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Did Jimmy John’s Fire Yet Another Worker for Supporting a Union?

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Bruce VailFranchise operators at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches in Baltimore are proving true to the national chain’s anti-union reputation with an aggressive counter-attack against local labor organizing, including a decision in late January to fire an outspoken union supporter, say advocates for the Jimmy John’s Workers Union, an affiliate of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World.

Delivery driver Brennan Leister says he was fired Jan. 23 at the Jimmy John’s location in downtown Baltimore’s tourist district. The reason cited by the manager was an infraction of the rules governing clocking out for breaks. But the “real reason,” Leister charges, is that he is an active and vocal union supporter. He says he is likely to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the firing, but that he intends to continue to agitate for the union whether he is re-hired or not.

Leister’s dismissal is of a piece with the franchisee’s larger effort to push back against the union campaign, sometimes using tactics that appear to violate labor law, says Issac Dalto, also a Jimmy John’s delivery driver and union supporter. Since going public with their organizing effort last year, Dalto says, the local franchise owners fired another prominent union supporter, distributed anti-union materials in worker paychecks and hired a local anti-union law firm to contest separate unfair labor practice charges filed at the NLRB by the union last August.

Those charges are now tied up in NLRB delays as the franchisees challenge the Board’s subpoena of company employment records, Dalto reports. Appearing on NLRB documents as the representative of Jimmy John’s franchisees Daniel Dorch and Michael Gilette is Kevin McCormick, a lawyer with the firm Whiteford Taylor Preston. The firm’s own website states it handles “union organizational avoidance” for businesses of all kinds.

Three telephone calls to McCormick seeking comment were not returned. Similar e-mail requests were ignored.

The dismissal of Leister prompted a street demonstration on his behalf by union supporters January 31. Held in front of the Jimmy John’s downtown Baltimore location (near to the entrance of the Camden Yards baseball stadium), the demonstration saw about 25 union backers march on an informational picket line as thousands of sports fans streamed by on their way to a “FanFest” celebration for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. Fans also packed the Jimmy John’s restaurant, as members of the local police department kept a close eye on the demonstrators.

Demanding that Leister be re-hired, the demonstrators also protested the low wages at the sandwich shop. Leister emphasized the point by telling In These Times that he had been hired at a wage $7.25 an hour in June 2013 and had not received an increase until this year, when state minimum wage law mandated an increase. He estimates that income from tips upped his hourly income to about $10 an hour, but that the cost of maintenance and repair of his personal bicycle cancelled most of the additional tip income. Drivers were provided with company-owned bikes when he started at Jimmy John’s in 2013, he says, but the vehicles were taken away and drivers required to supply their own bikes thereafter.

These kinds of wages are typical at the more than 2,000 Jimmy John’s restaurants around the country, Dalto adds, and spurred a highly publicized effort establish a union at for the company’s workers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 2010. The effort was defeated, Dalto says, using the same tactics now being employed by the Baltimore franchisees.

The IWW campaign in Baltimore emerged into public view last year just as the fast food strikes began grabbing national headlines. Although there is no formal connection between the Baltimore organizers and the IWW’s national campaign to organize low-wage service sector workers—which also include a long-running Starbucks organizing campaign—and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-led Fight for 15 campaign, both groups have stressed the need to boost the chronic low pay of fast-food workers and to introduce other workplace improvements.

Leister says that his dismissal was an attempt to intimidate other workers who may consider supporting the union: “They want to create a climate of fear. The fast-food industry depends on working mothers and other income workers who can’t afford to lose a paycheck. They want you to fear the management, to fear the boss.”

This article originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on February 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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