Jimmy Johns

Notes from a Jimmy John’s Worker (Part 3)

This is the conclusion of three part series on work at Jimmy John’s.  See Part One and Part Two.

Despite the commonplace misperception that fast-food workers are lazy, resentful teens who need to learn how to work, the opposite is true. At Jimmy Johns the workers’ mood is very often serious, hopeful, and dedicated. Those workers lacking those qualities soon fail their coworkers and earn the ire both of them and of the management, and they are canned soon enough. This is true, in my experience, in the fast food, restaurant, and service industries generally. Workers may resent their bosses, despise their conditions and despair for redress of their grievances, but those are features of opinion or emotion, not an attitude or lifestyle. Certainly, in any case, no coworker of mine who is “lazy” will make it through a single lunch-shift. Even hard work is not enough—if you bungle up enough you are also a target to be fired, as happened recently after a new-hire made some mistakes. It was his first job, and he was also serving in the Army as a Hazmat responder. He never received proper training and when he made a few too many mistakes, he was fired.

The ideology of Jimmy John’s workers runs the full political spectrum from right-wing libertarian, to fascist, to conservative, moderate, liberal, social democratic, anarchist, and communist. The workers are mostly white, largely male, and women considered by management to be “unattractive” are seldom hired or kept around long unless they have exceptional skills and reliability.

Jimmy John’s workers, as members of the working class as a whole, are exploited by Jimmy John’s owners, who,  as members of the capitalist class, exploit the working class as a whole. A worker can go from one employer to another, but a worker cannot escape capitalism, which daily tightens its grip around the class.

The reality is that the restaurant industry is the second-lowest paid industry in the United States, after migrant farm labor. Like migrant farm workers, the difference between the earnings of our wealthy bosses and the wages we bring home to our families is extremely meager. Precarity, too, is a feature of our industry that is shared with migrant workers. We have no job security. Juggling two or three jobs, often including school, and struggling to maintain a social life after household, family and private responsibilities, workers are at risk every day from losing their job from tardiness, or “lack of enthusiasm.”

We come to work—in restaurants, mind you—with the worst congestion and coughs, horrible migraines or minor back injuries, even delirium and vomiting, and proceed to prepare food for our fellow workers who do not have the luxury to sit around at home and make themselves lunch. To call in sick, if you are actually sick, is economic suicide. For it to be acceptable, the worker must bring a slip from a doctor—a visit that can cost over a hundred dollars for the 60% or so of us working there with no health insurance whatsoever. In addition, that day’s wages are lost. This doesn’t include the cost of living on that day, or driving to the doctor, or the prescriptions—and there is almost always a prescription.

Even with a slip you are suspect and looked down upon for not having worked. But who can afford it? So we come to work and cough all over the sandwiches or fight back tears as our wisdom teeth saw through our swollen gums or repress our worries—will I make rent this month? Should I buy shampoo or an extra gallon of milk? What will I do about my speeding ticket?

When a worker is fired for some petty offense, or quits for want of dignity or more gainful employment, or is laid off, it is very likely that worker will go right away to some other restaurant or store in the service industry, or if not there, to work at some factory or warehouse. I have rarely met a restaurant worker who had worked at fewer than 2 other restaurants in their brief employ with the food barons, or who would soon work at another 2, or did not presently work at 2 different restaurants. A worker will lose her job at a pizzeria, get another at a diner, and another at another pizzeria, lose the former and then take on a position at a cafe, only to lose it the next day for showing up with the incorrect uniform, and so on.

It is in this way that the youth—whose unemployment rate is far greater than the national average— are kept poor and only a short paycheck away from homelessness and utter impoverished misery.

But this is not all. The union rate is the lowest in any industry in the country, at just 1.8%, and this naturally has a negative effect on wages and conditions and a positive effect on profits. Lacking any sort of organization to defend them, the Jimmy John’s workers will, fired or mistreated, commit petty sabotage if their temper is high, and that is typical, although sometimes workers leave without a peep, their self-respect trampled and their prospects for redress hopeless.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, a multi-year campaign by the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World union resulted in around 100 Jimmy John’s workers signing union cards and submitting them to the NLRB in an attempt to make the IWW Jimmy John’s Workers Union the official union of the chain in that area.

Up to that time, however, management had been met with multiple union delegations of the workers, and refused to negotiate, arguing that “the IWW is not a real union.” It is a strange thing, then, that the company outspent the IWW 70-to-1 in propaganda against the union during the pre-union vote period! Nonetheless, although the company spent $85,000 fighting the union drive, the union received 85 votes in favor and 87 against, a narrow victory for the boss that cost him nearly $1,000 a vote!

These were the union’s demands: A pay increase to above minimum wage; consistent scheduling; minimum shift lengths (at present, some shifts are as short as one hour); regularly scheduled breaks, (the employee handbook explains we “are not entitled to breaks by law”; sick days; no-nonsense workers compensation for job-related injuries; an end to sexual harassment at work; basic fairness on the job.

I believe that these demands would also be adequate for my workplace, for every Jimmy John’s restaurant, and for virtually every fast food restaurant in the entire country. But we must start somewhere: at our own workplaces. The Jimmy John’s workers of Minneapolis nearly succeeded in being the first fast food restaurant in the United States to unionize, and this was only possible because of the unity of a hundred workers from ten different stores.

The only possible way that workers can win improved wages and conditions is through working class unity, across all skill, trade, and industry lines. Broader, firmer unity will increase the likelihood of success in these struggles. It is only through these struggles that the workers will become conscious of themselves as being members of an entire class of people—the working class-who, as Marx and Engels put it, have nothing to lose but their chains, and have a world to win.


Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!