Jimmy John's workers vote whether to unionize

Ayo Collins, Jimmy John's union
Ayo Collins is one of several Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches employees spearheading a push to form a union at the fast food franchise. Nearly 200 Jimmy John's employees from 10 Minneapolis and St. Louis Park locations will be voting today whether to join the Industrial Workers of the World union.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A fast-food restaurant is about the last place you might expect to find unionized workers. The work is unskilled, the wages are low, and the turnover is high. Those factors make the fast-food industry a tough one for union organizers.

But today there's a union vote -- perhaps a groundbreaking one -- at 10 Twin Cities area Jimmy John's sandwich shops. The shops are located in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park. Some 200 workers are eligible to vote.

Union advocates say a majority of them signed cards calling for union representation, but won't give the exact figure. At least 30 percent of the workers signed up -- which is the minimum required to force a vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Not all the workers want a union, especially the union that's looking to represent Jimmy John's employees -- the decidedly leftist IWW -- Industrial Workers of the World -- which is also known as the Wobblies.

"I don't see the union making things better for anyone here at Jimmy John's," said Ben McCarthy, who has worked for Jimmy John's for about four years. "I think the best representation of you at work is yourself. Collective bargaining ... it's not for me."

But other workers see a union as a way to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions.

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"I'm voting 'yes' because conditions at Jimmy John's are pretty terrible at right now," said Davis Ritsema, who has worked at the Jimmy John's in the uptown section of Minneapolis since July 2009.

"We have a very clear conscience about the way we've run this company and the way we treat our employees."

He delivers sandwiches throughout downtown Minneapolis -- on his bike.

"We can't get sick days," Ritsema said. "We have to find our own replacements if we call in sick. Drivers don't get health insurance. Most of us make minimum wage. I have several friends who have been working there for over three years and still make minimum wage."

Union leaders have not made specific demands for wage or benefit increases. But they contend the stores' owners can readily afford to improve pay and benefits.

Ritsema said employees choose to align themselves with the IWW because no other unions were looking to organize places like Jimmy John's. Nationwide, it's estimated that less than 2 percent of fast-food workers are unionized.

The IWW is a tiny union, representing just about 1,600 workers nationwide.

For now, the IWW says it's primarily interested in helping workers better their lot by forming unions. But Joe Tessone, the IWW's general secretary treasurer, says capitalism must eventually go.

"In the long term, we want to take care of what the real problem is -- and that's the capitalist system," he said.

That kind of rhetoric really irks the owners of the 10 Jimmy John's shops.

Mike Mulligan, president of the group of stores, said he doesn't think his employees need any union to represent -- or defend them. He believes most of his employees feel they're treated and paid fairly for their work.

Mulligan said most workers start at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. He said they can get raises or even management jobs if they stay and perform well.

But Mulligan also suggests some of his employees' expectations are not in line with the economic realities of the highly competitive fast-food business.

"The industry generally isn't positioned for its hourly and part-time workers to have career jobs," Mulligan said. "These are the jobs we have to offer in the business that we're in. And the bottom line is we treat our people fairly, and with dignity and respect -- and pay them as we can."

Mulligan said it's true that workers calling in sick are generally expected to find coworkers to fill their shifts. But he said that's a standard practice in the business.

"We have a very clear conscience about the way we've run this company and the way we treat our employees, and we are certainly very hopeful that'll be reflected in the union vote," he said.

Election results are expected about 6 p.m. Friday.