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Jimmy John’s Workers Make Headway

By David Feldmann

For several years, the IWW has had an active organizing drive in Jimmy John’s sandwich shops, most notably in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. (the Twin Cities). Earlier this year, six Jimmy John’s workers were fired, ostensibly for violating the company’s attendance policy regarding sick days. The workers were all IWW members who had been involved in attempts to publicize the food safety concerns of Jimmy John’s sandwich makers in the Twin Cities. Naturally, the union members contend that they were targeted because of their involvement with the IWW and not because of their attempts to call in sick without finding someone to cover their shift (the contentious policy in question).

On Nov. 4, Erik Forman, longtime IWW member and Jimmy John’s worker, announced that “the NLRB [National Labor Relation Board] is going to file a complaint against Jimmy John’s on every single charge we filed against them.” The Jimmy John’s campaign went public in 2010 after a long period of clandestine organizing activity. In October of that year, the first fast food workers’ union in the United States lost a union election (85 in favor, 87 against) after franchise owner Mike Mulligan spent more than $84,000 on union busting, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. IWW members argued that Mulligan, who owns ten Jimmy John’s stores in the Twin Cities, broke labor laws in trying to stifle the union’s presence and influence. This position was reinforced by the NLRB, who threw out the election results in January 2011 after declaring Mulligan had, among other things, lied to employees about the union and unlawfully retaliated against IWW members. To date, the IWW hasn’t called for another election, but has instead focused on exposing alleged health code violations at Jimmy John’s locations and getting the fired workers reinstated at the fast food chain. After the results of the NLRB investigation were announced, the Jimmy John’s union proclaimed that all “six fired organizers will go back to work, with back pay, hopefully within the next few months.”

For a labor union that has historically eschewed legal recognition, the IWW has been surprisingly successful at convincing the NLRB that they are in the right, not just in regards to Jimmy John’s but also in the more established campaign to organize baristas at Starbucks (the IWW has won even more legal victories in that struggle). Time will tell whether the IWW can withstand the onslaught of anti-union tactics employed by Mulligan and the rest of Jimmy John’s management in the Twin Cities and continue to expand the union. Now that the NLRB decision has strengthened their resolve, this prospect seems very likely indeed.