Sick of working sick
MINNEAPOLIS--Dozens of people came out March 31 to support a lunchtime picket by Jimmy John's sandwich shop workers who are demanding the right to not work when they're sick.
With chants such as "What's disgusting? Union-busting! What's outrageous? Working contagious!" workers and allies sported Hazmat suits, hygienic masks and stethoscopes, and held large cardboard thermometers.
They were also demanding the reinstatement of six workers recently fired for their involvement in the campaign over being able to call out sick--members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-affiliated Jimmy John's Workers' Union.
Just last fall, workers at the franchise rejected joining the union in an 87-85 vote that many say was heavily influenced by the company's deliberate anti-union efforts.
Currently, workers at the Twin Cities chain are not only not paid sick leave, but they face the risk of being fired for merely calling in sick. A new company attendance policy mandates that workers be at least disciplined for trying to call in sick. The only way to avoid this is if workers manage to find their own replacement.
"But when you wake up sick, that's almost impossible," said David Boehnke, a Jimmy John's worker of two years and one of the six who were fired.
Thus, a recent report found that this policy leads to workers coming in nearly 80 percent of the time when they're sick, with the average worker working four days while sick every year, largely because they are unable to afford not to. This calculates out to two workers showing up sick every day to one of the 10 locations of the citywide franchise. "It's crazy...And it's particularly crazy in food service," added Boehnke.
THE SIX workers, all active in the union, were fired following a publicity campaign that involved thousands of posters being put up around the city in an effort to raise awareness of the workers' ongoing fight. The posters depict two identical sandwiches--one is labeled as having been made by a healthy Jimmy John's worker; the other by a sick one.
"Can't tell the difference?" the poster says. "That's too bad, because Jimmy John's workers don't get paid sick days. Shoot, we can't even call in sick. We hope your immune system is ready, because you're about to take the sandwich test."
According to Micah Buckley-Farlee, another of the six fired employees, the company used the posters as an excuse to target those they deemed key union organizers, claiming the material was "defamatory."
"But it's not defamatory if it's true," said Buckley-Farlee. "I mean, they're saying that workers aren't forced to work sick, and workers work sick all the time. [The public] should know that there's quite possibly someone sick making their sandwich."
Several other unions came out in support of the March 31 picket, including members of the Minnesota Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union Healthcare Minnesota, and the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha.
Buckley-Farlee said the general public has been incredibly supportive as well. "Regardless of one's political opinion, no one wants a sandwich with snot in it," he said. "It's kind of a hard demand not to agree with."
According to the Jimmy John's Corporation franchise manual, the company has an average profit margin of 18-25 percent. With 10 stores averaging $677,000 on sales per year, even given the low end of the profit spectrum, this translates into over a million dollars a year in profits alone. This and similar factors have contributed to the workers' assertion that there is no question regarding whether the management can afford their demands.
"They spent at least $85,000 on union-busting in the last election," Boehnke said. He explained that this figure easily covers five paid sick days for all workers, including having paid substitutes on call. "So we know the [owners, Rob and Mike Mulligan] have money for the things they think are important, like violating workers' rights."
This all too clearly demonstrates where the company's priorities lie and is reminiscent of the union-busting fervor of conservative governors as they try to shift blame for the economic crisis onto workers they claim are guilty of demanding too much.
But when that "too much" translates into the right to be sick, or the right not eat something that has been coughed on, it simply points to the diseased nature of the system.