We want jobs worth having

January 14, 2014

Snarf's Sandwiches workers on Chicago's near North Side don't just want their jobs back--they want a living wage. Bob Simpson reports.

"WHEN SNARF'S workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!" "When the working class is under attack? What do we do? Stand up, fight back"

The chants rang out at noon on January 8 in the 10-degree temperatures left behind by the retreating polar vortex. But the bitter cold didn't deter fired Chicago Snarf's Sandwiches workers and their allies in the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) from holding a lively picket line and press conference.

The 14 workers from a River North Chicago Snarf's had all been summarily terminated just two days before Christmas in a widely publicized mass firing. The excuse was that the store was to be "remodeled."

Faced by a storm of bad media publicity, the Colorado-based Snarf's CEO issued a Christmas Day Facebook apology. He promised that the workers would all receive a week's severance pay. As of this writing, there has been no sign of either the "remodeling" or the promised week's severance pay. As Snarf's worker Kevin Brown wryly pointed out, "If you get fired by e-mail, you apparently get apologized to by Facebook."

Workers fired from Snarf's stand up against their bosses
Workers fired from Snarf's stand up against their bosses (Bob Simpson | SW)

It is widely believed that the firings are in retaliation for the Snarf's workers support of the Fight for 15, the campaign to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and their participation in two nationwide days of strikes and protest.

As a result, WOCC has filed two National Labor Relations Board complaints. One is for a forced lockout after the December Fight for 15 strike and the second because of the firings. As Lillian Henehan, former Snarf's River North assistant manager, said:

Employers should not retaliate against employees who seek to better their lot by engaging in organizing for a decent living wage. But ultimately, there is a bigger picture...This is bigger than Snarf's. This is bigger than me, bigger than my co-workers. Right now, this is a story about what happens to people who stand up and make their voices heard. And I want to change the narrative in this country. I want to make this about all of us. You can change how things are run in this country.

AFTER WE picketed the Prudential Building where another Chicago Snarf's is located, Snarf's workers and their allies spoke to the press. Kevin Brown, a fired Snarf's worker, laid out the workers' basic demands:

We want to be reinstated. We want to be paid a living wage. We want fair back pay for when we were kept out of our jobs. We want Snarf's to recognize the right of its employees to organize.

Brown called the firings "very unfair and very unprofessional." According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "professionalism" means, "The skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well."

Calling Snarf's management "unprofessional" brings up some interesting points. Director of Marketing Jill Preston had claimed, "We really regret our employees were given last-minute notice, but they were aware of the loss of business during the past year."

But if there really was a fall-off in business, why didn't Snarf's top management huddle with the employees to develop a plan to improve the situation? And if there really was a plan a place to reconfigure Snarf's, why not work with the experienced employees and develop a transition strategy?

Even the firings themselves were bungled. Did Snarf's top management really think they could fire Fight for 15 activists two days before Christmas and not unleash a storm of bad publicity--at a time when they were planning a major expansion of the chain?

All of this suggests major league management incompetence and unprofessionalism. And what if the firings were simply hastily planned punishment for union organizing, as the workers and their allies believe? And which, of course, Snarf's management denies. At the very least, Snarf's top management comes across as being incompetent and unprofessional. At the very worst, incompetent, unprofessional, mean and dishonest.

Snarf's top management could take some lessons in professionalism from their own employees whom they fired. Fired Snarf's worker Kate Zieglar, a veteran of jobs both in and outside of the service sector, described her two and a half years at Snarf's this way: "I can say that the work that all of us did was among the most stressful and multi-tasking type of work that used a broad array of skills that I have ever used."

Yet Zieglar went on to say that the one benefit of the job was the warm and personal rapport they developed with their customers, a positive experience that was widely noted throughout the River North office building where the Snarf's is located.

Before the firings, Snarf's workers obtained 529 signatures supporting their demands on a petition they circulated within their building. After the firings, customers expressed their shock and dismay by calling Snarf's corporate headquarters and by writing messages on review websites.

Zieglar quoted customer Stephanie Weber who wrote: "The customer service at Snarf's was by far the best thing that this restaurant had to offer, but they fired all of their wonderful employees. Now there is no reason to go there."

In highly competitive retail businesses like food service, customer satisfaction can mean the difference between business success and business failure. But the top-down, tone-deaf management style of many American companies doesn't seem to recognize that.

If Snarf's top management had any sense at all, they would repair the damage by reinstating the fired employees with improvements in pay and benefits, and use their experience to create a company culture that encourages unionization and worker participation in decision making while striving for the best possible customer experience.

Publicizing a combination like that could prove to be an excellent way to sell sandwiches as the American people wake up to the shocking inequality and economic fragility of working life in this nation.

To support the fired Snarf's workers please sign this petition.

First published at the Daily Kos.

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