Bribes, threats, punches alleged in Jimmy John's unionization effort

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2010 - 9:09 PM

A week after losing a union election, the IWW accuses a Jimmy John's franchise owner of intimidation.

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One of the Twin Cities Jimmy John’s sandwich shops at which workers recently lost a close vote on whether to unionize. The union is asking the NLRB to nullify results of the election.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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A unionization drive at 10 Jimmy John's sandwich shops in the Twin Cities has turned decidedly ugly, with accusations of threats, bribery and even physical assault flying between union members and a local franchise owner.

A week after narrowly losing a rare union election at a fast-food chain, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) accused local Jimmy John's franchise owner Mike Mulligan of waging a campaign to intimidate workers, making a fair vote impossible.

The union alleged in a 12-page petition filed Friday with the National Labor Relations Board that Mulligan's firm, Miklin Enterprises Inc., fired workers who openly supported the union, instituted a wage freeze, and offered bribes to workers in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 22 election. Workers at the 10 shops voted 87-85 against being represented by the IWW. The union is asking the NLRB to nullify results of the election.

David Boehnke, a union organizer who works at a downtown Minneapolis Jimmy John's, said he knows of two workers who were offered "$40 to $50" in cash to show up and vote against the union.

Mulligan, the franchise owner, called accusations "fabrications" and pledged to fight them. He fired back with accusations of his own, alleging that one of IWW's local organizers, Erik Forman, punched the boyfriend of a Jimmy John's assistant manager at a private birthday party last Saturday, after the two started arguing.

"Do you know what these people are about?" Mulligan asked, referring to the IWW. "They espouse the abolition of capitalism, the abolition of the wage system. They embrace anarchy and sabotage as legitimate objectives. We are a small, family-owned company that has been targeted ... for reasons I do not know."

Forman acknowledged Friday that he threw a punch, but said he only did so after he was pushed three times. "It's not relevant," he said. "It happened after the election. Besides, I weigh 120 pounds. I'm not intimidating to anybody."

The unionization effort at Jimmy John's has been closely watched on a national level because it is so rare. Fast-food chains are difficult to organize, primarily because worker turnover is so high. They are staffed with many younger employees, often teens and students who may see the job as a short-term gig. Many workers at a fast-food restaurant when an organizing campaign starts have left by the time the vote is held.

In the case of Jimmy John's, the local IWW workers were seeking higher wages, guaranteed hours, paid sick days and a safe workplace, among other demands. Workers at local Jimmy John's stores said wages at the 10 local restaurants start at $7.25 an hour, or minimum wage; raises are rare and no more than 25 cents an hour.

In its petition with the NLRB, the IWW alleged that in September Miklin fired two workers who were open supporters of the union. The firings had the effect of "chilling union support," the petition said. The IWW also alleged that Miklin, through an outside consultant, threatened employees with closure of facilities if employees unionized.

During one meeting with employees, a labor relations consultant hired by Miklin told workers that if they join the union, "prices will go up, business will decline, and Jimmy John's could close," according to the petition. A Jimmy John's district manager also stated that if labor actions did not stop, all bike-delivery employees would be fired and replaced, the petition alleges.

"We believe the coercion and intimidation were pervasive enough that the results of the election don't reflect the true desires of the employees," said Tim Louris, a labor attorney in Minneapolis. "We want the results of the election invalidated."

Mulligan said just one complaint had been filed against him with the NLRB in the 10 years prior to the IWW starting its unionization drive. But in the past three years, he has received 30 complaints. "I will tell you they are without basis, they are fabrications," he said, "and they are full of outright lies."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

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