“Nothing could save us after that one fatal misstep”

Mario Buda and Luigi Galleani recount a campaign at a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in Baltimore, from 2013-2015. 

We think it’s important to learn not only from our successes, but also from the times we get clobbered. The following is an account of one such defeat from two shopfloor organizers in the fast food industry. Our coworkers’ names have been changed, with the honorable exception of fellow worker Brennan Lester. Our class enemies’ names have been left unaltered for the historical record. 

In late December, 2013, we decided to salt into Jimmy John’s and start a union. For the purposes of this article, we’ll call ourselves Mario Buda and Luigi Galleani. We were members of the Baltimore IWW General Membership Branch, but our organization was barely treading water. On paper the branch represented two small co-op shops in the city, but there hadn’t been any organizing for several years, and we had trouble making quorum at meetings. The two of us had a long series of conversations about what we needed to do to jumpstart the branch. We agreed to pick a target and start from scratch.

We’re both townies from Baltimore, and we were both young people in shitty precarious living situations. We had caught the organizing bug for our own reasons. Mario was working part-time as a medical teaching assistant, barely making enough to live on and staying in a house full of roommates. He had helped from the outside at solidarity unionist campaigns at Starbucks and at a movie theater, and he was hungry for a firsthand taste of the action. Luigi had recently moved back home from being a smelly hitchhiker oogling his way across the American south; before that he’d had a little experience working on a food service organizing campaign with a business union in Los Angeles, and he was eager to get his shit together and get back in the fight. Each of us was a long-time radical who had been to several Organizer Training 101’s. We wanted to work somewhere we could build the union, but we were also desperate and just needed jobs. We settled on Jimmy John’s more or less arbitrarily, because the union had had some recent success organizing the franchise in Twin Cities.

Jimmy John’s is a godawful place to work. It’s a Taylorized sweatshop for the mass production of sandwiches—your every movement is monitored, criticized, and timed. Workers are split up into “inshoppers” (who make sandwiches by assembly line) and “drivers” (who deliver by bicycle). Speed above all else is the guiding rule: inshoppers are expected to make each order in under 30 seconds. If a driver is out for more than 10 minutes, their name on a board turns red.

This particular franchise was owned by two lowlife scumbag criminals, the brothers Michael and Danny Dolch, and their seedy henchman Mike Gillet. Michael Dolch was never seen, while Danny and Gillet were frequently out on the floor yelling at people. There were 3 stores in the franchise: Canton, McHenry Row, and Pratt street. Pratt was the flagship store: it was downtown and next to the convention center, and easily their most profitable location. Business skyrocketed during conventions and events. A manager once told us that Pratt revenue paid the wages at all three stores. Just before New Year’s 2014, Mario was hired at Pratt street as a driver.

The culture of the shop was complex. In some ways, it was cultish: managers looked forward to meeting “Jimmy” (the founder and CEO) at a Las Vegas retreat, and employees were asked to sign a non-compete agreement promising we wouldn’t work anywhere else that sold sandwiches for a number of years. In other ways, it was ridiculously casual, with hourlies and managers alike stealing food and doing drugs in the bathroom with impunity. The work was organized along stark racial and gender lines: inshoppers were all black, and they were mostly women. Drivers were all men, and they were mostly white. At first, the managers were all white.

Luigi started as an inshopper about one month after Mario. We set about building the list [a contact list of our coworkers], snagging people’s full names and addresses off pay stubs. At one point we staged our “meeting” with each other, not letting on that we were old friends. We made up a dumb excuse to get everybody to pull out their driver’s licenses, and got some useless outdated addresses that way. We thought we were pretty slick at the time.

The culture changed dramatically just a couple of months in. When we started there were two popular, queer, 20-something managers on night shift who we’ll call Bonny and Clyde. Workers liked them because they had a rebellious attitude compared to their day shift counterparts, and a cynical posture towards the team spirit bullshit they were supposed to feed us, and also because they sold really good drugs. They both got fired for stealing out of the register. That’s when we started doing our first one-on-ones.

A word about working class Baltimore culture: as anyone who’s spent any amount of time here knows, the standard question people ask each other when they meet is “Where’d you go to high school?” And, unlike anywhere else in the civilized world, the answer actually matters: Poly kids and City kids will take their football rivalry to the grave. In some respects, this local quirk can be very conducive to building trust. In other ways, as we’ll get to below, hyper-local cliquishness can be an obstacle to organizing.

Our first one-on-one was really a two-on-one. It was with Jarhead, a delivery driver. He was ex-military, recently back from doing two tours in Iraq, and he had settled into Baltimore’s bro-ish bike messenger counterculture. He was a loner who kept to himself, not much of a social leader in the workplace, and he wasn’t at the top of our list for people we wanted on the committee. But he liked Bonny and he was furious when she got fired. He approached one of us at a bar to tell us all about his plan to organize a walkout for her. It was Saturday and he wanted to call it for the following Monday. We panicked, and blew up each other’s phones that same night. We can’t let this motherfucker do this, he’ll ruin everything, we thought. This dude’s about to jump the gun and provoke an anti-union campaign before anybody’s ready. Looking back, we appreciate the irony in this, considering what we did later.

The next day, we showed up at Jarhead’s apartment to talk to him about organizing. We felt like we had to let him in on it to keep him from doing something reckless. He welcomed us in, and we got right into it with little small talk. We learned he hadn’t talked to Bonny since she’d been fired, he was just agitated as hell and wanted to act out on her behalf. We spent a lot of the visit talking him down. He was a surly guy, hard to read, but he was enthusiastic about the idea of a union. He had already heard of the Twin Cities campaign [at Jimmy John’s] in 2010. He was receptive to the idea that we had to build a strong committee of drivers and inshoppers before proceeding to strikes and walkouts.

Our next recruit was Brennan. He was a quiet, intellectual kid who was well-liked among his fellow drivers, but also had friends among the inshoppers because he had been there so long. When we met him he was one of the most senior drivers in the franchise, despite being only 20 years old. We didn’t learn his real age until years later, when we discovered he had always lied to us and told us he was 21 so we’d let him drink with us. In many ways, Brennan’s growth as an organizer would prove to be our greatest victory in an otherwise flopped campaign. For whatever that’s worth now…

Shortly after he joined the committee, Jarhead went with us to talk to Chuy. Chuy was a driver, and a key social leader among younger black workers in the shop. His cavalier fuck-you attitude made him the class clown of the Pratt day shift; at night, he would pick up shifts at McHenry Row. We wanted to recruit him partly to act as a connection between the two stores. Out of the original shop committee members, he was the only person of color. He hated the company and wasn’t shy about saying so.

For a few months, we had semi-formal committee meetings of the 5 of us, plus an experienced outside organizer named TJ. “Formal” because we voted on how to use money. “Semi” because we sometimes allowed beer at meetings or let Chuy participate via Facetime. Everyone took out red cards at subminimum dues (a timid move on our part as organizers, maybe revealing self-doubt around asking coworkers to commit to the union fully. If we could do it over again we’d ask for regular dues). Our strategy at that point was mostly to tap Chuy’s and Brennan’s friend networks [at work] for contacts.

Early in the campaign, Luigi threw a house party. Part of the goal was to create space for people to build relationships outside of work. He and Chuy invited a bunch of their coworkers, and they co-mingled uneasily with half the local punk scene. It wasn’t until months after the fact that we realized the only workers we’d been able to get to committee meetings were people who had come to that party.

Back to the shopfloor: with Bonny and Clyde out of the picture, managers were shuffled around, and the newcomers cracked down on the workers. The new GM, Erik, was extremely close to Danny and Mike. He’d been with them from the beginning, since they opened the franchise. Jimmy John’s was his life and he was a first class douche. “Not yr bro, Erik” would become a popular picket sign later.

Around the same time, Luigi was transferred to McHenry Row, and switched to being a driver. (I’m not sure why—I don’t think it was retaliation for anything. Maybe I just sucked at making sandwiches. –Luigi) Other than being an identical fast food hellscape, it was different from Pratt in every way. “McHenry Row” is a newer shopping installation with a block of luxury condos sitting on top of it. It’s in the middle of Locust Point, a historically working class white neighborhood where a lot of longshoremen live, near the marine terminals in south Baltimore. The delivery area was much larger than Pratt’s, so drivers were allowed up to 20 minutes to be out of the shop before the boss started noticing. Almost all of the workers were white kids from Locust Point, both inshoppers and drivers. Some of them had come up together. Luigi on the other hand was from Lauraville up northeast, and in spite of obsessively making social maps of the workplace, much of the web of existing Locust Point relationships was invisible to him.

Other than the manager, there was only one black worker.

Mike Gillet, the co-owner, was also from Locust Point and seemed to have a large extended family out there. He owned a smaller share of the company than the Dolch brothers, and they seemed to use him to do most of the hiring, firing, and other dirty work. He would come through McHenry Row once or twice a day to check on it. Sometimes, he would have us deliver free sandwich platters to the local tobacco shop, where he would be smoking cigars with his buddies. A lot of his buddies were cops. Who knows, maybe they were the same cops he’d call on homeless people outside the store. Sweet guy.

Eventually, we can’t remember exactly when, Chuy was transferred to work at McHenry as his regular job assignment. He still picked up shifts at Pratt, but McHenry became his home base. For a while, he and Luigi worked there as a committee of two, talking union out in the parking garage when nobody was around. Then, in July, we made what would prove to be the biggest blunder of the campaign.

Luigi here again—for expediency’s sake, I’ll be speaking in the first person in these next three paragraphs.

I’m not even going to front. I was cocky and I was impatient. I had just got back from New York, where I got trained and certified as a Big Official IWW Trainer. Maybe I let it go to my head. I was frustrated with the slow-burn pace we were moving at. Having begun to build an organization at Pratt, and then having been wrenched out of there and dropped into a more hostile setting, I felt like it was all one step forward, two steps back. I no longer had another wobbly in the shop to talk through this stuff with. Things weren’t moving fast enough for me. I wanted a shortcut.

So I got Chuy to set up three one-on-ones for me, all in the same day. They were with three of his McHenry Row friends: all Locust Point kids who had gone to high school together. Chuy biked around with me and came along to be co-pilot on two of the visits. The first two guys I talked to were worried about getting fired, of course, but talking about wage increases in Minneapolis got their attention. Then we went to talk to Dana, who was dating Chuy. She didn’t talk enough (rookie mistake on my part, being a dude and dominating the conversation), but she said she supported Chuy 100%. Then she asked to take out a union card…without ever having been to a committee meeting. I was only too happy to oblige her. When I got home that evening, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I excitedly told my girlfriend how well the one-on-ones had gone.

Dana ratted us out. She was afraid. She handed in her red card to management and told them what we were up to. The card said “initiated by: Luigi”. This happened while I was on the clock, out making a delivery to a nearby gym. When I got back, I saw Dana, Ted the GM, and Mike Gillet all standing there, staring at me. Ted was holding her red card. My knees started shaking involuntarily. Mike got up in my face. “Are you organizing a union?!” He spat it out. Somehow I found my voice. “Yes, sir, I am. I expect no retaliation for my concerted activity.” I didn’t make eye contact. This was not my first confrontation with a boss in a union drive. I’m embarrassed to say it still scares me every time.

And just like that, we were public. At least, that’s how we saw it at the time. We had an emergency committee meeting after work. TJ got us to preemptively write statements for ULPs. We were convinced an anti-union campaign was coming.

That night, we called a comrade who was still working at Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis. We told him we had decided to go public [to make a point of it] and we wanted to pick his brain about ideas for flashy job actions. He told us the story of the most popular action they did in 2010—a tip-cup day. On the busiest day of the year, organizers passed out plastic cups marked TIPS to customers. Each cup had a flyer about the union in it. Inshoppers aren’t allowed to collect tips as a matter of corporate policy. The idea was to violate the no-tipping policy en masse, flooding the store with extra money for the workers while openly disobeying the company.

Our committee started planning a tip-cup day at Pratt street. We decided to do it on the first day of Otakon. Otakon is a big anime convention that happens at the Baltimore Convention Center every summer; it always gives Pratt a crazy amount of business. Everybody in the franchise had to work at least one day of the convention. They would call in reinforcements from the other two stores. Mario and Luigi were both scheduled for Sunday; we had requested Saturday August 9th off for the action. Brennan was the only committee member who was on the clock that day.

We stayed up late the night before, drinking beer in Luigi’s basement with local IWW members and writing “TIPS” on hundreds of styrofoam cups. We carpooled downtown the next morning at 10am. When we got to Jimmy John’s, there was a line of grown men dressed as their favorite cartoon characters extending out the door and down the sidewalk.

Eight of us marched into the crowded store: Mario, Luigi, and a delegation of 6 outside supporters. We stood at the end of the sandwich line, blocking the corner where customers grab their orders. Brennan’s face lit up when he saw us. He clocked out at the POS screen, put on his union pin, and walked over to stand with our delegation with his arms folded.

We announced we were there to present our demands as a union. Mario started reading our demand letter out loud: we wanted wage parity with the unionized hotel next door (then $11.30/hr), schedules one week in advance, paid sick days, compensation for bike maintenance for drivers, and recognition of the IWW as our collective bargaining agent. We could barely hear him over the ambient din of the customers. Some workers were excited—others who we had never one-on-oned just looked confused. Ted was working the sandwich line and carefully ignoring us. Mike Gillet kept trying to cut us off. He yelled “I don’t have time for this!” and briefly stormed off into the back. Brennan puffed out his chest and yelled back “You DO have time for this!” When we didn’t leave, Mike came back even more flustered. “I can’t do this right now,” he begged.

Ted was smarter than Mike. He pulled him aside and whispered something urgently. Mike’s demeanor changed, and he walked outside onto Pratt. We followed him, and the store went back to operating smoothly while we read our demands to him out front. When we finished, he asked “Can I get back to work now?” We let him. Brennan went back inside after him and tried to go back to work too. He was still wearing his union pin. Ted ordered him to take it off, and Brennan responded by introducing him to TJ as his “union rep”. Ted accepted this unquestioningly, and sat down with him and TJ at the outside picnic table to negotiate Brennan’s return to work. “I understand what you’re trying to do,” he kept muttering. Eventually he let Brennan clock back in, still wearing the pin.

While all of this was going on, our supporters were posted up outside at either door handing out tip cups. By noon, the countertop was covered with them. Mike had turned red in the face. I thought he might cry. He was running around like a chicken with his head cut off, desperately snatching money out of the cups and stuffing it in a ziploc bag. It turned into a goddamn free-for-all. Inshoppers dropped what they were doing and started snatching money for themselves before Mike could get to it. We thought it was kind of a poignant image. When Mike left for the day, the managers gave up on enforcing the policy and let people just keep the tips.

We spent the next few days following up with workers who had witnessed the action. Reactions to it were varied, but in general people had gotten a big kick out of it. All of the inshoppers were still afraid to be seen as union supporters, especially those who we’d never done one-on-ones with before.

On August 13th, the other shoe dropped. Mike and Danny lined up every worker at Pratt, and gave every single person a write-up for a uniform violation. Jimmy John’s uniform policy was so exacting that virtually any worker could be found in violation at any time (wrong color shoelaces, raggedy belt, mayo stains on your khakis, etc). Dana was picking up a shift at Pratt that day. The next day she pointed to this incident in an argument, as proof that organizing was making things worse for everybody.

We responded by filing our first ULP. At that time, American labor law required unions to serve a copy of a ULP to the offending employer themselves. Chuy, Brennan, Jarhead, Mario, and Luigi decided we would swap shifts with other Pratt drivers to set up a day when the 5 of us were the only drivers on duty, and then we’d stop work to deliver the paperwork.

In strictly material terms, the work stoppage worked like a charm. We did it on August 22nd. Four of us clocked out at the same time as a small community delegation similar to the first one walked into the store with a copy of the ULP. Mike wasn’t there, so Danny Dolch was running the place. One of our supporters started reading the paperwork out loud. Danny lost his shit. “You guys don’t have to listen to this stuff! You don’t have to listen to this!” he was shouting. He shut down the line and called all the inshoppers into the back, effectively stopping production for us.

Chuy was still standing with his hand hovering over the POS screen, hesitating. He gave Luigi an apologetic glance, and followed Danny into the back.

It was hard not to see the racial overtones of the moment: four white workers on strike, standing on one side of the counter with their white leftist supporters, and on the other side eight bewildered black workers getting yelled at by the owner. And there’s Chuy, the one black man on the union committee, standing between them at the timeclock, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. 

The work stoppage was awesome. It was the first time we realized we could stop production basically at will, just by swiping out and marching people into the store. We also regard it as the second great blunder of the organizing drive. It was the type of thing that looked great in the pages of the Industrial Worker, and it killed any chance we had to salvage a shopfloor organization. It scared the hell out of some of the inshoppers, presented “the union” as a drivers-only thing, and solidified the racial division on the shopfloor. One worker, Vinny, accurately described us as a “clique” after the action. Chuy never came to a union meeting again. 

It also provoked an anti-union campaign. From then on they made us get approval from management to swap shifts. They stopped letting us make photocopies of the schedule. They stapled cookie-cutter propaganda to our paychecks about how terrible unions are; out of 10 bullet points, seven were about how the IWW was going to force you to go on strike. We also learned they’d hired a less than competent anti-union law firm, because the firm sent us something in the mail by mistake. 

Jarhead was fired in retaliation in early September. He hadn’t participated in the Otakon march-on-the-boss, so the work stoppage was also his coming-out party to management. Erik switched up the schedules on his day off, so nobody told him he was expected to work the next day. Then they fired him for being absent. Rather than target ringleaders like Mario or Luigi, the company’s strategy was to fire followers who took their first step. Jarhead was the first of four retaliatory firings that all followed this pattern. They had the intended effect of discouraging people from talking to organizers and spreading fear among workers who were on the fence.

We started doing a house visit blitz. We collected signatures on a petition supporting our 5-point demands program. Home visits are a staple of most mainstream union drives, but something the IWW frequently skips. We executed it in a fairly professional manner, with outside support from longtime organizers. Nonetheless, we were still doing things backward. We went public first, and then rigorously applied an organizing program after the fact. We tried to crack it all open all at once. 

We successfully visited 19 workers in the blitz, out of about 60 in the entire franchise. We sent two-person teams to knock on each door, mostly just to make it feel less awkward. Usually we’d team up one committee member (Mario, Luigi, Brennan, or Jarhead) with one outside organizer. The results were revealing in several ways. 

When a union drive goes public, the workforce polarizes. People are forced to pick a side. McHenry Row was polarized against us. People told us to get lost, or responded with skepticism. At best, some people would promise they would sign the petition—“but only after everybody else signs it.” Luigi knocked on Agnes’s door, the one older woman who worked at McHenry Row. She was visibly terrified and asked him how he’d gotten her address. He told her truthfully that he’d found the company’s address list through the POS system, when a manager had carelessly left his account logged in. The next day, Ted wrote him up for harassing a co-worker. Rumors immediately started that the reason the union had addresses was “hacking”. 

The one exception at McHenry Row was a highly agitated single mom named Angel. She came from a union family: her dad was a carpenter, and we talked to both of them in the privacy of their living room. She instinctively understood the power of solidarity without having to be led to the conclusion. She signed the petition after the first visit, and joined the committee for a few months until she quit for a better job. 

Pratt street was much less polarized. Unlike the other store, nearly every worker we visited told us privately that they supported the campaign, but were afraid to get involved. One exception was Vinny, who was close to management and threatened to “go get his shotgun” when Brennan and Jarhead showed up at his door. As was the case with Angel, some of the most supportive people were the children of union members. One young woman, Asia, was the daughter of an SEIU member. Her mom answered the door for Mario when Asia wasn’t home. She was enthusiastically supportive and invited him to come back. One 18-year-old kid, Umoja, was lukewarm about the union, but his mother hated Mike Gillet with a passion and she twisted his arm to get involved. Later he would become the only inshopper to participate in a job action.

The problem at Pratt was not that workers hated us. Rather, it was that we had not gone through the steps of building relationships with people, and inoculating them about what to expect before we went public. In an alternate timeline where we didn’t make those mistakes, the shop could have been organized. It was incredibly frustrating. In those conversations, a union felt so within-reach you could almost taste it. But the anti-union campaign was already underway, and everyone had seen the example they had made of Jarhead. Nobody wanted to be the first to stick their neck out. 

After the blitz, we made our third big blunder. We decided to adopt a totally defensive posture. We launched a series of picket lines at Pratt aimed at getting Jarhead rehired. We made fun of the ubiquitous “Support American Soldiers” signs in the stores with “Jimmy John’s Fires American Veterans” signs, which was pretty fun. We tried a march-on-the-boss at the Canton store on Veteran’s Day, but Mike ran away from us and sped off in his minivan. These actions may have felt empowering for the participants, but they also meant we limited ourselves to reacting against repression. We weren’t proactively advancing issue fights on the floor.

Around the same time, events were happening around the bicentennial of Francis Scott Key writing the national anthem. Somebody in the city government had decided this was a big deal for Baltimore, and there was a big militaristic celebration in Locust Point. McHenry Row experienced a surge in business, so we attempted a tip-cup day there, hoping to win some people over as we had at Pratt. The cops got called almost immediately and we were kicked out of the shopping center. Cops siding with Jimmy John’s was an ongoing theme at the pickets. Mario got pretty good at playing police liaison. 

We tried unsuccessfully to launch a salt program for the campaign. We thought we could break our stalemate by recruiting more young radicals into the shop. TJ, Mario, and Luigi did a speaking event at a liberal college campus hoping to find some good candidates. One result of these efforts was a hipstery shoegaze benefit show at a local DIY space. A well-meaning student joined the wobblies and designed a flyer for it, which depicted a Jimmy John’s flying the red-and-black flag with “WORKER OWNED” spray-painted on it. Brennan found the image horribly depressing. “Why the fuck wouldn’t we just burn it down?” he wondered aloud.

One concrete change we made at Pratt, albeit unintentionally, was changing the franchise’s racist promoting practices. Black workers were recruited into management for the first time since we’d been there. In a couple cases, people who had been union sympathizers were promoted. We still can’t decide if that was on purpose as a “carrot” union-busting move.

We did two more one-day strikes at Pratt in late 2014. Like with the pickets, our demands were always focused on rehiring Jarhead and ending retaliation. Umoja participated in both work stoppages. He had a lot of teenage energy, and during one he declared to Mike “You’re a bad businessman who’s bad at business!”

During each work stoppage, managers would try to regain control by sending the participants home for the day. After the last one, Mario overheard the GM say “Do we even have any more drivers?” You could almost see the lightbulb going off over his head.

As luck would have it, the NLRB ruled in favor of 6 fired workers from the Twin Cities franchise the same year. They had been fired for putting up posters demanding sick days. We did a big wheatpasting campaign, putting up our own versions of the same poster all over town. We substituted out Rob Mulligan’s personal phone number for Mike’s and Danny’s.

In January 2015, Brennan and Chuy got fired for going out for a smoke. We tried to talk to him, but Chuy wanted nothing to do with us by then. We held a week of actions demanding Brennan’s reinstatement, ranging from leafleting at the beginning to a short occupation of the store. We shut down business at will, one last time, but that wasn’t enough to win.

By that point, Luigi was burning out and spiraling into a depressive episode. He was also drinking too much. He stopped showing up to work in February.

Mario lasted another 8 months. Then he was injured in a bad bike accident. When he called the store to let them know, their first question was “Well did you get somebody to cover your shift?” He never went back to work after he recovered.

Various forms of attrition killed the campaign: firings, burnout, reductions in hours, and emotional abuse all played a role. But the truth is, the campaign was doomed from the moment we chose to go public prematurely. Nothing could have saved us after that one fatal misstep.

Brennan had developed into a talented organizer in his own right. After Jimmy John’s, he and Luigi went to get jobs at the new Amazon warehouse together, to organize there. On his way home from work, he was struck by a speeding limousine. He was in a coma for three months. When he woke up, he had a traumatic brain injury. He has never been the same since. He lives in a group home in Bowie, Maryland now.

Before his accident, Brennan gave a talk about the Jimmy John’s Workers Union at an IWW regional organizing assembly. The grandiosity and wry humor he displayed that day are still the way we like to think of him. Referring to Mike Gillet, he told the room “You know it’s true what they say. Reactionaries are paper tigers.”

We’ll keep waging the People’s War for you forever, fellow worker.