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Union’s Bid to Organize Sandwich Shops Rejected

Union efforts to recruit workers at U.S. fast-food restaurants were set back yesterday as Minneapolis employees at Jimmy John’s sandwich shops rejected a bid to affiliate with organized labor.

The Industrial Workers of the World, a Chicago-based group, failed to win enough votes at 10 shops where the union’s supporters complained of low wages and too few working hours. A tally showed 87 workers against the union and 85 in favor, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The parties have seven days to file objections.

“We make minimum wage, and if the companies could pay us less, I’m sure they would,” said Ayo Collins, 20, who delivers sandwiches and is a union organizer at Jimmy John’s, a Champaign, Illinois-based chain with 1,000 U.S. shops. “We don’t have health care either.”

Success at Jimmy John’s would have been a breakthrough for organized labor in the fast-food business, where 1.3 percent of workers belong to a union and organizing is difficult because of rapid turnover and a young workforce, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The drive signals that working conditions are “perhaps a real social problem that requires a more pressing solution,” he said.

Mike Mulligan, who owns the 10 franchises in Minneapolis that were targeted in the campaign, said he has been “more than fair” to his workers. He said the workers include a high percentage of minority employees and he has “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment. Most employees have been with the company for less than six months, and are paid minimum wage of $7.25-an-hour, he said.

Socialist Wobblies

The I.W.W., known as the Wobblies, has 1,600 U.S. members and few union contracts with employers. The socialist union says on its website that there can be “no end to injustice and want until the profit system itself is abolished.” The union has tried in the past to organize baristas at Starbucks Corp.

Employees at two Jimmy John’s in downtown Chicago, which wasn’t part of the I.W.W. organizing, said yesterday that pay is low and hours are inadequate.

“Three hours Monday through Friday isn’t enough,” said Julian Western, 20, who said he makes $8.25 an hour at the Jimmy John’s at 2 N. Riverside Plaza and works side jobs to supplement his income. “You need a second job just to get enough to get by, pay bills.”

Western and his friend Susana Contreras, 20, a cashier and baker at a nearby Jimmy John’s, said they hadn’t heard of the effort in Minneapolis. He said the Wobblies would succeed if they tried to organize in Chicago.

Hours, Pay

“A lot of people are complaining about the hours and pay,” said Western, who works the cash register and hands out sandwiches. “They’d be more than happy to cooperate.”

Mulligan, a retired senior vice president with grocer Supervalu Inc., said he met frequently with workers in the past six weeks to combat the union effort. He told workers the I.W.W. is a “socialist-anarchist” group, and that the union wouldn’t be likely to improve their working conditions.

“They’re trying to take down the quick-service industry,” said Mulligan, who became a franchisee after he leaving Supervalu as a way of going into business with his son. “Our employees don’t deserve these people, and these people don’t deserve our employees.”

Unfair-Labor Charges

Mulligan said the union filed 22 charges of unfair-labor practices with the NLRB in the past two weeks, while only one had been filed against the company in nine years before the organizing campaign. “We will vigorously defend ourselves against each one,” he said.

Robert Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said it’s significant for labor unions to target fast-food workers as potential union members.

“Some of the traditional rationales against unions in the industry -- that the workers are too young, they don’t stay on the job -- isn’t true any longer,” Bruno said. “Something has changed in the economy. It signals that you can’t take these workers for granted.”

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