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By Dharna Noor
Over Labor Day weekend, workers at Jimmy John’s gourmet sandwich shop Baltimore rallied outside their Pratt Street location. Along with union organizers and supporters, they distributed promotional information about the Jimmy John’s Worker Union, the latest project of Baltimore’s Industrial Workers of the World.
The movement to unionize Baltimore’s Jimmy John’s workers started several weeks ago. On August 9, 30,000 people flooded the streets outside Baltimore’s Convention Center to attend Otakon, the city’s annual anime convention. Many of these costume-sporting attendees found their afternoon and evening sustenance at the Pratt Street shop. There, members and supporters of the new union gathered as well, engaging with convention-goers and baseball fans to garner support.
The 9th’s work began with a ‘march on the boss,’ in which three Jimmy John’s workers and a dozen supporters confronted the store’s owner. They presented him with a letter stating demands: “we’re fighting for fair pay, guaranteed hours, consistent scheduling, paid sick days, proper compensation for [delivery] drivers’ safety equipment, and a harassment-free work place,” said Isaac Dalto, IWW organizer and Jimmy John’s worker. Those present also stated that they expected to be recognized and respected as union members. The workers were, as Dalto said, “going public.”
“Going public has its risks,” said Dalto. “Corporations are ruthless in the face of organizing campaigns. Even though it’s illegal, they’ve been known to target union members…they’ve been known to discipline, threaten, bribe, and threaten again.”
The remainder of the day’s action focused on the right to use tip jars, an act banned by the sandwich shop’s corporate offices, despite wages below eight dollars per hour. Action participants distributed hundreds of disposable cups to the line of customers, which teemed out the door and onto the street. The cups beared information about the union, and many were emblazoned with a Sharpie markered “iww.org”. Owner Mike Gillett was seen disposing of as many cups as he could, and left the store with a large sum of tip money in a plastic bag. Despite this, cups covered the cashiers’ desk and dining tables, and much of the contents found its way into workers’ possession.
“I spent the afternoon handing out cups and explaining their significance, and was pleasantly surprised to find that most customers were receptive,” said one participant and supporter. “But some people seemed skeptical. A few straight up turned away when we said the word, ‘union’.” This state of public opinion makes any action which can boost union support an even greater feat. “We heard good things from a lot of workers who didn’t formerly support us,” said Dalto,“and it’s great they got some cash they needed in their pockets.”
Fast food workers’ right to unionize is protected by law. In the days following the action, however, retaliation was stark. “Almost everyone working at Pratt Street got written up for uniform violation,” said Dalto. “It was collective punishment to avoid looking like they’re using selective enforcement.” Reasoning with Jimmy John’s management has not been easy for the organizers: grievances have not been met. Union members have had several unfair practice charges filed against management with the National Labor Relations Board, but are hoping for less antagonization in the future. “We would like to stand in solidarity with our managers as well,” said Dalto. “We’re fighting for a raise for [our managers] as well, but the company has mechanisms set up to divide us.” Jimmy Johns’ Persons in Charge (PIC) are required to maintain low labor costs in order to obtain their payment bonuses, which Dalto said frequently results in “slashed hours and overtime for workers”.
Such labor malpractice is not unique to Jimmy John’s, and the union holds itself in solidarity with the burgeoning national fast food workers. However, local labor organizer and educator Bill Barry, who is a long time friend and supporter of the Jimmy John’s organizers, noted, that “no one else in Baltimore is really organizing around fast food.” In the future, organizers plan to expand their movement to reach more. The IWW has campaigns at other food service locations in Baltimore which have yet to become public, and eventually, there are plans to build an industrial union for food service workers all over the city. “This is bigger than just changing this one shop,” said Dalto. “This is about changing this whole industry.”
“People want a lot,” said Barry. “It’s just fear that keeps them back.” He spoke of the new challenges presented by an economy which continually keeps people in jobs they’d once thought of as temporary. Fast food has a high turnover rate, but “finding other jobs is difficult. People find themselves working at Jimmy John’s longer than they might have expected.” In Dalto’s eyes, this requires an even higher need for unionization. “Workers need power. Right now, we have none. We’re at companies’ mercy…we’re not people to companies; we’re labor costs. They use us as they see fit until we break and then they discharge us.”
Despite these obstacles, activists have been sustained by a string of small victories. Another action, which took place on August 22nd at the Inner Harbor’s Jimmy John’s, garnered even more support for the movement. That day, delivery drivers at the Pratt Street shop held a ‘work stoppage’ for fifteen minutes, and returned to the shop with six supporters. The national movement has also had its small victories: on the 25th, the National Labor Relations Board ordered the reinstatement of six Jimmy John’s workers. The workers were unlawfully fired six years ago, for speaking out against lack of sick days. Dalto believes that these victories are of tantamount importance. “This is how we’re going to change this country,” he said. “This is how our class is going to win.”