Deja Vu (Part 1 of 2): the parallels between the Sisters’ Camelot & Jimmy John’s anti-union campaigns

Two Jimmy Johns workers compare the anti-union drives at their workplace and at Sisters Camelot, a nonprofit 'mobile foodshelf', whose canvassers went on strike in Spring 2013.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on July 21, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2

By Robbie Jenson & Travis Elise

Travis & Robbie are members of the Jimmy John’s Workers Union and the Twin Cities General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In this article they discuss the similarities between the struggles at Jimmy John’s and Sisters’ Camelot. In Part 2, they will debunk the community statement (A Letter of Support for all the Workers at Sisters’ Camelot) written and signed onto by several members of the south Minneapolis radical community.

On February 25th, 2013, the canvassers at Sister’s Camelot, a non-profit mobile food shelf and soup kitchen, announced to their managers that they had formed a union and were card-carrying members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Days later, the Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union (SCCU) presented their bosses with their terms, attempting to begin negotiations. Management refused, and the SCCU began a strike now lasting over 4 months. During that time, the managers at Sisters’ Camelot, who make decisions collectively and handle different kinds of programming work themselves, have (along with their staunch supporters) launched a vicious anti-union campaign that has been surprising, confusing, and misleading to many. Interestingly, however, the collective’s union-busting strategies are disturbingly similar to the last public campaign of the Twin Cities IWW, which was at a local Jimmy John’s fast food franchise. This in spite of the difference in mission, structure, and culture of the businesses.

As members of the IWW and the enduring Jimmy John’s Workers Union, we feel the need to identify these common strategies for busting unions and the ways they have been used by both Jimmy John’s and the collective at Sisters’ Camelot. Our hope is that this perspective will help clarify the present situation and encourage the collective and supporters of Sisters’ Camelot to recognize the SCCU as a positive force capable of improving the sustainability and integrity of the organization that our communities value so enormously.

At Jimmy John’s, workers organized under the radar, building the committee and taking action on the shop floor, from early 2007 until September 2010, when the Jimmy John’s Workers Union announced itself to management. Shortly thereafter, we filed for a union certification election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to force our bosses to negotiate with us. During this period, our union experienced a barrage of union-busting tactics by the bosses and their paid anti-union consultants. Fortunately, the IWW has already consolidated decades of experience into organizer trainings that provide workers with an idea of what to expect from an anti-union drive, and it’s surprisingly consistent in any kind of shop. With the strike and subsequent anti-union efforts unfolding at Sisters’ Camelot, we recognized immediately the eerily similar actions and statements made by the collective and their supporters. After the retaliatory firing of one union canvasser, we both became alarmed and felt the urgent need to draw attention to these commonalities between the management team at our corporate franchise and the collective at this non-profit organization. We want to encourage our community members and others sympathetic to non-profit missions to analyse this struggle in terms of class, which has been something most have failed to do. This can be challenging because of the emotional connections many in the community have to the organization, its mission, and to collectivism as a radical endeavor. But the reality of the situation is clear: an organization cannot be anti-authoritarian when it defends its own stark hierarchies.

Here we have listed some of these common union-busting strategies, and below we discuss the ways in which they have been used both at Jimmy John’s and at Sisters’ Camelot. We were surprised and disappointed to hear them from the Sisters’ Camelot collective, but that only reaffirms their position as bosses and makes clear the need for the canvassers to stand strong as a union.

A few of the things bosses will say include:

- “Unions have a place but not at our workplace.”

- “This business is like a family and is different than most companies.”

- “This is the first we have heard of your concerns. If we had known, we would have gladly made things better. You can use existing ways to engage with the business so we can fix problems by working together. We will do things to show our appreciation of you and make it easier for you to come to us.”

- “We are workers, too. We have worked hard to build this business and deserve your respect. Your organizing is hurtful to us. We are victims of your organizing.”

- “This union drive could cause the business to close. We simply can’t afford to have a union.”

- “The IWW is an aggressive organization with scary politics that is using you to achieve its political agenda. They will harass you and trick you. We can protect you from them.”

- “There is a certain individual that is causing problems for all of us. They are hostile, manipulative and disruptive, and they are destroying our relationship with you. They have ulterior motives. We will all be better off without them.”

and finally…

- The Dirty Truth: The Bosses Will Lie.

Unions have a place but not at our workplace.

We call this the “not in my backyard” excuse. Bosses will often attempt to legitimize their anti-union position by claiming that they have experience with unions or support unions for certain jobs or in certain kinds of workplaces. They explain to workers that a union is not appropriate at their workplace or that they don’t need one because they are different or because they have a unique opportunity to work together. Even our Jimmy John’s, a franchise of a corporation, claimed this by saying that it was a certain kind of work for a certain kind of people.

At Sisters’ Camelot, the managing collective has also stated they are not anti-union and that they wish to find an “alternative” solution to the labor strife in the organization, one which does not “jeopardize” their collective values. They think they are somehow different or unique enough that a union is not needed. Of course, Sisters’ Camelot and Jimmy John’s are different, but not in a way that means its workers should not organize themselves. In fact, based on its mission, Sisters’ Camelot should be more willing to negotiate in order to support social justice for workers. Failing to do so is hypocritical and defends hierarchies within the workplace.

Our bosses at Jimmy John’s said we weren’t a “real union,” and one manager even accused the union members of being a bunch of alcoholics too lazy to get real jobs. Ironically enough, Rob Czernick, a supporter of the collective stated in a collective meeting that he supported “real workers and real unions, not a bunch of people who work a couple days a week for party money.” When we heard this, we had a very eery feeling of deja vu.

In reality, unions are for all workers. In particular, the IWW doesn’t shy away from supporting workers in any job, including those who are in low-paying and precarious jobs like fast food or contracted positions. Every worker has the right to organize with other workers in order to improve their working conditions and to challenge power imbalances in the workplace, including the canvassers at Sisters’ Camelot.

This business is like a family and is different than most companies.

In many ways, Sisters’ Camelot is very different from most businesses. It is a non-profit organization, has a mission that uses direct action to support poor communities, and supports healthy living on a healthy planet. It is also managed by a collective who is deeply involved with and committed to certain kinds of work done by the organization. Of course, it is still a business and, like most other business, has bosses. Bosses control hiring and firing, determine the terms and conditions of work including pay, and control how the work is organized.

At Jimmy John’s, there is a hierarchy of bosses that includes assistant and general managers, area managers, owners, corporate auditors, and Jimmy himself. Sisters’ Camelot operates differently, with its collective serving as a management team that makes decisions based on consensus. While this is applauded by many radicals for various reasons (and is a process we both value in certain circumstances), it doesn’t change the fact that the canvassers are excluded from the decision-making process entirely. While canvassers can attend meetings and voice their opinions, they have no vote. This puts them in an uncomfortable and vulnerable position that creates a power differential that operates just like the one we experience at Jimmy John’s, where we feel left out, ignored, and disrespected — not like a family.

This is the first we have heard of your concerns. If we had known, we would have gladly made things better. You can use existing ways to engage with the business so we can fix problems by working together. We will do things to show our appreciation of you and make it easier for you to come to us.

Many workers go to management with grievances when they first arise; we are conditioned to seek help from authority figures, whether they are parents, teachers, police officers, or bosses. This is rarely ever effective in the workplace, however, because management is typically more removed from the grievance or because resolving it is simply not in their self-interest. This is frustrating and demoralizing for workers, especially those who genuinely care about their work. It is more productive for workers to talk to management collectively or to implement solutions together through direct action. When workers realize that their problems are common problems based on shared experiences, they are able to assert their needs more strongly together.

In the past, canvass directors and canvassers for Sisters’ Camelot have unsuccessfully attempted to individually lobby the collective to improve the working conditions of the canvass without success, causing many canvassers and directors to leave on bad terms. Even the simple fact that the canvass workers have to go to an authority with their ideas, needs and demands debunks the idea that Sisters’ Camelot is an organization based on worker control. In an organization that allegedly values social justice and direct action, the canvassers should be able to implement their ideas for improving their conditions and performance at work without seeking approval from anyone above them.

In an anti-union drive, bosses will always offer concessions that serve both as gestures to placate the workers and as mechanisms for challenging the power of the union by roping workers back into systems that are controlled by management. The solution proposed (and major concession made) by the bosses has been for canvassers to join the collective. By offering them spots on the collective, they are individualizing the workers in an attempt to divide and conquer them. One canvasser on the collective can easily become overpowered and demoralized while the other canvassers remain entirely disempowered. The same thing occurred when Hardy Coleman, a former Canvass Director and then collective member attempted to implement changes identical to many of the demands presented by the canvassers to the collective. It happened again when Bobby Becker was a member of the collective and became the sole advocate for the canvassers. There’s no reason to believe things will be any different if a different canvasser or two were to become collective members. At Jimmy John’s, bosses gave out raises and had one on one conversations with workers to try to legitimize their so-called “open door policy” and hinder the collective action of the workers.

The canvassers are in agreement about what they need in order to improve their work environment and do a better job. They shouldn’t need to join another body of the organization in order to make changes related to their work. Additionally, they shouldn’t need to take on the responsibility of making decisions about other programs carried out by the organization if they don’t want to. Part of the problem in this situation is that workers within the organization have the power to make decisions about the entire organization while others have no decision-making power at all. It is the right of all workers to control their own work environment and processes, and no other group needs to do that for them. Additionally, no worker should have to work unpaid time (a requirement for being part of the collective) to have a say on the job.

We are workers, too. We have worked hard to build this business and deserve your respect. Your organizing is hurtful to us. We are victims of your organizing.

In anti-union drives, bosses like to emphasize the fact that they also show up to work, contribute to the success of the business, or perhaps started it themselves. They like to play the victim card, insisting that workers’ organizing is uncalled-for, offensive, hurtful, and disrespectful. In this way, management and/or owners try to frame the union drive as a personal matter and try to draw attention to themselves. They often say the organizing drive is unfair and that there are more appropriate ways to engage with the company in order to offer suggestions or express concerns. This argument also veils a threat: if you organize, you will betray me and I will make your life at work hellish. At Jimmy John’s, as with most businesses, preferential treatment is offered to workers who are in the good graces of management by being particularly reverent to authorities or doing personal favors. During the anti-union drive at Jimmy John’s, workers were generally mistreated, including being denied raises, because they declared union support while others were given promotions and raises for taking the side of the company.

Of course, the Sisters’ Camelot collective members do work and perform important functions for the organization’s operations and programs. This is not, however, about the collective, and no canvasser has spoken ill of work done in their programs. The issue at hand is simply that one group of workers has power over their own work and that of an entirely different group of workers, leaving the latter disenfranchised. To make this union out to be an attack on Sisters’ Camelot as an organization or the collective members as workers is classist and narrow-minded. It ignores workers who lack their own autonomy, and it indicates a defense of capitalist hierarchies. Denying any worker their basic right, alongside their Fellow Workers, to exert control over their own work by refusing to relinquish your power is, well– exactly what Jimmy John’s did. And it is done partly out of a love for control and authority, partly out of a distrust of the workforce that is fundamentally rooted in classism, and partly out of a desire to continue to control the flow of capital. This is painfully similar to the situation unfolding at Sisters’ Camelot. The bosses at Sisters’ also don’t trust the workers nor do they show any indication of giving up any of their power. The collective has explicitly stated they don’t trust the canvassers with things such as credit card information. The collective has also said the structural changes would be “unhealthy” for Sisters’ Camelot and that there must “accountability” in place. By accountability they obviously mean accountability to the collective. To say the canvass should be accountable to the collective but not visa-versa is incredibly disrespectful and belittling.

The union drive could cause the business to close. We simply can’t afford to have a union.

Management will jump to the worst possible scenario in an anti-union drive. In many ways, this is meant to play on the fears of workers. It plays into the idea that workers should feel lucky to even have a job in an effort to undermine their dignity and their basic right to make a living and have control over their work. Sure, all businesses will be affected by some of the direct action tactics used by workers when they organize, including strikes, but this is a necessary part of forcing people in power to relinquish the power that does not belong to them. At Jimmy John’s, the company threatened to do away with bike delivery, claiming they would be unable to afford the insurance policy with the added cost of having a union. Similarly, the collective at Sisters’ Camelot threatened to replace the canvassers with volunteers.

When it comes to Sisters’ Camelot, this argument is simply ludicrous. Few of the canvassers’ demands are economic; most are structural and related to improving workplace democracy. The only two non-negotiable money-related demands are professional van maintenance and medical bills paid for work-related injuries. Professional van maintenance is a no-brainer. Without a reliably functioning van, canvassers have had shortened and missed shifts. Which, since the canvassers raise 95% of the organizations operating budget, this obviously affects the organization’s financial status. And as far as medical bills go, it’s a basic worker’s right. All employees should be entitled to workers’ compensation for workplace injuries, and if Sisters’ Camelot refuses to accept this demand, they are worse than even the most sinister corporation by taking advantage of their contracted workers.

There are also negotiable demands that indisputably will increase productivity within the canvass operation such as accepting credit card donations at the door. Other demands will improve the canvassers experiences at work and encourage them to do better work, like paid sick days and vacation, a 5% base pay raise, an extra bonus for working four shifts per week in addition to raising $500 per week, and access for the canvass coordinator to view online donations. All of these ideas would encourage canvassers to invest themselves more strongly in their work, which directly affects the income of the organization as a whole. The primary reason for opposing these demands is not financial; it is because of a lack of trust that, like Jimmy John’s, is a backward, classist, and selfish tendency that is keeping Sisters’ Camelot from truly realizing its alleged goal as a worker-controlled organization.

The last point related to money is simple: no demand costs an organization more than an anti-union drive. The collective has attempted to paint the economic demands of the union as too costly to the organization. This anti-union drive is costing Sisters’ Camelot far more money than they would incur by giving the workers a %5 raise and increase in their fundraising bonus. In fact, the organization itself is on the brink of collapse. Programming has been cut, they are planning on moving out of their warehouse space and the collective members can’t even afford to pay themselves anymore.

At Jimmy John’s, the bosses spent about $3,000 a day over the course of a month and half on a union busting consulting firm called the Labor Relations Institute. They also spent an incredible amount of money on lawyers and legal fees fighting the Unfair Labor Practice charges we filed against them. Additionally, the pickets we held at stores, the phone blasts we did that shut down over-the-phone delivery orders at stores, and the negative media attention the company received during the union drive certainly reduced their revenue. In all, simply giving us what we were demanding (a $1 an hour raise for all drivers and supervisors and a $2 an hour raise for all inshoppers) would have cost them less money than fighting us for so long. The threat that unions will be bring financial hardship to a company is typically nothing but an empty threat o scare the workers.

The IWW is an aggressive organization with scary politics that is using you to achieve its political agenda. They will harass and trick you. We can protect you from them.

In all union drives, unions in general are criticized (even while praised as mentioned earlier). Attention will be drawn to various aspects of unions that can be framed in an unpopular light. These aspects include expensive mandatory union dues, union bureaucrats making decisions on the workers behalf, a complicated grievance process, and your dues money being given to politicians without the workers say.

In the IWW, none of these criticisms apply since our union doesn’t share those characteristics common to other unions. Instead, we Wobblies are criticized in other ways. Most commonly we are red-baited. At Jimmy John’s, we were called radicals, anarchists, communists, socialists, anti-capitalists, anti-Americans, terrorists (yes, seriously!), troublemakers, zealots, and so on. We were told that we were being aggressive toward the company and attempting to bully the bosses into submission. We were accused of violent tactics including sabotaging the company’s equipment and inventory of products. During our sick day campaign and subsequent firings, the company’s lawyers tried to argue our campaign for sick days constituted extortion.

At Sisters’ Camelot, similar accusations have been levied against the canvassers. They have been accused of being aggressive and being bullies for simply making demands and going on strike after the collective refused to negotiate with them. When the canvassers escalated and turned up the pressure, the collective members (and their friends who were also targeted) became downright hysterical. At Jimmy John’s, when we announced ourselves as the Jimmy John’s Workers Union and presented our demands, the bosses thought we were being aggressive even then as well. When we became aggressive for real, our bosses demonized us even more. However, they did begin to give in on some demands, including less tangible ones like better treatment of workers by management. The lesson to be learned here is that bosses don’t respond to simple requests to change things at work. They aren’t convinced by others moralizing or arguing with them. They are convinced when its in their own self interest to change. And that usually comes about when severe economic, social, and/or emotional pressure is put on them. Exerting these types of pressure was the JJWU strategy and it is also SCCU’s strategy, and the strategy of all militant unions.

A cornerstone in the union busting arsenal, used by the bosses against unions of all stripes including the IWW, is to paint the union as a separate entity from the worker’s themselves with a separate agenda from the workers. We call this “3rd party-ing” the union.

At Jimmy John’s, this message was a core part of the bosses’ narrative. In one of the company’s propaganda posters they stated the IWW was using the workers to advance their political cause and the company was helping their (the workers) cause.

Sisters’ Camelot and their supporters have also painted the IWW as a third party with an agenda separate from the workers. When the strike first started, members of the community publicly attacked the IWW for “going after” Sisters’ Camelot saying we were racist and that we are against poor people. Likewise, the Community Statement attempted to separate the agenda of the canvassers from the IWW as well (more on this in Part 2). Notice they didn’t say this about the canvassers themselves, just the IWW. This implies two things. One it implies the IWW has a sinister motive that is separate from the canvassers struggle to gain control over their work environment. Second, it implies that the IWW are really the ones in the driver seat and not the canvassers. In reality, the canvassers make all their own decisions. They don’t need to have their decisions or strategies approved by any other IWW body. While individual Wobblies offer advice and input, the canvassers themselves call all the shots. This narrative constructed by the Sisters’ Camelot collective and their supporters ignores the agency of the canvassers and implies that a union campaign involves a group of professionals that parachute in and rescue workers instead of a struggle involving those directly affected.

There is a certain individual that is causing problems for all of us. They are hostile, manipulative and disruptive, and they are destroying our relationship with you. They have ulterior motives. We will all be better off without them.

In many union drives, certain individuals and/or social groups will be singled out and scapegoated as the main agitators and instigators to de-legitimize the union campaign. This, among other things, takes the focus off the experiences, grievances, and demands of the workers.

At Jimmy John’s, certain organizers were singled out due to their well known pasts as IWW organizers in other high profile union campaigns. Additionally, there were attempts to marginalize certain social groups that were seen as the home base of the core organizers of the campaign. Attempts were made by the company to paint the union as young, white male delivery drivers from the southside of Minneapolis. When the company decided to clean house and fire a group of core organizers after a very threatening escalation tactic taken by the union surrounding a sick day campaign, the bosses specifically decided to fire only six workers, all of whom were white and male from the same social scene. The core organizers who were women or people of color were only disciplined, but not fired. As a result, the company was able to frame a narrative of the union being for certain workers and not others. The phrase “drivers union” became common in the shop among workers who became convinced of the bosses narrative and is still used by many workers who weren’t part of the campaign at its height.

At Sisters’ Camelot, a very similar anti-union message has been created. Instead of addressing the workers actual demands, the Sisters’ Camelot managing collective shifted the focus to one worker who they accused of theft, being abusive, and manipulating the rest of the canvassers into forming the union. They and their supporters have continually made the entire struggle about this one worker and not about the concerns of all of them. This is done to distract people from the real issues at stake, the experiences, grievances, and demands of the workers.

The Dirty Truth: Bosses Will Lie.

A final characteristic of anti-union campaigns is a barrage of lies and half-truths coming from management. At Jimmy John’s, our committee spent an enormous amount of energy refuting the spin management put on the organizing campaign. The aftermath of the Jimmy John’s union recognition election is an excellent example. After we narrowly lost our union election, but Unfair Labor Practice charges against the company nullified its results, the company put out a statement addressing the election and subsequent labor board settlement resulting from the ULPs. In the statement, they claimed the labor board only found merit with one third of all the ULPs we filed. In reality, they only investigated a third of the ULPs and found merit with all but two of them (out of more than 20). The labor board found these ULPs to be sufficient to rule the election null and void. If the company had decided to go to court instead of taking a settlement, the labor board would have investigated the rest of the ULPs. The statement also claimed that we admitted in the settlement that the company committed no wrongdoing. In reality, the settlement contained a clause stating the company is not admitting to violating Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (which protects concerted activity of workers), which both parties agreed to. The labor board agent explained to us this was a standard clause in all settlements involving first time offenders of Section 7.

The Sisters’ Camelot collective published a FAQ and a letter making several claims that are manipulative and spun to hide the truth. For instance, the collective has claimed that their collective is an open one which anyone who meets the requirements can join. What they conveniently omit is the fact that any collective member can block any potential applicant from joining for any reason. The collective has also claimed that none of the collective members are paid. In reality, the position of collective member is a non-paid volunteer position, but all the current collective members also hold paid positions within the organization which only collective members can hold. In another statement, they claimed that the canvass union went on strike about an hour after giving their demands. They fail to mention that the collective flat out refused to negotiate with the union, which caused the strike to happen. Similarly, at the NLRB trial to reinstate the fired canvasser, a collective member testified saying the canvassers wanted a few of their demands met the first day of negotiations. She also claimed the canvassers said they were going to go on strike at the beginning of negotiations. The reality is quite different. The canvassers asked the collective to pick a one or two demands that they could begin negotiations on that day. They didn’t say they wanted them to agree to them on that day. Furthermore, they stated at the beginning of the negotiations they were willing to go on strike if the collective refused to negotiate in good faith. These are but a few examples of the many lies and half-truths the collective has spun to manipulate the truth. In doing so, they behaved as any other boss: dishonest and manipulative.

This strike, which has now dragged on for over four months, has revealed many things about the nature of the Sisters’ Camelot organization, its bosses, and those so-called “radicals” in the community who support the status quo at Sisters’. Those who have defended the collective have done so largely in blind defense of the collective model. And in doing so, they have caused the organization to nearly be destroyed.

No matter how much they claim to be anti-authoritarian, their actions speak more truth than the identities they subscribe to.

Proudly, Defiantly, & Unapologetically Wobbly,
Travis & Robbie
Twin Cities IWW (Personal Capacity)

Originally posted: July 9, 2013 at The Organizer