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Solution for the Great Recession? Check Out the Sandwich Workers at Jimmy John’s

By Daniel Gross

With the political elites and professional pundits awaiting President Obama’s proposal to boost the economy next week, a far more compelling path to safeguard the financial health of working families emerged in an unlikely place. Whichever tepid government plan moves forward won’t alter, in the long run, the economic decline of America’s hard-working men and women. Because the problems facing this country’s working class are problems that government can’t and certainly won’t fix – can’t because the problem is a lack of self-organization among working people and won’t because the politicians side with the monied interests who fund their campaigns, not with workers.

Look for the Union Label

So the well-intentioned people calling for this or that economic initiative from the President next week, ought to look instead to the good folks who prepare and serve sandwiches at the Minneapolis locations of national fast food chain, Jimmy John’s. (If you live in one of the 11 states that the company hasn’t expanded to yet and haven’t heard of it, you can think of the Jimmy John’s brand as Subway with an irreverent, college-town vibe).

The solution implemented by the Jimmy John’s workers is both beguiling in its simplicity and stunning in its power. They decided not to petition government, run away from a bad situation and find another bad job, or keep making futile pleas as individuals for change from their bosses. On September 2, in anticipation of Labor Day weekend, workers at nine Minneapolis Jimmy John’s stores announced that they had formed a member-run union with the most innovative labor organization in the country, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The workers are seeking to create good jobs at Jimmy John’s instead of the minimum wage gigs with no benefits and fluctuating schedules that currently prevail at the chain. By the way, the corporate public relations-speak for these kinds of jobs was ably demonstrated by Rob and Mike Mulligan, the owners of the nine Minneapolis Jimmy John’s locations. The millionaire Mulligan brothers angrily reacted to the workers’ decision to organize by explaining that they, “offer competitive wages and good local jobs.” So remember, next time fast food executives talk about “competitive wages”, they mean minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. “Good” means the jobs are good for the boss’s bank account. And “local” means the company executives were kind enough not to outsource the sandwich making function to China or India.

Tea Parties and Class Wars

In February of last year, CNBC’s Rick Santelli called for a Tea Party rebellion after he disparaged homeowners who had been duped, misled, lied to, and generally defrauded into sure-to-explode mortgages fueled by derivative trader-gamblers at the likes of AIG, Deutsche Bank, and Goldman Sachs. While Santelli was off the mark of course, his call for an upsurge of dissent would be well-placed in the workplaces of America like Jimmy John’s.

Warren Buffet famously remarked, “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” He’s right. And the only way working people will stop losing this war is if we stop looking up at government and start looking around to our co-workers on the job.

That’s what the Jimmy John’s workers did and they didn’t wait for a union to come around to them.  They were proactive and got organized on their own with the support of the IWW. And thank goodness they didn’t just wait around, given the mainstream labor movement’s apparent lack of interest and even greater lack of success in organizing the millions of workers in fast food. It’s telling that the workers chose to connect with the IWW, a very different kind of union, where rank & file workers on the shop floor do the research, planning, organizing, and actions in a union campaign, rather than the union being run by a professional staff not present in the workplace. This organizing model has been best articulated by legendary scholar and attorney, Staughton Lynd, who also gave the approach its name: solidarity unionism.

Building Forward

Labor Day has become the official day for hand-wringing over the decline of organized labor (just over 7% of private sector workers are union members). And President Obama has chosen next week to announce his new economic stimulus proposals.

But it’s the workers at Jimmy John’s who have put their finger on the real source of the economic, political, and social problems facing working families today: the lack of sufficient working-class organization and the collective action on the job that comes with it.  Without an organized, mobilized working class, the large corporations and their agents in government will continue their multi-faceted assault on working families with no serious opposition.

Far from hand-wringing, the Jimmy John’s workers are organizing, undaunted by the huge swath of unorganized workers in the fast food industry. Indeed, the workers seem energized and excited to enter this largely uncharted territory and assist or inspire others to do the same.

So this Labor Day, I’m not going along with the illusion that change comes from above and I won’t be watching President Obama’s announcement next week. I’m throwing my lot in with the sandwich workers at Jimmy John’s.

Daniel Gross, a member of the IWW, is a workers’ rights attorney and the director of Brandworkers, a non-profit organization protecting and advancing the rights of retail and food employees.

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