Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fast Food Unions, Part One

In recent years, the Industrial Workers of the World -- yes, the wobblies are still around! -- has had some success at organizing baristas and fast food workers. Getting these folks into good unions has not been an easy task, but over the long haul IWW has helped bring a Starbucks union into being and is now struggling to assist the employees of the Jimmy Johns fast food chain.

The Jimmy Johns Workers Union was formulated in Minneapolis this fall, asking their employers for things a lot of workers in other industries have: sick days, consistent scheduling, a chance to earn a wage they can live on. In the fast food industry, an average work week is 24 hours at an average wage of eight bucks an hour. Working at Jimmy Johns is tougher than even this. If you work there, there is a good chance you will work less than 20 hours at the minimum wage ($7.25). There are no benefits. Jimmy Johns has delivery people on bicycles in the snow but no sick days when they catch a cold or get injured. This means, by the way, that people have to handle food and serve it to the public while ill.

In a rather spectacular event that made the news, an employee (also in Minneapolis) arrived at work to discover the freezer had broken down overnight, and all the meat had gone bad. She called her supervisor. Supervisor said, cut the meat and serve it. She said no way. They argued. Supervisor came in himself, and proceeded to prepare the meat to serve to the public. Employees called the Department of Health, which came to the scene and busted the store. That employee nearly lost her lousy job for her heroism.

This is all taking place at a time we all know is very bad for workers. It's not as if they can just go out and find something better. The recession and the terrible job market are forcing more people into food service jobs.

Time to organize. Which is what the Jimmy Johns employees did.

I'm going to write more about the process of forming a union, and how it has fared over at Jimmy Johns, because it is actually of interest and we should all be educated about it. The presence of authentic grassroots labor organizing during these economic times is newsworthy and relevant to how we, as human beings, negotiate our affairs during this time we find ourselves alive. I hope you'll find it educational and invigorating, or something.

[Photo: Jimmy Johns union demonstration in Minneapolis in September]


Adam said...

I worked at Starbucks for almost 5 years in Seattle - downtown. This is where the heart of the company is supposed to be. And usually, I saw that. All you had to do was maintain 20 hours/week, and you got full benefits. Managers were generally accomadating to those that wanted the full 20 hours as long as they showed up on time, and were good workers. FULL benefits. And the employee contribution was about half what I'm paying now (and it was much better insurance). In the district I was in, people didn't get fired for no reason. People were promoted that generally deserved to be (though at the management level, there were some noses that were much browner than others....). I loved it. It was a mostly great group of people to work with.

So when I heard about the baristas in New York that wanted to unionize, I thought, Why? We already had it better than most.

But then I moved up to Bellingham, and saw some of the tactics I had heard about in NY. People's hours being very irregular with for no real reason, people being "managed out" if they didn't agree with some of the policy decisions of the store or company. So I started to understand their position.

I've always held mixed feelings on Unions. I grew up in a UAW household. I support them at times, but I also am enough of a realist to see that the Union did help to choke out GM. In times the company was loosing millions, workers wanted more cash, more benefits, and better job security. Demands and some wages became unreasonable (no, you can't pay someone $30 an hour to push a broom) and there were plenty of workers that fell into the stereotypical "lazy union worker" mode and just sat around because they knew that management couldn't fire them.

I wish more people would form unions, I really do. But at the same time, people do need to be reasonable about their demands. You can't expect to make 35,000 a year with full benefits paid by your employer to flip burgers.

Kelly said...

I look forward to your union posts. I know they serve a purpose, and you shared some good examples here, but overall when I hear the word "union", negative images come to my mind.
Educate me.

Algernon said...
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Algernon said...
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Algernon said...
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Algernon said...

Unions are not perfect. They are, after all, full of human beings! Unions can act as part of the problem; but what we are told in our media and by our nation's leaders is that the existence of unions is part of the problem. That message is a powerful weapon -- but only if those of us who do the work choose to believe it.

The claim that unions killed GM does not add up. The claim that union employees were making $70 per hour, for instance, was obvious propaganda. The way the employers got that number was by adding up all of their labor costs in aggregate, including those for retirees, and dividing by the number of hours worked by current employees. Presto, they fabricated the astonishing (and false) claim that the employees was actually making $70 an hour. Darn those unions. Some, but not all, of the news media ran with that and stirred up anti-union sentiment among voters.

What the numbers also show is that labor accounts for only 10% of the cost of a car. Our cars are priced low in comparison to their Japanese equivalents, and yet our auto industry is once again reporting enormous profits. Is there something wrong with sharing some of that with the people who actually do the work and build those cars?

Is it reasonable for someone to make a living wage and full benefits for flipping burgers? To answer that question, let's look at the profit margin. It's a popular service. People love their burgers (and I can always go for some french fries myself). Are the owners of this chain making substantial profits thanks to other people's labor? Then yes, it is reasonable for them to share some of that profit with the people who are making them rich. This is not a popular position in the United States, but from every angle I look at it, that seems fair to me. The idea that being wealthy and owning things entitles you to exploit other human beings is, in fact, the foundation of our social order; but that doesn't mean I have to believe it is moral.

Yet we seem to be torn up about this. We wish to be paid well for our own work, but when we hear of other people in our social position making a good living for what they do, a lot of us react as if they have gotten away with something. Meanwhile, we are taught to respect and defer to owners, and not make their business difficult by demanding fair wages, benefits, and a safe place to do our work. It is as if we have internalized some sort of caste system, where asking for your due is an act of subversion or treachery.

This is how power works in a state that has some degree of democracy. You can't be seen chaining people up in a republic like ours. You have to chain people's minds.

Adam said...

"but what we are told in our media and by our nation's leaders is that the existence of unions is part of the problem."

I absolutely agree here.

Let me give you 1 example. When my Father became head of all of the CFC for 4 of the plants there at Delphi (or whatever the hell its called now) it took him 6 months to fire a worker he caught coming in late regularly, sleeping on the job, and hanging out in the breakroom when he should have been working. This happend for 3 different people, and he really, really pissed off the Union reps. It had been a long time since that many people had been fired. It took so long because of all the ridiculous administratvie hurdles that were in place to discourage management from being able to shit-can people that should have been out on the street a long time ago.

Now, I do agree that we should be paying people more, and providing things like sick days and some benefits to part time workers. A single person should be able to make an okay living on minimum wage. That means a decent roof over their heads, health insurance, and enough $ to get by. There will always be a bottom of the wage scale as long as we live in a capitalist monetary system. I firmly believe that what we currently consider the "bottom" is well below what the richest and free-ist country should be able to offer. And I do think that unions could have a significant role to play in ensuring that happens. Personally I think the entire system is effed, and we have 1, maybe 2 more generations to get it right before it collapses in some way.

I'll leave you with two more examples I've witnessed first hand. There used to be a UAW campground and nature center up in Black Lake, MI that was just for UAW memebers. It was awesome. We went up there many years in a row. But then, the Union decided to close it to turn it into a private retreat for the head guys, and put in a golf course.

While I was working in a grocery store as a teen, the cashiers and stockers were all UFCW. Management tried to let one of the older cashiers go for what we all knew to be age discrimination. The union came in, threatened action, and the cashier was able to keep her job and eventually retire.

They have their place and their power can be great. Sometimes, much too great.

Petteri Sulonen said...

The function of a company is to maximize its profit in order to provide value to its shareholders.

No, wait.

How many times have you heard that stated as if it were an unchallengeable truth, like gravity or bears shitting in the woods?

How many times have you heard it challenged?

The other day, I suggested to someone that the function of a company is to provide value to its customers, gainful employment to its employees, and profit to its shareholders. The suggestion was shrugged off as a "Communist version."

Unions can—and do—become corrupt, just like any structure with power. Sometimes they start to actively collude with Big Capital to screw over the people they're supposed to be representing. At other times, they get screwed up in other ways. Finland has powerful unions; the trouble is that the most powerful ones are representing industrial workers with steady employment, leaving service-sector employees with temporary jobs without representation and with correspondibly poor working conditions.

There have been attempts to unionize the precariat, but that hasn't yet borne much fruit. I can't see why it shouldn't work. It's just a matter of, yes, class consciousness.

Sometimes unions need to be reformed or overthrown too. But that doesn't mean that unions as such are bad, any more than that government as such is bad (or commercial incorporation as such is bad).