Would You Like a Union With That, Comrade?

Workers at some of America’s fast food restaurants could be in for some interesting times soon. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is attempting to unionize several Jimmy John’s sandwich stores in the Minneapolis area. The IWW’s campaign against Jimmy John’s could be the start of organizing efforts at several other restaurant chains. (Today, only 1.3 percent of workers in the food service industry are union members.) This should concern not only restaurateurs, but also consumers and young workers.

The IWW is an avowed communist organization that doesn’t mince words about its goals. The preamble to its constitution states that “between [the working class and the employing class] a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth…. It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.”

IWW claims it has members in several Starbucks locations across the country but has yet to fully organized any of them. Attempts to organize these locations failed so IWW is limited to voluntary dues paying members without any official standing.

The idea that anybody in America would want to join such an organization sounds like a bad joke. And on its website, it claims that it has 75,000 members in 125 affiliated labor unions ready to throw their weight behind the Jimmy John’s organizing campaign.

The IWW is spreading the effort nationally. In September, it hosted a “National Week of Action,” picketing in 32 of the 39 states with Jimmy John’s restaurants. IWW says the main workers’ grievances are low wages and dead-end jobs. Strangely enough, the union admits that “Many Jimmy Johns [sic] workers are either attending college, paying back student loans, or hoping to go back to school for additional job training.”

Slinging sandwiches at a fast food chain eatery may not the best long-term career goal, but most of the workers will graduate from school and go on to jobs with more potential. And some successful entry level workers move up within the company. As Minnesota Jimmy John’s franchise owner Mike Mulligan, whose restaurants are the target of IWW’s campaign, points out; “Every one of our managers and assistant managers was promoted from the ranks of sandwich makers and delivery personnel.”

The IWW has only had limited success in organizing fast-food workers. But if it succeeds in unionizing Jimmy John’s, it could set a precedent for other fast food chains around the country.

First, it would be expensive for consumers. If labor costs go up, so will prices on the menu. Many of the same students asking for higher wages probably enjoy dollar-menu items at other restaurants. If those chains are also forced to pay higher wages and benefits based not on what the market will bear but on how hard a bargain union negotiators can derive, they will not be able to offer the low food prices consumers enjoy.

Youth unemployment is a serious problem. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, “July 2010 marks the first time in the history of the series that less than half of all youth 16 to 24 years old were employed in that month.” If employers are reluctant to hire young people now, they will be even more so if young people become more expensive.

But, of course, it would be too much to expect a group that wants to “abolish the wage system” (to be replaced with what, one wonders) to be a stickler for economic logic, or even mere consistency. The IWW cites the poor job market for young people as an argument for higher wages. Yet one reason for high youth unemployment is the recent raise in the minimum wage. When the price for labor increases, employers are less likely to hire new workers, and are more likely to hire more experienced employees whose higher productivity makes the added labor costs economical.

Here is an economics 101 lesson for the students trying to organize: When the price of a product or service goes up, demand for that product or service decreases. Yet, students are cheaper to hire than other workers, but that’s because they do not have the experience, skills, and knowledge of veteran workers. Indeed, by raising the cost of employing workers at Jimmy John’s, some workers may indeed organize themselves out of a job. 

Access to cheap and fresh ingredients, innovative production lines, and quick service allow fast-food restaurants to serve large numbers of customers at economical prices. Their successes are due to America’s tradition of free enterprise, which has allowed them to thrive. The IWW’s communist ideology is the antithesis of these qualities. Instead of incentivizing achievement and hard work, the IWW wants to create a world where compensation bears no relation to effort, performance, or achievement.

The election for the Jimmy John’s union is Friday. Workers will have the choice to vote for capitalism or communism.