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Rare Vote Set on a Union in Fast Food

category north america / mexico | workplace struggles | non-anarchist press author Thursday October 21, 2010 18:53author by Steven Greenhouse - NY Times Report this post to the editors

MINNEAPOLIS — The Jimmy John’s restaurants here are known for serving attitude with their sandwiches. Many of their young workers wear nose rings, beards and dreadlocks, and the shops sport mottoes like “The Customer Is Usually Right” and “Subs So Fast You’ll Freak.”

But recently, the employees at the 10 shops here have started to exude more attitude than management would like. Some of the 200 workers wear T-shirts that say, “Wages So Low You’ll Freak,” and many are backing a campaign to unionize the shops, which compete with Subway and Quiznos.

The unionization drive is one of the few efforts to organize fast-food workers in American history. Employees will vote Friday, and if the union wins, organizers say they will seek to unionize fast-food workers in other cities.

The issues that have roused the Jimmy John’s workers are typical of what many low-end service-sector workers face: earning the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage or slightly above that, working unpredictable and often short shifts and dealing with their bosses’ wrath when they call in sick.

Most unions have shied away from trying to organize fast-food workers because the employees tend to be young, with high turnover. But that has not dissuaded the Industrial Workers of the World, which tried to organize workers at Starbucks coffee shops without success.

A century ago, the I.W.W. — better known as the Wobblies — was a swaggering, radical union with 100,000 members and legendary leaders like Mary Harris Jones (known as Mother Jones) and Big Bill Haywood. The union often clashed with police officers and Pinkerton security guards as it organized lumberjacks, dockworkers and miners.

These days, the Wobblies have just 1,600 members in the United States, and have union contracts with a handful of employers. But if they can flex their muscles anywhere, it may be in organizing the Jimmy John’s workers of Minneapolis. Union supporters say more than 60 percent of the workers signed cards asking for a unionization election.

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