Consumer Trends | April 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

Union Leaders Aren't Giving Up on Your Crew

Labor unions have struggled to make quick-service inroads, but remain steadfast in their attempts to organize fast food employees.

Protesters in favor of employee unions picket a Jimmy John's in Minneapolis.
image used with permission.

Jimmy John’s boasts more than 1,000 stores nationwide, claiming an army of sandwich makers and delivery drivers that matches that of most of America’s quick-service companies. Last fall, however, overwhelming attention zeroed in on just 10 units in the Minneapolis area.

On October 22, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced the results of 174 Jimmy John’s employee ballots for unionization. The sandwich company held its breath; so, too, did many in the quick-service category. Unionization would spur sweeping changes in employment practices across the quick-service landscape, while a dominant anti-union vote would do much to silence organized labor’s efforts to break into the elusive quick-service base.

Although the Jimmy John’s measure was defeated—87 votes cast against the union, 85 for, and two ballots challenged—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the guiding force behind the Jimmy John’s unionization push, has vowed to continue the fight.

“Our goal is to bring working conditions in quick-service restaurants in line with standards of respect and dignity in other industries,” says Erik Forman, a Starbucks and Jimmy John’s employee who, as an IWW volunteer, actively organizes campaigns at both workplaces. “We think workers deserve decent wages, consistent scheduling, sick days, and increased job security. With the profit margins of most fast food chains, we feel these are reasonable demands.”

The IWW’s steadfast attitude—combined with the growing influence of social justice organizations that campaign for similar labor issues—presents a challenge to a quick-service industry still looking to rebound from the recession.

A Checkered Past

The first modern-day whiff of unionization in the quick-service ranks came in 2003, when Starbucks employees in New York City attempted to organize.

Although unions have been able to organize labor in other sectors of American society—civil-service employees, manufacturing, and education among them—infiltrating the quick-service industry has so far proved unattainable. A youthful workforce, transient employees, and new workers, including immigrants, unwilling to pay dues have all worked against organized labor’s efforts. So have smaller, isolated employment groups and the sheer time it takes for a union to get in, negotiate a contract, and deliver benefits for a notoriously high-turnover employment group.

Yet, quick-service restaurants possess some of the traditional elements that stir organized labor: low wages; few, if any, benefits; and a working environment that presents several dangers. Aaron Kocher of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union contends that the low pay and dangerous conditions in quick-service restaurants highlight the necessity of unions to protect workers’ rights.

“Some people have the idea that unions are necessary in some industries, but not in others,” he says. “This all comes down to workplace democracy and about giving workers a voice, as they should have a 100 percent expectation for being treated fairly and with respect and dignity.”

By and large, today’s organized labor groups have adopted a new approach. They’re taking to traditional media as well as social media, utilizing research and data to drum up favor, and inviting religious and educational institutions to work with them on protests and lobbying. They are, critics say, not averse to intimidation or skewing facts to their favor, eager to gain negotiating pull wherever and however necessary.

“These are not your great-grandparents’ unions of postal and textile workers,” says Carolyn Richmond, cochair of Fox Rothschild LLP’s Hospitality Practice Group in New York. “They’re following a different model and redefining organizing efforts for this century. They want bigger-picture reform rather than battles with specific restaurant groups.”

“You’ll see some decent theater, but the unions have simply failed to resonate with employees,” says Andrew Rolfes, a Philadelphia-based labor and employment attorney.

Despite unfavorable results, many workers and their union partners remain committed. Kocher says the IWW will continue to build on its successes and refine its model, perhaps inspiring new employee groups to emerge.

“We’re trying to set a new precedent. Starbucks was the spark showing it was possible and should be done,” says Ayo Collins, an IWW Jimmy John’s Workers Union member.

Quick serves possess some of the traditional elements that stir organized labor: low wages; few benefits; and a working environment that presents several dangers.

If unions were to infiltrate the quick-service ranks, the impact would be significant, particularly for mom and pop operations that would struggle to meet the wage and benefit demands of organized labor. While most operators want to provide positive employee relations in a safe working environment, any aggressive resistance would stem from the massive cost increases union laborers would require.

“You can’t force a business to stay in business if they can’t afford it,” Richmond says.

What the Future Holds

While Starbucks remains locked in a multiyear unionization battle and Jimmy John’s October vote was organized labor’s first close call in the quick-service arena, many say unions in this sector will continue to fall flat. Rolfes points to the influential Service Employees International Union’s reluctance to enter quick-service battles and falling union penetration across the country as noteworthy trends.

Still, efforts remain steadfast. The Jimmy John’s group continues to push its “ 10 Point Program for Justice at Jimmy John’s,” which features calls for immediate across-the-board pay raises, consistent scheduling, paid sick days, affordable health care, paid leave for new mothers and fathers, and the release of monthly financial reports.

“We’re all standing together with each other for the same things,” Collins says.

Collins says no business in the customer-service sector can be successful with unhappy, overworked, embattled employees. The union, he says, is necessary to facilitate a positive working environment.

The unions’ continued insistence means restaurants will have to be vigilant, although Collins says an industry-wide wave of unionization is not imminent.

“If you see one union get its foot in the door with a national chain, then you could see some movement, though I’m not convinced one victory will mean a greater tipping point,” he says.

To combat any union potential, Richmond encourages employers to self-audit their restaurants, checking diversity, wage and labor law adherence, and workplace safety conditions, while enhancing communication with employees.

“You want to make sure you don’t need third-party involvement, and a great first defense against such a campaign is to be in accordance with the law,” Richmond says. “Good employers who do right by their employees don’t need a third party.”


Parasites of the world "UNITE!"

Message to fast food industry; keep treating your staff the way you do and you will chase your staff into the arms of the unions.

If it weren't for some of the quick service restaurants and their structure and pricing, alot of people in this country would not be able to go out and eat a meal. If the unions want to starve out grandma by making it even real expensive to go to a fast food place, then let them have that on their agenda. In France a BigMac there is $7, because they have union wages, if they want to push that in the are looking at high inflation at restaurants and alot of layoffs and slower service....GO AHEAD YOU DESPERATELY GREEDY UNIONS, YOUR DAY IS COMING AND IT IS NEAR !!!

Yeah, I would be super sad if Big Macs got more expensive, because it's definitely necessary to gorge myself on fast food all the time.Poor Grandma, though! Starving to death because fast food employees want to be treated better! It's too bad Grandma has absolutely no other options to eat than fast food!!

"With the profit margins of most fast food chains, we feel these are reasonable demands.Many of these "Chains" are really franchises. This means they are paying royalties and paying into national and regional advertising. This is anywhere from 4- 15% of revenue.Guess where the other 85-96% of revenue go? COGs.Why would I risk all that money to create profit (which in turn creates jobs) for 5%. Which in many cases is less than what the employees make. I wouldn't, nor would smart people.Hospitality has a way to go before it becomes the golden child of industry but they will never get the chance if they must close due to artificial wage increases and when the employee not the customer becomes the priority.

My father was a union man all his life at a time when unions were needed in an industry with REAL safety hazards as opposed to the "dangerous situations" that Aaron Kocher say exists in quick service restaurants. That isn't to say that there aren't hazards in restaurants but for the most part they are hazards that can be avoided with common sense and by paying attention. I also agree with a couple of the posts above that mention that profit margins usually aren't as great as the union thinks.In addition, it would be inevitable that prices would have to increase to fund the demands of the union which could result in the death spiral of less business to less workers needed and on and on and on. Add to that the restrictions that would probably be placed on the ability to terminate employees and pretty soon nobody gets a piece of the pie because the pie is gone and the business is closed for good.I've been in the QSR industry for over 35 years and realize that for a lot of people a job in Food Service isn't a career choice but usually the first and easiest choice to make when starting your work life after schooling. It's in this first job that employees learn what having a job is all about. They are taught responsibility, teamwork, pride in a job well done and how to learn from their mistakes.Unions had some value in the workplace and still do today to a lesser degree. In the past they helped set market wages and helped to create awareness to safety hazards in various industries. They became much less effective as the years went by. I remember in the 1980's when my fathers union held out not for higher wages but for a new pair of work boots every year. Wages were never the issue as far as I knew regarding their negotiations. Also during this time period a local union rep threatened me and my business if I didn't use union labor when I was trying to open a small business on a shoestring budget. To make a long story short, I couldn't afford to pay union wages for the small leasehold improvements and the union, in retaliation spent about 15-20 man hours to dismantle and re-arrange the gridwork on a false ceiling that was specifically designed to accomodate my restaurant's needs.In closing, unions have no place in QSR's. The turnover is historically higher than other industries which is one of the reasons that unionization has largely failed. They will create unfair restrictions on the business that will handcuff it and result in higher prices, severely understaffed restaurants and eventually the loss of jobs due to the closing of the location.

Please correct the name of the union in the article. It's the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), not International Workers of the World. The name of the union is derived from its union model: industry-based vs. craft-based. Source:

I agree with J. from Minneapolis that quick-service is no place for unions. Unions were valuable in INDUSTRIAL workplaces where skilled and semi-skilled workers would make a career working in a full-time job.Quick-service jobs are transient and temporary. They are generally low-skill jobs that don't require a lot of experience or training. Except, perhaps, for management, nobody expects quick-service employees to make a full-time career out of a quick-service job. Many of the jobs are part-time and often at hours that full-timers don't want.I think the unions are targeting quickservice BECAUSE of this. They don't want to make a better work environment for the employees -- they want more union dues!When I used to work as a part-time cashier in a union-controlled supermarket I paid the same monthly dues whether I worked 4 hours a week or 34 hours a week. A lot of low-hour part-time employees means a lot of dues for the union!

Maybe u should have checked the paperwork first before voting in the union! I am a union member and I am only required to pay 2% of my base pay. So if I work 1 hr at $10 per hour my dues are .20 cents

That depends on the union. I worked in Calforinia part time 50`cents above minimum wage and paid full monthly dues. Specifically SEUI, the ones that want the fast food industry.

There are plenty of unions in the US who represent very unskilled, uneducated workers. I recently came across a New York Times article about apartment building doormen in New York. Many of these guys are unionised and their minimum wage is over 20 dollars an hour! To me, working in a fast food restuarant seems much harder than being a doorman so I don't see why the former group shouldn't get a pay rise. Speaking of the New York Times, its print plant employees are also unionised and very well paid, despite doing jobs that require little or no skill or education. Same could be said of sanitation workers, construction workers and others. So you're assertion that it's only skilled and semi-skilled workers who've benefited from unions isn't quite true.

I am a franchise owner, we just opened our 4th restaurant. So far my partners and I have invested close to $2 million and we have not taken a out single DIME! We have worked for FREE for the last 4 years, building our business. We have employ over 100 people, including many managers with great salaries. Now unions want to come in a drive our costs beyond the possibility of recovering our investment? As usual those crooks only care about themselves, they have no concern about the "worker" and especially nothing but contempt for the people who actually create jobs. Unions are the parasites of this country, they don't create anything they only live off the work of the others, using extortion and lawyers to get their way. I'll burn my stores to the ground before I let a union worker in the door.

I agree with J too! Back in the early 20th century, it was the creation of organized unions that helped create the labor laws today... child labor laws, OSHA, minimum wage, etc etc. Now, unions handicapp business--and many don't realize--the workers themselves. They take their dues and you aren't given a choice. Joining the union should not be mandatory to work someplace, it should be a choice. I thought this was a *free* country? You can't do practically anything w/o your union rep holding your hand, and its created such a gap in certain industries between workers and management--it's like 'us vs. them'. As a result the desire in those industries to move up through the ranks is practically non existent. You go to work not even bothering to try to succeed.On the flip side, for the business--they have to go through so much red tape to hold employees accountable it's ridiculous. Lazy employees protected by their union allowed to do the bare minimum to meet standards. Look at the teacher's union. Horrible teachers get tenured and it's near impossible to let them go--and who suffers? Our children.The union mentioned here is the worst. I don't know what a Jimmy Johns is but I know my Starbucks--and the IWW has no place in it. Of all places in QSR--and in 23 years I've grown up in it and worked at them all it seems--Starbucks is the least to need unionization. They pay competitive hourly wages as compared to other QSR or fast food, generally $1-2 above minimum wage. Other retail hourly positions may pay more, but their products cost more. Remember the average customer only spends $4 in a Starbucks. Starbucks offers it's PARTNERS (what they call all employees) benefits (even PT averaging only 20 hrs a week), tuition reimbursement, 401k, vacation pay, stock options and stock investment plan, perks discounts, etc. Hourlies get tips and salaried get bonus if they meet targets. And they have always done this voluntarily--it didn't take a union to force any of that on them--they do it because it's the right thing to do. IWW got their fingers on a couple of disgruntled partners in the NYC area and suddenly it was news. Nothing they tried to say they could get for partners if they agreed to unionize was any more special then what the partners already get.In all honesty, if a union might be needed anywhere--it might be the franchised fast food like Mickey Ds. They don't care about anything or anyone beyond making enough to pay costs and royalties and end up with their profit in most cases. They pay minimum only to start (in NYC that's what $7.25?) and don't offer benefits or if so only for FT at 35 hours +. Even then though I think corporate should police that and threaten losing franchise rights--because as someone said above, franchise also isn't easy and what's worse not having a job at all if they can't stay in business due to costs?All in all, unions were important in history and got us to where we need to be. But I feel they have no place in current times.

These organized self ritious anarchists respect the law only when it benefits them. The leaders of these groups are primarily self loathing trust fund brats that never had to work a real job in their life. The collateral damage they cause to the workers and the families get self justified in the name of the cause. Check out their websites and look at the real agenda. Capitalism is bad, blah, blah, blah. Hey IWW go %*#! Yourself, your time has passed.

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