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.

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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.