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Jimmy John’s Foreshadows a Union-Free Future – and Unions May Be to Blame

The attacks faced by Jimmy John’s workers illustrate a much larger problem: a weakened labor movement.

Jimmy John's could be a harbinger of what the future would look like without unions. (Photo: Melanie Levi / Flickr)

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“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.” – A. Philip Randolph

Unions are in trouble. It doesn’t take a lot to realize this much. For decades now, national membership has been on the decline and unions are becoming a national afterthought, seemingly transforming into the nation’s once was, has been and no longer will be around for the people. If you know anything about what unions have delivered to US workers over decades of struggle in this country, the thought of a nonexistent union front should truly bother you. Unions have brought us things we now regularly enjoy like weekends, sick leave and a minimum wage. At the same time, they delivered us the protections many of us have come to expect like child labor laws, workplace safety standards and rights to privacy on the job. However, the emergence of new information regarding Jimmy John’s noncompete agreements and a major lawsuit may be foreshadowing an imminent, threatening future for workers everywhere.

The fast-food franchise Jimmy John’s could be a harbinger of what the future would look like without unions. We are a nation facing a dying labor movement. These noncompete agreements paint a picture of what many consider to be an absurd, unenforceable attack on workers. These “agreements” employees are forced to sign require them not to seek employment, in any form, with a competitor for a period of two years. This means after you work at Jimmy John’s, you cannot seek employment at any company that makes 10 percent or more of its revenue from sandwich sales. It also cannot be within three miles of a Jimmy John’s location. Departing Jimmy John’s employees cannot work as servers, investors, managers, owners or several other positions. This mandate seems especially overreaching since noncompete clauses were originally intended for higher-level employees. Now, they’re being used to deny employment prospects to everyday workers, intimidating people making on average $8.00 per hour.

The Huffington Post reports:

Noncompete agreements were once reserved for certain types of workers: engineers with access to trade secrets, for instance, or salespeople who could decamp to other companies with large pools of clients. But the agreements have become increasingly common, even in lower-wage fields, as businesses take whatever precautions they can against competitors.

Problems like the exploitation of noncompete clauses might be less prevalent if more people in the United States appreciated unions. A recent Gallup poll showed only 53 percent approved of unions – a slim margin. That same poll shows that the number of people willing to support anti-union “right to work” legislation is up almost 10 percent since 1957. The impending doom of unions is a stark reality we may all face sooner than we know. If a time of certain death comes, a lot of that blame will fall on unions themselves.

The labor movement has lost much of the significant momentum needed to save itself, due to internal conflicts and allegiances to party politics. In recent years, the labor movement has largely shown unbending support for the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, even though Obama abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act shortly after his election. President Obama seemed to forget about this helpful piece of pro-union legislation, which candidate Obama vehemently supported. It would have given unions more flexibility and organizing power. This detrimental political rigmarole, now and before Obama, has come at the expense of many of the people who need unions most, like the employees of Jimmy John’s.

Undocumented immigrants, federal employees and Black people are just a few of the groups out of many who have been let down by the weakening union front. The immigration reform movement, largely dominated and funded by unions, has conceded, faltered and pandered to the White House at almost every turn. This has happened while this administration has been blatantly ruthless to immigrants, deporting and breaking up families at record-shattering rates. However, several unions claim that anti-immigrant policies are solely Republicans’ fault; they have closely followed administration talking points.

Federal employees have also been attacked, having their livelihoods threatened. They haven’t seen the return on investment they hoped for from the Obama administration. The president recently showed his appreciation by suggesting a modest 1 percent pay raise for federal employees. Many of these workers are Black people, who have also been alienated by unions in other ways.

A prime display of this disconnect came recently when AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called former police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, a “brother.” Since Wilson and Brown’s mother are both AFL-CIO union members, he stated, “Our brother killed our sister’s son.” He reduced a national tragedy implicating years of abuse, intolerance and oppression to a family disagreement: a shallow reflection with no acknowledgement of institutional racism or the fact that police unions reinforce police violence. Police officers who face the threat of discipline for professional misconduct use unions and arbitrators to circumvent the disciplinary process altogether.

At the same time, unions fight to keep prisons that terrorize Black people open to secure jobs and comfort for their members. So it should come as no surprise that workers’ protections in this country are going from bad to worse. During the years leading up to this crucial time in our nation’s history, unions have often exacerbated problems they should be helping to fix.

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding between big labor and the people whom it is supposed to be serving right now. We see this reflected in the onslaught workers are facing every day from corporations, misuses of power and internal strife – including unions fighting their own staff unions. Seeing instances of large unions hypocritically fighting their own internal staff trying to organize has become all too common in past years. Where are things headed when unions don’t even want to negotiate with their own staff unions, and pro-union nonprofit organizations operate sans card-carrying employees?

Meanwhile, the capitalist corporate powers continue to scheme and grow. That’s why it’s so crucial that we pay attention to conflicts like the one currently playing out at Jimmy John’s. The chain’s employees – and others in similar circumstances – need a genuine labor movement reformation, not just a movement that’s trying to sound genuine. There have recently been a few signs of hope (for example, the National Labor Relations Board recently published rules allowing speedier union elections), but if those who are supposed to protect the labor movement do not care enough to make the necessary changes, we should expect more of the same old, same old: the old normal. Child labor used to be normal, inhumane hours used to be normal and no holidays or vacation used to be normal. If the labor movement is to move forward, it must not allow the undoing of its hard-won victories in shifting what “normal” means for this country’s workers.