The parallels between the Sisters’ Camelot & Jimmy John’s anti-union campaigns: Part 2

The second part of a comparison between anti-union efforts at Jimmy Johns and at Sisters Camelot, a nonprofit 'mobile foodshelf', whose canvassers went on strike in Spring 2013.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 9, 2014

Part 1 | Part 2

Travis & Robbie are members of the Jimmy John’s Workers Union and the Twin Cities General Membership Branch of the IWW. This is Part 2 of an article in which they discuss the similarities between the struggles at Jimmy John’s and Sisters’ Camelot. Part 1 appeared on pages 1 & 6 of the September IW. 1

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 canvassers 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, the bosses are individualizing the workers in an attempt to divide and conquer. One canvasser on the collective can easily became 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, and 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’ 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 be “accountability” in place. By accountability, they obviously mean accountability to the collective. To say the canvass should be accountable to the collective but not vice 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; since the canvassers raise 95 percent of the organization’s operating budget, this obviously affects the organization’s financial status. 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 canvasser’s experiences at work and encourage them to do better work, like paid sick days and vacation, a 5 percent 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 percent raise and increase in their fundraising bonuses. 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 a 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 (ULP) charges we filed against them. Additionally, the pickets we held at stores, the phone blasts we did that shut down overthe- 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 per hour raise for all drivers and supervisors and a $2 per hour raise for all in-shoppers) would have cost them less money than fighting us for so long. The threat that unions will bring financial hardship to a company is typically nothing but an empty threat to 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 dues money being given to politicians without the workers’ input.

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 redbaited. 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 (JJWU) and presented our demands, the bosses thought we were being aggressive. When we actually became aggressive, 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 it’s 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 the Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union’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 workers themselves with a separate agenda from the workers. We call this “third 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 our political cause and the company was helping 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. Notice they didn’t say this about the canvassers themselves, just the IWW. This implies two things. First, 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 is really the one in the driver’s 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 delegitimize 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 boss’s 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. The collective and their supporters have continually made the entire struggle about this one worker and not about the concerns of all of the workers. 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 halftruths 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 ULPs against the company nullified its results, the company put out a statement addressing the election and subsequent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) settlement resulting from the ULPs. In the statement, they claimed the NLRB only found merit with one-third of all the ULPs we filed. In reality, they only investigated one-third of the ULPs and found merit with all but two of them (out of more than 20). The NLRB 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 NLRB 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 NLRB explained to us this was a standard clause in all settlements involving first-time offenders of Section 7.

The Sisters’ Camelot collective published an FAQ and a letter making several claims that are manipulative and spun to hide the truth. For instance, they claimed that their collective is open, and anyone who meets the requirements can join. What they conveniently omitted was 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, the collective claimed that the canvassers’ union went on strike about an hour after giving their demands. This statement failed 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 that 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 one or two demands that they could begin negotiations on that day. The canvassers didn’t say they wanted the collective to agree to those demands that day. Furthermore, the canvassers 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: with dishonesty and manipulation.

This strike, which continues to drag on, 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 Sisters’ Camelot claims to be anti-authoritarian, their actions speak more truth than the identities they subscribe to. In doing so, they have proven they are no better than the bosses at Jimmy John’s.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2013)

  • 1Admin correction: Article first appeared on The Organizer, the Twin Cities IWW's blog, in July 2013


Juan Conatz

10 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 26, 2014