Union-Busting: Six Fired After Demanding Sick Days for Fast-Food Workers

Six key organizers with the Jimmy John’s Workers’ Union in Minneapolis were fired on Tuesday, March 22, after putting up posters around the city demanding paid sick days from the sandwich chain. According to David Boehnke, one of the discharged workers, the six workers received notices that they were fired for “defaming the brand and disloyalty to the company.”

The Jimmy John’s Workers’ Union, which is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), garnered national media attention last year, as it would have been the first union in the American fast food industry. These workers' struggles could have implications for the entire service sector.

The firings come in the wake of a National Labor Relations Board settlement which threw out the results from an October 22 union election that the Jimmy John’s Workers’ Union narrowly lost, 87-85. In filings with the NLRB after the elections, the union alleged that the Mulligans, owners of the Minneapolis franchises, had threatened to freeze wages, falsely accused union supporters of sabotage, and engaged in other illegal actions prior to the election. The settlement allowed the union to call for a new election anytime in the next 18 months.

Over the past two months, union supporters had been campaigning to get the Mulligans to negotiate over their “10-Point Program for Justice at Jimmy John’s,” which includes wage increases, guaranteed hours, and better job security. Recently, they had begun to emphasize their demand for paid sick days, wearing buttons that said “Sick of Working Sick” and beginning to put up posters around the city.

The posters show two identical sandwiches, asking, “Can you tell which sandwich was made by a sick worker?” According to Boehnke, the union’s goal is to “make clear that workers are being forced to work sick” thanks to the lack of paid sick days, which endangers the health of customers.

The union says that workers have trouble calling in sick both because they fear being disciplined and cannot afford to miss out on a day’s work, since many workers earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

In a press release from the union, Micah Buckley-Farlee, another one of the fired workers, said, “It just isn't safe - customers are getting their sandwiches made by people with the flu, and they have no idea, and now we're getting fired for blowing the whistle on this disgusting practice.”

The National Labor Relations Act expressly forbids employers from firing workers for attempting to organizing a union. As part of the NLRB settlement agreed to in January, the Mulligans agreed to put up notices in all their franchises explaining workers’ right to form a union. Among other things, the notice stated, “WE WILL NOT discipline employees in retaliation for their union or other concerted, protected activities.”

According to a study by Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education Research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, employers fire workers in 34 percent of all union organizing campaigns.

She notes that this trend has gotten worse in recent years. In a 2009 Washington Post editorial titled “A War Against Organizing,” Bronfenbrenner writes, “Employers are more than twice as likely as they were in the 1990s to use 10 or more tactics - including threats and firings - to thwart workers' organizing efforts, and they are more likely to use more punitive and aggressive tactics such as interrogations, discharges and threats of plant closings.”

Jimmy John’s is a national sandwich chain based in Champaign, Illinois. Its founder, Jimmy John Liautaud, recently sparked controversy when he announced he was considering moving the company to Florida or Indiana after Illinois raised its income and corporate tax rates.

In an interview earlier this month with National Restaurant News, Mike Mulligan explained that the company’s opposition to paid sick days and the other demands of the union “are consistent with the industry in which we operate … When I say, ‘The things for which you’re asking are not done in the industry in which we’re competing,’ the [union says], ‘Yeah, that’s the problem. We’re going to start with you and revolutionize the industry.’” 

In many countries, paid sick days are a constitutional right. According to an Institute for Health & Social Policy study, 127 countries guarantee at least a week of paid sick days per year. 98 of these guarantee a month or more. In the U.S., however, 39 percent of private sector workers have no paid sick days, including 78 percent of those in the bottom 10 percent of wage earners (where most fast food workers are concentrated).

The Jimmy John’s Workers’ Union has announced that it will file unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB over the firings. Supporters organized a call-in day on Wednesday, March 23 to the Mulligans to demand both reinstatement of the six workers and paid sick days. Pickets at Jimmy John’s locations are being planned throughout the week.

The Mulligans did not respond to texts or phone calls for this article.

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