Would you like a sneeze with that sandwich?

In March, Jimmy John fired six workers involved in a unionization campaign for putting up posters (see below) that charged Jimmy Johns workers were pressured to work while sick. “Jimmy John’s workers don’t get paid sick days. Shoot, we can’t even call in sick,” said the poster, which urged people to “Help Jimmy John’s workers win sick days” by calling the owner. On November 9, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint charging that Jimmy John’s “unlawfully disciplined, threatened, and ultimately terminated” the workers because of their union advocacy. Next step: a hearing before an administrative law judge in January.

The NLRB press release said:

According to the complaint, the six employees were fired on March 22 and 23, 2011, because of their support for the Union, and also because of their concerted protest about Jimmy John’s sick leave policy. Another four employees were given final written warnings for engaging in the same conduct.

The complaint alleges several additional violations by the employer, including disparaging and threatening pro-union employees on Facebook, removing union postings from stores, interrogating employees about their union activities, and threatening mass firings for union organizing.

Jimmy John’s workers in Minneapolis began organizing a union in 2010, under the auspices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They got enough support to demand an election, which took place in October, resulting in an 87-to-85 vote against the union. The workers charged unfair labor practices and an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board found evidence to support their charges and decided to issue a formal complaint. In order to avoid formal proceedings, Jimmy John’s owners entered into an agreement “not to discipline or threaten employees because of their union activities, and not to withhold raises because of an ongoing union campaign, among other things.” The union retained the right to petition for a new election within 18 months.

After the decision, the union’s poster campaign tried to gain public support and recognition. It was based on the Jimmy John policy of requiring workers who were sick to find their own replacements, as described by the union:

Although franchise owner Mike Mulligan has also publicly denied disciplining workers for calling in sick, the company’s own written policy mandates one to two disciplinary ‘points’ for workers who call in without finding a replacement, even if they have a doctor’s note.

Workers are fired after accumulating six points. In addition to the threat of discipline for calling in sick, workers are often unable to afford to take a day off if they fall ill because wages at the sandwich chain hover around the federal minimum of $7.25 and the company offers no benefits.

The fast food industry typically has high turnover, low wages, and few, if any, benefits. According to the latest numbers I could locate from Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly pay for fast food is $8.62, and full-time hours would yield an annual income of $17,930. Most workers, however, are scheduled for less than full-time work, and may have split shifts — for example, a few hours to cover lunch time and again at the dinner hour. That’s typical for all fast food places, not just Jimmy John. The Jimmy John union’s website cites similar numbers, but with more detail:

While many workers are forced to seek employment in food service, industry wages and working conditions are widely regarded as substandard; in 2009, the median wage in the fast food industry was $8.28/hr and as of July 2010, the average workweek in fast food was only 24.3 hours. The median annual income for fast food workers is $10,462, or $871 per month. This is less than half the federal poverty line of $21,954 for a family of four, and below the federal poverty line of $ 10,830 for an individual. Jimmy John’s is below industry standards, paying most workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr, scheduling most workers less than 20 hours/week, and offering no benefits.

Jimmy John corporation has an engaging corporate presence, with slogans like “So fast you’ll freak” and “No shirt, no shoes, no worries — We deliver.” Their corporate website pages include both pages that aim to be hip and appealing to customers and pages that project a large, profitable corporate image to would-be franchisees and investors. The website estimates the cost to open a franchise as $305,000 to $485,000, including an initial franchise fee of $35,000. The corporate website claims average annual sales of around a million dollars, and charge each franchisee royalties of six percent of gross sales plus advertising fees of 4.5 percent of gross sales. That means when I order a $4.69 Turkey Tom sandwich, the franchise owner pays 47 cents directly back to Jimmy John corporate. (Some Jimmy John stores are owned by the national corporation, but all the reports that I have seen refer to the 10 Minneapolis stores as franchisees.)

Jimmy John has figured out a way to make reasonably good sandwiches, inexpensively and quickly, and to host a sandwich delivery system on the corporate national website, where it brags:

The irreverent attitude, low price, great food and delivery with a smile remain the same, but what was once the bratty little brother of the sandwich industry is now the super cool older brother that everyone else wants to be. We currently have over 1200 stores open.

What makes Jimmy John’s different from the rest is that it’s honest, it’s damn good, it’s damn fast, at a decent price!

If they have really solved the problems of “low price, great food and delivery with a smile,” maybe Jimmy John will turn next to the problems of worker sick days, work schedules, pay and benefits. Or maybe not.

NOTE: For additional stories on union organizing in the local food service industry, see More airport workers organize; Minneapolis bartenders seek union.

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