August 25, 2019
From IWW West Virginia (USA)

I once worked for a Jimmy John’s shop as a delivery driver around the same time that IWW organizers were attempting to unionize shops in the Twin Cities. My hiring manager told me in my interview, “You’ll make so much more money as a driver than as a sandwich maker. $15/hour is pretty common around here.”

There were two stores in my town – one in the downtown section, which delivered to college students and the university, and one in the uptown section, which delivered to the hospital and wealthier residential part of town. I worked at the uptown store and almost never interacted with the workers in the downtown store.

Our store had three shifts when I worked there during the Spring and Summer for a year: first shift (10am-5pm), second shift (5pm-10pm), and third shift (10pm-3am). I worked first shift most of my time there, so most of my stories come from then. 

I was the only delivery driver to arrive at 10am. The hiring manager and an assistant manager were already in the store when I arrived, and there was usually another in-store worker doing prep work. Orders usually weren’t placed that early, but if they were, I was the one to make them. It wasn’t until 11am that about half a dozen other drivers arrived for what should have been a six-hour shift.

I say “should have,” because despite being scheduled to work until 5pm, most drivers were cut before 2pm.

The biggest problem in our store was that we had a lunch rush that lasted between two and three hours every day – from 11am-2pm – but after that, we had intermittent orders. Individually, the assistant manager would ask drivers to clock out and turn in their delivery receipts for the day. Most drivers hadn’t made more than three deliveries by then, since they had hired so many of us for the lunch rush, so the $15/hour we were promised when we had joined was almost never more than minimum wage (when excluded for gas and car maintenance).

And so, day by day, I would watch six drivers clock in, hopeful for a good day’s pay, only to be let down again by the early afternoon. I was the only driver who was consistently kept on until 5pm when my shift ended. I’ll never know why, but I can guess that it was because I kept my head down and didn’t make waves. I wish I had.

One day, a fellow driver stood up for himself and other drivers inside the store when customers were seated nearby. He asked why he and the other drivers weren’t receiving their full six-hour shifts and explained, loudly, how hard it was to live off of an inconsistent wage.

Our store manager wasn’t happy about this. The driver would clock in dutifully at 11am, and the assistant manager would ask him for his slips at noon, regardless of the rush. He wouldn’t be given orders (since it had to be given out by the store manager most of the time), so the most he would receive after showering, shaving, driving to work, and making sandwiches for the hungry community was $7.25 before tax. Then, he was sent home.

The point of all this was to break him. To show him that the managers still had power over the store, and heaven help anyone who stood up for their co-workers, or even themselves, for better and more consistent hours.

We got the message.

Seeing him leave empty handed, without any orders, and the only option given to him was quit or find another job was enough for the rest of us to remain quiet about the whole thing.

The problem about working at Jimmy John’s is that it has the façade of being a hip, progressive sandwich place. Orders are completed quickly, often before you have time to finish paying, and workers are told to sarcastically tell the customer, “Sorry about your wait,” so as to make them laugh. We always push bacon on every sandwich – yes, even the vegetarian ones – both for humor and because the store makes a lot from the addition. Plastered all across the wall are quirky statements about life, family, and the pursuit of happiness.

Go into any Jimmy John’s store in the country and you’ll see all of these things replicated over and over again. The desire to make some unique sandwich-eating experience is a façade propped up by breaking the will of workers, particularly poor college students struggling in a high-rent college town.

I wish I had spoken up back then. I was one of the “good employees,” the one who was given extra hours, the one who was given the best deliveries (I once delivered to the Louisville basketball team), the one who was liked by both management and my fellow workers alike. I was afraid to jeopardize all of that, afraid that my hours would be cut, that my deliveries would be reduced, that my standing in the store would decrease.

I wish I had known about the IWW back then. I wish I had known what solidarity unionism was. I wish I had had the guts to do what was right.

But I didn’t. I was afraid.