In a highly unusual union election, the Wobblies lost the war for Jimmy John's by the narrowest of margins.

Workers at 10 Twin Cities Jimmy John's sandwich shops Friday voted 87-85 against being represented by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union long known as the "Wobblies." Two workers' votes were contested and not counted, but even if they were deemed to be for the union, by law, ties go to the company, two union members said.

Unions usually don't try to organize fast-food workers, mainly because of the high turnover. And the IWW is a unique union well outside organized labor's mainstream, best known for its radical organizing efforts back in the 1910s.

The vote encompassed Jimmy John's outlets in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, all owned by Mike Mulligan and Rob Mulligan. Mike Mulligan couldn't be reached for comment.

David Boehnke, a union organizer who works at a downtown Minneapolis Jimmy John's, said despite the loss, the campaign should inspire fast-food workers. "Once fast-food workers start organizing, we're not going to stop," he said.

The union has accused the company of unfair labor practices, and may contest the results with the National Labor Relations Board.

Mainstream unions have long viewed fast-food as not worth the investment of resources. Between the time that an organizing campaign starts and an election is held -- a process that often takes several months -- the makeup of a fast-food workforce could have significantly changed, with union supporters moving on.

Plus, fast-food tends to attract young workers who don't see the job as a long-term gig, and therefore don't have as much of their livelihood invested in it, labor relations experts say.

"Given how rare this is and the challenges the union faced, the fact that they came [so close] to winning is quite impressive," said Prof. John Budd, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

Peter Rachleff, a labor history expert at Macalester College, said that the worker turnout for the union vote was impressive. About 200 workers were eligible to vote, and 174 did. "That is phenomenal. That 174 of workers wanted to have a voice -- either way -- is a very healthy sign," Rachleff said.

Pro-union workers at Jimmy John's were pressing for better wages and benefits plus an improved sick leave policy. Mulligan has said his Jimmy John's shops offer competitive wages and "good local jobs."

The IWW is a highly decentralized organization that relies solely on unpaid organizers -- usually workers themselves, as has been the case at Jimmy John's. It was never a mainstream union, long urging the abolishment of the "wage system" with workers ultimately toppling capitalism by a massive general strike.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003