Skip to main content

Power Concedes Nothing Without Demand: Courtesy and Class Struggle at Jimmy John's

It may come as a surprise to those who have never worked in the food industry to hear that not only Jimmy John's sandwiches, but also the pizzas, salads, burgers, and burritos that are consumed in many American restaurants often have a few secret ingredients: cold, flu, and other germs. There is a simple reason for this. Jimmy John's and many other fast food restaurants do not allow workers to take sick days. Management pressures sick workers to find a replacement or come to work. In addition, wages at Jimmy John's and throughout US food service are so low that workers cannot afford to take a day off if they fall ill. The result of these pressures is that American restaurant workers work while sick, creating an enormous public health risk. The evidence is not just anecdotal; in a recent study performed by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, of 793 employees surveyed 72% said they worked while they had severe flu symptoms. It doesn't have to be this way. According to an Institute for Social Health and Policy study, 127 countries guaranteed at least a week of paid sick days per year for all workers.

The IWW Jimmy John's Workers Union is tired of seeing our coworkers with colds, the flu, or even strep throat be forced to risk getting written up or being fired for protecting public health. So we proposed a simple solution to Mike and Rob Mulligan, the owners of our franchise. For weeks, we called on them to allow workers to call in sick and provide some paid time off. Week after week, they ignored our polite requests. As flu season hit its peak, we gave them an ultimatum–-reform your sick day policy or we will inform the public that you are putting private profits over public health.

Mike and Rob Mulligan refused, so we put up 3000 posters throughout the city alerting the public that the sandwiches you consume could be filled with cold and flu germs from workers who can't take a day off.

In retaliation for blowing the whistle, Jimmy John's fired six outspoken union members in an attempt to silence us.

While we were not entirely surprised that Mike and Rob Mulligan put their personal profit over the well-being of their employees and customers, we were somewhat dismayed to see the Minnesota Daily Editorial Board oppose our poster action as 'going too far.' The truth that our posters revealed is certainly an ugly truth, but it is the truth nonetheless, and we have a duty to the public to tell it.

While I disagree strongly with the Editorial Board's view that informing the public of the health hazard caused by workers being forced to work sick is 'going too far', I have come to realize that this opens an important debate for all of us about the rapidly increasing polarization of our society.

We are in for a storm here in the USA. So far, Minnesota has been spared the gail-force winds of change that have shaken our neighbors in Wisconsin. But the calm won't last forever. The economic crash of 2008 has given business elites the green light to squeeze workers like never before. We are facing unprecedented levels of economic inequality, massive unemployment, skyrocketing education costs, a decaying physical infrastructure, and an assault on our basic right to organize. As things get worse, it is becoming clear to more and more working people that we do not have the same interests as the business elites of this nation, and we need to fight back as a class to halt the decay of our communities.

Whether we fight back with a poster or a protest, the rich and powerful of our society will always portray our actions as rude, violent, stupid, or unnecessary. As you consider your own view of the unfolding class struggle in the United States, I would ask you to remember the words of Frederick Douglas, who wrote,

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand."

I would ask the MN Daily Editorial Board to be less anxious about the thunder and lightning, and be more grateful that finally, as a new labor movement begins to stir at Jimmy John's and beyond, it might be about to rain for the millions of working people who have been left hanging out to dry.