Working on the Subway Line

Recently in Socialist Appeal, we published a series of articles following a day in the life of a Jimmy John’s worker. As a former employee of Subway, another sandwich shop and currently the largest fast-food operation in the country, I can confirm that the conditions described reflect the conditions found throughout the fast-food industry, and would like to relay some of my own experiences.

In the fall of 2008, I moved to a new  area, armed with a college degree and the assumption that I should be able to find work within a reasonable time frame. However, the economy went into free fall at precisely that time, and I ended up having an incredibly difficult time finding work. With an official unemployment rate of 9.1% and an unofficial number double that, this is something millions of Americans are currently dealing with. In my search for work, I ended up applying everywhere until I finally ended up at Subway six months later.

When a person has gone without employment for a considerable amount of time, the immediate inclination upon finding a job is to do everything possible to avoid losing that job, including accepting poor wages and long hours.

Fast-food, more than almost any other industry in the U.S., thrives on what Marxists call the “reserve army of labor.” Fast-food and other low-wage industries use the threat of millions of people desperate for any job and willing to work for almost nothing to drive wages down. This keeps the fast-food wage as close to the state minimum as possible.

We need to be clear: to capitalists and owners in low-wage, service sector industries, unemployment is a functional phenomenon. It is not something to be done away with, but rather, maintained. Unemployment at a certain level—high enough to swell the ranks of those desperate for work, yet low enough to maintain the production process—is useful to extract more surplus value from the workforce. This shows the basic inhumanity and outmoded character of the capitalist system, which cannot resolve in a permanent way the basic problem of unemployment.

Not only is the threat of firing used to drive down wages, it is also used to encourage “team players” in the workplace. By “building a team,” the bosses do not mean building a cohesive unit based on solidarity, but rather a “team” consisting of each individual employee in an alliance with management against every other “team member.” They use the threat of layoffs, cutting hours, etc., to encourage employees to rat on each other, to gossip and complain about their fellow workers to management.

This can create a work environment similar in many ways to dystopian novels like 1984, where Big Brother is potentially behind every corner, using the eyes and ears of your fellow workers. Many workers don’t actually play along in this system and actually can find often creative ways of fighting back, but it is a system based on the ever present fear and danger of unemployment, which is always hanging over everyone’s head.

What am I complaining about though? I did have a job, which should have been enough for me, right? We are often told all that is needed is to “create more jobs” to raise people out of poverty. The problem is that the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Fast-food employees, at best, work 35–40 hours a week, almost never over 40, with most barely getting 10–20. I worked there for a year before I became one of the “lucky ones” working 35+ hours a week. However, even with those hours, the wages were barely enough to live on. In fact, had I not been sharing the rent with a friend and comrade of mine, I would not have been able to survive.

The shop I worked at gave me one raise over a three year stretch. Not only that, the shop I worked at didn’t even print my new wage on my paycheck slip! Instead my “raise” was added on as a “bonus.” It was always made clear that any “stepping out of line” would result in a withholding of the “bonus” from an employees paycheck.

As to the legality of such measures, I can only speculate, but the one thing that we can be sure of is that the franchisee that I worked for, who owns nearly 20 stores, could afford the army of lawyers that it would take to convince a court that up is down and black is white. While not opposed in principle to legal efforts to defend our rights, we also need to understand that the cards are stacked against us. The entire judicial apparatus is designed for the defense of private property rights, not workers’ rights.

The shop also had another “bonus” system, which is used to push its workers to their limit. Theoretically, if you achieved a predetermined sales goal, had no customer complaints for an entire month, and received positive corporate reviews for two months in a row, everyone in the store would receive a “bonus.” Nearly everyone was always excited about the prospect of receiving this mythical bonus. In three years of working there it never materialized.

The high turnover rate and constant flow of new employees was useful to the bosses. How is one to know that a bonus is unlikely if one has only worked at the shop for a month? By the second of my three years working at the store, I was the only one left who had been there when I started, with the exception of an older woman who had left the store only to be forced to return to work several months later, presumably due to difficulty making ends meet. With very little collective memory at the store, the abstract potential of a “bonus” was utilized by the bosses to push everyone to work that little bit harder, allowing the owners to squeeze even more profits from their workers.

Sandwich shops have a relatively small workforce, with less specialization when it comes to the tasks required of the workers. This allows the owners incredible flexibility when creating the schedule, which often doesn’t see the board until the day before the new week starts, and sometimes not until the next week has already started! The small workforce also leads to problems when an injury or illness occurs, as the drive for profits at the expense of all else places both the workers and customers at risk.

As required by law, the store had posted warnings in the back about what to do if one was ill. However, on many occasions employees worked through minor illnesses (including several potentially contagious ones), simply because they could not afford to take time off. The attitude of different managers to this varied widely, with my last manager actually erring very much on the side of sending people home, while others subtly encouraged us to work through illnesses.

I saw terrible cuts and burns at work. I saw co-workers courageously fight through pain and distress to avoid loss of pay, which they should not have had to do. One of our managers actually locked away the Band-Aids in a special cabinet, because if they were in the medical kit where they were required to be, she feared that we would “waste them.” I worked the night shift, and the manager wasn’t there. During her nightmarish reign, the night shift was forced regularly to construct makeshift bandages from napkins and masking tape. It goes without saying that conditions like these are deplorable and unacceptable, but nothing is being done to correct them.

At one of the other stores in our unit, there was a backup of the sewers which leaked human feces into the shop through the drainage holes in the back of the store. After employees cleaned up this mess, they received direct instructions from the owner himself to reopen the store for the last half-hour of operation. They argued that their shoes and socks were soaked in human waste, but the owner was insistent.

Such blatant disregard for sanitation puts workers and customers at risk, but the owner of the store I worked at is not unique. The store’s policies are a logical outcome of the placing of profits above the rights and dignity of the workers and the quality of the food.

The problems at the store I worked at are by and large the same as those throughout the fast-food industry. The solutions are also the same. Workers in fast-food need to be organized in unions. We can fight for and win the rights that we deserve, but not on an individual basis. We suffer together, we must fight together. It will not be easy. The laws are not on our side. The unemployment crisis benefits the bosses. Nonetheless, there is progress being made on the ground in organizing fast-food.

The stalled, but nonetheless heroic effort of the Twin Cities Jimmy John’s workers to form a union is one example. The formation of a pizza delivery drivers’ union at Domino’s in Florida a few years ago is another.

The push to organize fast-food and all of the unorganized must continue. The unions must invest their considerable resources and organizers into this effort. It must mobilize the entire labor movement to organize fast-food and other service sector workers. Organizing this vast sector of the economy would not only dramatically improve the quality of life of millions of workers, but would strengthen the labor movement as a whole. The bosses will fight us tooth and nail, but we have the numbers and the will to win.

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