Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 28, 2014.
On Sunday, Oct. 19, as Ravens fans meandered around the chilly Inner Harbor in advance of the game set to begin later that afternoon, about two dozen workers and community supporters formed a picket line outside the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop on Pratt Street to demand the right to form a union. “Ravens have a union!” the protesters chanted. “Why can’t we?” The Jimmy John’s employees claim that ever since their efforts to publicly unionize kicked off in early August, management has responded with clear efforts to intimidate them, including the firing of their co-worker James Hegler. Workers have responded by filing seven counts of illegal retaliation complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.
On Aug. 9, with support from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union founded in 1905 that gained a reputation for organizing across class, race, gender, and occupational lines, Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers presented their list of demands to management, which included one paid sick day per month, a transparent disciplinary system for both workers and managers, and wage parity with their landlord, the Hilton, that has unionized employees making between $10.75-$13 per hour. Wages at Jimmy John’s hover around $7.25.
The Baltimore fight comes at an interesting time as Jimmy John’s workers across the country have gained national attention for launching a class action lawsuit over the non-compete agreements all Jimmy John’s employees are forced to sign in order to work there. These contractual clauses require employees to promise not to work in any nearby sandwich shop for at least two years after they leave, so as not to give away “trade secrets.” In response, over 35 House Democrats recently signed a letter requesting the Department of Labor and the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into this suspect labor practice. Though the Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers say they stand in solidarity with the class-action suit, they themselves are not presently involved.
The fight for a union also stands out as thousands of fast-food employees across the country have gotten involved with the Fight for 15 campaign, an effort to demand fast-food chains provide a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. Founded in Chicago in 2012, and largely backed by the Service Employees International Union, Fight for 15 includes employees at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s who have taken to high-profile one-day strikes in order to send a message to their employers that they deserve better conditions in the workplace. Even President Obama has publicly cheered on the fast-food strikers’ organizing.
But despite the fast-food industry’s substantial presence in the Baltimore labor market, the Fight for 15 campaign just has not taken off here like it has in other cities. Some activists involved in the Baltimore and Maryland Workers Assembly marched in a “Walk 4 Justice” downtown in May and September, to support strikers in other cities, but by and large the local fast-food organizing efforts have been minimal.
“We’re the only union organizing fast-food workers in the city,” said Brennan Lester, a Jimmy John’s worker and IWW organizer. “But this is an idea whose time has come. We’re long overdue for unions. We’re precariously employed with no rights and no protections and we’re one of the only growth industries. It’s not just for kids anymore.”
Colleen Davidson, an activist with the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST), who came out to the Jimmy John’s demonstration, said organizing can be particularly difficult in Baltimore because “so many people are just in survival mode, juggling two to three jobs, raising kids, and grappling with gentrification and homelessness.”
Yet back in the early ’90s, there was a time when Baltimore was the national leader for low-wage organizing efforts—proudly standing as the first city to launch a “living wage” campaign, and ultimately being the first city to pass a “living wage” law. Activists called for a minimum wage of $7.70 per hour, a significant spike from the federal minimum wage of $4.25. Led by the church-based civic group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) in conjunction with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), residents began organizing for higher wage standards after it became clear that even full-time workers couldn’t pay their bills. Activists campaigned with the theory that public subsidies and city contracts should not support private firms that paid poverty wages.
Going forward, Jimmy John’s workers have pledged to continue launching “a series of escalating direct actions” in order to pressure the company to recognize their union. Toward the end of the Oct. 19 protest, picketers marched inside the store, holding up signs, and calling for management to reinstate Hegler. “What do we want? Rehire James! When do we want it? Now!” In the end, four Baltimore City police came to break up the event.
Stephen Thompson, a 28-year-old adjunct math professor at UMBC, showed up to picket alongside the Jimmy John’s workers. “Compared with other labor-related protests I’ve been to in Baltimore, this one had a different feel. That’s what I really liked about it,” said Thompson, who noted that the IWW people are a “young ragtag kind of group” in contrast to the more professional organizers of other unions. In Baltimore, the IWW is also affiliated with the unions at Red Emma’s and Baltimore Bicycle Works. “They are very passionate,” Thompson added. “It made the picket more fun and exciting.”