Minimum Rage: College Grads in the Service Industry
(Page 4 of 8)
The two sides began courting the 200 Jimmy John’s employees eligible to join. The owner of the franchise, Mike Mulligan, hired union-busting consultants from the Labor Relations Institute, who held anti-union video screenings on Saturday mornings with coffee and doughnuts. Workers donned “Vote no” and “Vote yes” buttons. Pro-union and anti-union posters were taped side-by-side on bathroom doors. At first, the union members were mostly educated, activist types like Erik. But the union grew to two dozen people as a few other workers started to trickle in to meetings. Workers with kids and chronic health problems and elderly parents. Workers with a lot to lose.
But most of the workers in the latter group didn’t support the IWW’s organizing effort. There was Charles, a 19-year-old black kid living in the poorest neighborhood in town who wore both a pro-union and an anti-union pin because he was afraid of losing his job. There was Choo Choo, a 30-year-old black single mom who was saving up to move back to Gary, Indiana, where her three kids were staying.
In October 2010, workers cast their ballots, and the union lost by two votes. A few months later, after the organizers cited unfair labor practices, the NLRB threw out the election results and announced a settlement allowing the union to set up another vote within 18 months.
By the time March 2011 rolled around, the group was ready to stage its next action. The official Jimmy John’s policy is “Don’t work sick,” but workers are required to find someone healthy to cover their shift. Many claimed they were written up or even fired when they were unable to do so. Union supporters started wearing buttons that said, “Sick of working sick.” They inundated the owners with disapproving calls. When the bosses ignored them, the union blanketed Minneapolis with 3,000 fliers that featured images of two identical sandwiches and dared passersby to guess which one was made by a sick worker. “Can’t tell the difference?” it read. They’re not exactly alone—only 12 percent of food service workers get paid sick days.
Even though Alyssa Rodewald had voted “yes” in the election, she’d stayed out of the union fight because she was afraid she would lose her job. The Native American teen had recently fled her family’s cramped, abusive home, and she was terrified of losing the apartment she’d busted her ass to afford. But the sick-day campaign resonated with her. And as luck would have it, a few days after she made clear to her manager that she supported the union, Alyssa came down with a stomach bug.
When she woke up for her double shift that morning, she could barely stand up. She says that when she couldn’t find someone to cover for her, she tried to call in sick, but her manager told her she’d lose her job if she didn’t show up. Every bump on the 35-minute bus ride to work felt like a punch in the stomach. As soon as she got there, Alyssa ran to the bathroom to throw up. She was sweating and shivering. After a heated exchange with her manager, she left—but first she had to sit by the phone and call a list of coworkers to find a replacement. The next time she came in for her shift, she says, she was fired.
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