Jimmy John’s Workers Union—Here to Stay!

By Kevin S.

One thing about being a Wobbly is that you get used to losing — you know defeat when you see it, because we see it every day. And having now had time to mull over the unsuccessful union election at Jimmy John’s last month, one thing that can be said for certain is that Jimmy John’s Workers Union is nowhere close to defeat. One poster for the JJWU sums up the feelings of union members, who went public in September, some of whom have worked at the sandwich chain for years: “JIMMY JOHNS WORKERS UNION—HERE TO STAY”

Going Public and The Election

The union drive at Jimmy John’s – over a year in the making – went public on September 2, when workers at the ten-store Minneapolis franchise owned by father and son Mike (“Daddy”) and Rob (“Baby”) Mulligan and held a press conference announcing their intentions. Unsurprisingly, the Mulligans refused to meet with the union or discuss demands, and so much of Labor Day weekend was spent holding large pro-union rallies, picketing shops and planning the next stage of the campaign. In addition to these actions in Minneapolis, solidarity actions including pickets, leafleting and other public events were held in 32 different states around the country, primarily by members and supporters of the IWW. On Sept. 14, the union filed for an official union election under the National Labor Relations Board.

The weeks prior to the election were characterized by typical union busting techniques from the company — paying an anti-union law firm to run captive audience meetings where workers watched anti-union videos and listened to classic red baiting against the IWW from the company’s legal rep and from Mike Mulligan himself. According to documents obtained from the Labor Department, management spent over $84,500 (that we know of) on their union busting campaign — almost a thousand dollars per “no” vote — this while paying their employees a measly $7.25 an hour with few raises and no benefits offered. Unfortunately for the company, much of their standard anti-union material had no relevance to the IWW (a fact that became evident in their meetings), and even their red baiting proved less effective than hoped. We spoke about the company’s red baiting with FW Davis Ritsema (in an interview we hope to publish in the next “Organizer” issue), who commented:

“…it’s not so much that people are scared of things like socialism, communism, anarchism, but more that you have a group workers that is trying to improve conditions, but these workers who were targeted by the company were uneasy about being misled by the organization in terms of having multiple agendas, or wondering ‘what does the IWW really want?'”

In addition, management was repeatedly observed violating labor laws with respect to elections — including alleged offers to pay employees who opposed the union to be at work and get rides from the Mulligans to the polling sites, without actually working — with the obvious intention of swaying vote results. Despite all of this, the union lost by a margin of only 87 to 85 – not counting two additional challenged “yes” votes. For this reason, the union has filed with the NLRB to cast out the election results as rigged.

“‘Franchise owner Mike Mulligan decided to go beyond the pale. His managers asked workers to wear anti-union pins, fired pro-union workers, threatened a mass firing, implemented an illegal wage freeze, tightened policies and retaliated against union members, offered bribes, and pressured workers to vote no. He broke the law repeatedly in order to win, and he just barely won. That’s not right. We are calling on the NLRB to set aside the results of this election,’ said worker and union member Emily Przybylski.”1

Reactions From Fellow Workers

What we already knew well beforehand, and became certain after the election results were announced, is that our brothers and sisters at Jimmy John’s are not about to give up the fight because of two or three no votes. We quote below from Fellow Worker Erik Foreman, who works at Jimmy John’s:

“We should be INCREDIBLY proud of what we have all done over the last 6 weeks, and five years. As an entirely worker-run, all volunteer group, we have broken new ground for the working class. We lost by three votes. We could have won. There is the support. It doesn’t matter. This is about something much bigger than a 10-store franchise, this is about building a revolutionary workers movement for fundamental social change.”

Reflecting on the decision to file for an NLRB election, FW David Boehnke, who also works at Jimmy John’s, wrote:

“If you had to ask me now if I think we should have filed for the election I would tell you “yes, we should have filed”. Why? Because I think it made us stronger, and in forcing us to talk to everyone—and learn from that—it has given us a clearer sense of what it means to be a union, and what it takes to be a majority union, however created, with a member-run solidarity based organizing model.”

Other thoughts came from local Wobblies who do not work at Jimmy John’s, including this bit we quote from FW Erik Davis, who helped with the legal side of the campaign:

“It’s astonishing how high morale is right now. And that’s what I want to highlight as a real success.  Those of us who have been involved in failed NLRB elections in the past can attest that losing an election is normally deeply demoralizing. But not here, not you, and not us. And that’s amazing….

“Having lost a rigged vote says nothing bad about us at all, and confirms that we are right, and that we have value, clarity, and honesty – all those characteristics that the bosses and their scissorbills lack.”

Such words of solidarity and encouragement were not confined to the Twin Cities either. Messages of solidarity have come from folks around the country and even internationally, encouraging the workers at Jimmy John’s to keep up their fight. One such message from FW Don Muhr of Nebraska perhaps put it most succinctly: “Reload, Fellow Workers!”

Thoughts are thus fixed on how to move forward, and enthusiasm remains high as ever in the union. Whether or not the JJWU is successful in their appeal to the NLRB to overturn the election — which remains to be seen — one thing is clear beyond any shadow of a doubt. If the union drive at Jimmy John’s is any indication of what’s to come in organized labor, then we in Minneapolis are watching labor history be made at first hand.

First published in The Organizer, the branch paper of the Twin Cities IWW. We are republishing it here to give the article wider exposure.

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