incentive to stick around if working conditions aren't suitable. However, fast-food establishments can't argue that they can't afford to pay workers more, Brandl says, because the industry is hugely profitable, despite the recent lackluster economy.

The inability to form unions can also be attributed to workers who aren't willing to stand up to employers for fear of losing their jobs, says Randolph McLaughlin, a law professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. Though National Labor Relations Board rules protect workers from getting fired for trying to organize a union, that doesn't mean that employers won't try to fight it -- and take years doing so.

Nevertheless, McLaughlin says fast-food companies' so-far successful efforts at averting unionization may soon be coming to an end. In the last few years, major unions, including the AFL-CIO and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), have place greater emphasis on organizing fast-food workers.

On Hold for a Year

"I would think in times of economic dislocation that we're in now that unions should have a pretty easy time organizing workers," says McLaughlin. He adds that fast-food workers are the future in trade unions' organizing efforts.

Whether the IWW will ultimately be successful in its attempt to unionize Jimmy John's remains to be seen. Should the union wish to try again, it will have to wait at least a year to hold another vote, as required by NLRB rules.

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The truth of the matter is that in the restaurant industry, while kitchen employees make at least minimum wage, a new trend is to pay delivery drivers less than minimum wage and claim tip credit for the difference. In Illinois, the minimum wage is currently $8.25/hour and $4.95/hour for tipped employees. What employers won't disclose and customers don't understand is that drivers pay for their own gas, insurance (often at higher rates), maintenance (on a greatly accelerated basis), and registration. At some companies, drivers also pay for their uniforms. Drivers also face greater personal safety risks when on the road. Did you know that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a food delivery driver is the 3rd most likely profession (behind police officers and taxi drivers) to be murdered on the job? The point I intend to make here is that the restaurant industry is cutting costs at the expense of the very people on whom it depends to propsper. Delivery drivers face many more expenses and personal risks than do waitpersons at dine-in restaurants but are often paid and treated the same. Without drivers there can be no delivery. Thank you.

October 25 2010 at 11:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The USAmerican workers are bound and determined to vote themselves into poverty. To compete for mfg. jobs in the "Global Free Market Economy" they will have to work for less then 60cents an hr. the average pay in the low wage countries the jobs have gone to. It would behoove these workers to study the history of labor in the USA, so they can be prepared for the return of the 19th century in the American workplace.

October 25 2010 at 10:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In another world everyone would be payed hugh sums of money to do any job. In the real world a sandwich making job is minimum wage as it should be. Pay a sandwich maker $15 per hr. and benifits your sandwich would cost $25.

October 25 2010 at 9:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

As soon as these fast food restaurants vote to go union, they will be closed down because they will not be able to compete..........but that is what the unions want.....look at all the manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas because they couldn't afford to stay in business here. Not only the unions, but all the governmental mandates and costs associated with payrolls have closed many businesses down here in America. We cannot compete in a world economy unless our costs go down...........and the highest cost of all is that of employment. But when the rest of the world catches up with us (and it is happening very rapidly), it won't make any difference.......because our costs of cheap (China produced) goods will increase.........and all these cheap goods from Walmart will be so high that no one will be able to afford them. Stay tuned......sooner than you think.

October 25 2010 at 9:30 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

If 2 companies talk and even discuss pricing their products/services-that's colusion and is a federal offense. If 2 employees talk pricing their services-that's union organizing and is protected by federal law. Not sure that I see the difference. In both cases, let the markets work.

October 25 2010 at 9:14 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

IF you can do better at other owe it to yourself and your family to do so. Unless Jimmie Johns hired you at one rate-then didn't honor their commitment, I don't see the problem. Simply find another job. When Jimmie Johns cannot find employees to work at what they are offering, then they will have to raise the pay scale. Apparently, they do not a problem finding if you don't like it-simply move on.

October 25 2010 at 9:09 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to indflask's comment

That's the problem. In the currently bleak job market for college graduates, many who started delivering while in school reluctantly make a career of delivery in order to support themselves and their families. So-called "regular jobs" are increasingly difficult to come by today. When a company receives hundreds of applications for every posted job opening, job-seekers can get very discouraged.

October 25 2010 at 11:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Let's not write a balanced article. Union thug

October 25 2010 at 8:40 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply