It was great to see the news recently that a group of Subway franchise workers had voted to unionize in New Jersey recently.
Workers at a Subway location in Bloomsbury, N.J., on Friday voted in favor of joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The 13 workers are employed by the Tennessee-based travel center company Pilot Flying J, but they all work inside the company’s Subway franchise at the rest stop.
According to an examiner with the National Labor Relations Board, the vote came out 8 to 5 in favor of the union. Pilot Flying J has a week to file any objections to the election before it’s certified by the board.
In an email, Local 108 President Charles Hall told me that these Subway workers organized to deal with low wages and lack of raises, limited paid time off for sick and personal time, unfair treatment and perhaps the biggest issue facing fast food workers, sporadic scheduling.
Cracking the code for organizing fast food employees is going to be key for the labor movement for this decade. It’s central to the project of creating an equitable food system and it’s central to creating a U.S. economy that functions for more the the 1%.
However, in reading about this, I had to wonder if this is part of an industry strategy by the union or did they just pick up 13 members through a ‘hot shop’ organizing drive. This could be a hopeful sign of things to come or a cautionary tale waiting to happen. My hope is that the RWDSU has a plan for organizing fast food workers, including Subway employees throughout the Pilot Flying J network. My fear is that this was merely hot shop organizing and doesn’t represent anything meaningful about organizing fast food workers beyond proof of concept. In fact, this approach to organizing makes unions weaker as they grow larger instead of stronger. This is especially true in the service sector where bargaining units can be as small as 13 workers. This has been a major problem for organized labor for the last 30 years.
Let’s look at the players.
RWDSU Local 108:
This local is centered in New Jersey but sprawls into the surrounding states as far south as Maryland and Virginia and as far west as Ohio and Illinois. It represents retail workers in various industries: clothing, jewelry, auto parts stores and supermarkets, wharehouses, manufacturing and the public sector.
Pilot Flying J:
The largest travel center chain in the US at 550 locations. It is the largest franchisee of Subway with over 200 locations. Other franchises in the network include Arby’s, Chester’s Chicken, Dairy Queen, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Taco Bell, T.J. Cinnamons, Wendy’s, and Cinnabon.
Recently Subway overtook McD’s as the largest restaurant chain in the world at 42,252 restaurants in 107 countries and territories and over 23,000 locations in the United States.
Then you have 13 Subway employees working in a Flying J Pilot location where 22 other workers are represented by Local 108.
We are looking at a geographically sprawling union local representing 35 workers (13 Subway workers and 22 Flying J workers) at one location of the travel center company which is the largest franchisee of the largest restaurant chain in the world. One might wonder where the leverage is going to come from. That’s one of the major problems with hot shop organizing: what happens after the election.
Ideally unions have an industry or geographic strategy for organizing workers. You organize all (or most) of the workers in an industry or area and you build bargaining power. The problem is that workers aren’t always ready to organize on your schedule, according to your plan. It takes more planning and resources to organize workers when the drive is initiated by the union rather than when workers reach out to a union for help. The upside is that it maps with the union’s strategy. It builds power and uses resources more efficiently in the long run.
When workers reach out, they are reacting to some new injustice that has made the job intolerable. They are reaching out because they feel they have nothing to lose. Given what it takes to win an organizing drive in the United States in 2024, that’s about the only frame of mind that is going to get your through a successful organizing drive. Winning a certification election in a hot shop is less difficult and it’s a good way to increase your membership in the short run. The problem is, after the election comes the contract fight. To win a contract you need leverage. For that you need power in the industry and/or the community. 13 workers at one location out of 550 doesn’t get you much leverage with Flying J. As one of 23,000 locations in the US it it gets you even less leverage with Subway.
If Flying J and Subway choose to stonewall in the contract fight, getting a first contract could take years and cost the union a $1 million or more. Back of the envelope calculations: $80,000 per worker to get to a first contract. At $20 a month in dues, that’s 333 years before the union sees break even on the drive. An expensive fight that will never pay for itself may be worth it for the union if it builds power for their total membership. In this case adding 13 Subway employees in New Jersey does nothing to improve the bargaining power of 300 auto parts warehouse workers in Ohio.
If they win the contract, the math and incentives don’t get any better for the union. Now you have 13 workers assigned to a union rep. That rep has bargaining units that she represents already. Let’s say they include a warehouse and a few grocery stores. The warehouse has 300 workers and the grocery stores each have 100. That rep now has new members to get to know, train and meet with. They have a new management to build a relationship with. They have new lingo and jargon to learn, new work issues that aren’t applicable to the warehouse and markets. Working on a grievance will take the same time at Subway as the warehouse but, benefit fewer workers and win the loyalty and pride of fewer still. Training a shop steward will take the same time and resources, but will result in representation for a dozen members instead of a few dozen.
The union rep will naturally gravitate to where their work impacts the most members. It will be a struggle and a headache to make sure 13 or 35 members in a single location get the attention and resources they deserve, when they can accomplish more at the warehouse and the markets.
The Subway has 7.6 times fewer workers than the markets and 23 times less workers than the warehouse. It will not take 23 times less work to represent properly. In fact it could take more. In my experience, for every 150 workers there is almost always one who really kicks ass, and a few more decent leaders to boot. Statistically, the warehouse will have enough natural leadership amongst the 300 members that over time the shop stewards will mostly run their own show. The markets may or may not have that one leader that really shines, but they will almost certainly have a few solid shop stewards. For a union rep facing a shop with 13 workers, leadership is really a crap shoot with the odds facing the wrong way.
The result is more work for the union rep with no increase in power for the membership of the union, in fact they find their resources spread thinner. These are the problems that hot shop organizing can bring when it happens outside of a industrial or geographic strategy. The problem is compounded tenfold when we are dealing with small shops like fast food locations. Instead of the union’s power being greater than the sum of it’s parts, it become less powerful as it gets larger.
That’s why I wouldn’t want to take on a shop like this unless it was part of a larger plan.
In my email, I asked Hall if the local represented other Flying J’s or if they had plans to organize more. He responded that they only represented the one, but that their success in Bloomsbury had generated interest from other travel center and fast food workers. While the union was listening carefully to their concerns, they have not made any official plans to do a strategic campaign. That’s a shame, because Flying J presents a unique opportunity to represent something close to 16,000 fast food workers representing a dozen or so brands, while bargaining with a single employer. This sidesteps one of the major hurdles that the fast food franchise model presents to unions. The challenge of bargaining with a different employer for every single Subway or McDonald’s location is an organizer’s nightmare.
SEIU is investing in a long game strategy by providing support and resources for fast food workers to organize without any near term prospects of representing these workers and collecting dues any time soon. The hope is to build a movement powerful enough to overcome the challenges posed by small bargaining units and multiple franchisee employers within chains. This is an expensive and risky strategy. The beauty of Flying J is that you have around 16,000 fast food employees, but only one employer to bargain with. That is a tremendous opportunity and would provide a tremendous platform to stabilize the riskier “alt-unionism” that SEIU is working from. RWDSU hasn’t shown much vision here, maybe they are just playing their cards close to the chest.
Cracking the code for organizing fast food workers is going to require real vision and commitment. So far SEIU is the only union that has shown any of that. I hope RWDSU takes this opportunity and expands their horizons.