Potential Turning Point for Labor as Millions in Service Sector Face Deepening Poverty
MINNEAPOLIS– The National Labor Relations Board confirmed today that it will conduct a union election for 200 workers at ten Minneapolis-area Jimmy John’s on October 22, an historic first in the nation’s almost entirely non-union fast food industry. The secret ballot union election could be a turning point for labor at a time of deepening poverty for millions of Americans affected by the recession, many of whom are employed in low-wage service sector jobs.
“People who thought of themselves as middle class or upwardly-mobile two years ago are now making minimum wage at Jimmy John’s, with no real prospects for moving up. If these are the kinds of jobs that American workers will be stuck with, then we are going to make them quality jobs for working families,” said Mike Wilkow, a union member at Jimmy Johns.
If a majority of workers vote in favor of unionization, the company will be legally bound to negotiate with a bargaining team elected by its employees.
The unprecedented fast food union campaign at Jimmy John’s comes at a time of deepening economic misery for US workers. According to a recent report by the US Census Bureau, a record-breaking 43.6 million Americans– 1 in 7 people– are living in poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the unemployment rate at 9.6%, with 14.9 million people out of work and uncounted millions more too discouraged to look for work. Layoffs and outsourcing have decimated higher-paid jobs, particularly strongholds of unionization such as manufacturing and construction, forcing many workers to seek employment in low-wage areas of the economy once reserved for teenagers and students. For many, it feels like food service and retail are the only jobs left.
While many workers are forced to seek employment in food service, industry wages and working conditions are widely regarded as substandard; in 2009, the median wage in the fast food industry was $8.28/hr and as of July 2010, the average workweek in fast food was only 24.3 hours. The median annual income for fast food workers is $10,462, or $871 per month. This is less than half the federal poverty line of $21,954 for a family of four, and below the federal poverty line of $ 10,830 for an individual. Jimmy John’s is below industry standards, paying most workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr, scheduling most workers less than 20 hours/week, and offering no benefits.
Unionization has clear allure to poverty-wage food service workers. According to figures released by the Bureau of National Affairs, union members in the food service industry earned on average $2.36 more per hour, a 32% difference, than non-union workers in the same industry in 2009.
Despite the appeal of higher wages and better benefits, union density in the fast food industry is stuck at only 1.8%, far below the national average of 12.3%. Unionization efforts have been stymied by stiff employer resistance and professional “union avoidance” firms that specialize in thwarting NLRB election campaigns. 75% of employers avail themselves of third-party anti-union consultants when their employees petition for an NLRB election, according to a recent study by noted Cornell University labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner. The study demonstrates that many employers embark on union-busting campaigns consisting of threats, intimidation, firings, interrogation, and even spying. Due largely to these factors, only 45% of NLRB elections conducted from 1999-2003 resulted in a union victory.
Success for the union at Jimmy John’s could be a major breakthrough for labor in an industry known for low union density and deplorable working conditions. Jimmy John’s workers say they possess the resolve to see through what they acknowledge will be a tough fight. Jaim’ee Bolte, a member of the union, says, “People say fast food is unorganizable. We say failure is not an option. Service industry jobs are the future and our future needs to have quality jobs for working families with living wages, affordable healthcare, paid time off, consistent hours, and basic respect. It’s time for change in America, we hope this will be a turning point for all workers.”
The Jimmy Johns Workers Union, open to employees at the company nationwide, is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World labor union. Gaining prominence in recent years for organizing Starbucks workers, the IWW is a global union founded over a century ago for all working people.
US Census Bureau- Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009
Economic Policy Institute- No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing
Bureau of Labor Statistics- Union Members 2009