Workers At A Subway Sandwich Shop Vote To Unionize

A group of Subway sandwich makers just proved that it isn't impossible for fast food workers to unionize.

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.

"I am very relieved the election is over and very proud of my co-workers for hanging tough during the past three months of the campaign," Ashley Sprouse, one of the pro-union workers, said in a statement to HuffPost through RWDSU. "The company threw many roadblocks in front of us and hired an anti-union professional to scare us to vote 'no,' but we overcame this and were victorious."

Anne LeZotte, a spokeswoman for Pilot Flying J, said, "We would simply like to reiterate that we value all of our team members and appreciate their hard work and commitment to serving our customers."

Though rare, it isn't unheard of for fast food workers to be part of a union, particularly under a large service provider like an airport or rest stop. Pilot Flying J bills itself as "the largest non-traditional franchisee of the Subway brand," with more than 150 locations at its travel plazas throughout North America.

Pilot Flying J is the family business of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who the United Auto Workers union accused of interfering in their high-profile election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga earlier this year. The company is run by his brother, Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns.

As HuffPost reported in February, a group of cashiers, gas pump attendants and maintenance workers at the same Pilot Flying J travel center in Bloomsbury voted in favor of joining RWDSU. After those employees had their election, workers at the Subway shop reached out to the union about getting representation, according to Kathy Campbell, secretary-treasurer at RWDSU Local 108.

"They had the same concerns that the other workers had at the location," Campbell said. "Wage increases weren't given regularly. There was concern about getting time off to do things with their families and still have a paycheck. They were mostly part-time workers, making around minimum wage."

Plus, Campbell added, there was a desire to "just have a general voice at the workplace."

Labor groups -- in particular the Service Employees International Union -- have recently undertaken a massive effort to organize workers at fast food joints like McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC and Subway, staging a series of strikes in cities throughout the country. Although it has claimed some victories regarding workplace policies at particular stores, and no doubt influenced the national debate over the minimum wage, the movement hasn't led to collective bargaining agreements for workers.

The fact that RWDSU already had a toehold in this particular travel center made it much easier to organize the Subway workers. Organized labor has made little headway in unionizing fast food workers who are employed by small, individual franchisees, each with their own small bargaining units.

According to NLRB records, Pilot Flying J disputed the bargaining unit for the Subway shop as determined by the agency's regional director, claiming that certain workers should be classified as supervisors ineligible for the union. The labor board ultimately ruled against the company, allowing the election to proceed.

The Subway workers faced the same sort of anti-union meetings experienced by the travel center cashiers and gas pump attendants, according to Campbell.

As HuffPost reported in February, an RWDSU official claimed that the company's tactics in the latter union campaign included a game meant to discourage unionizing. Workers were invited to guess the value of a wrapped basket of groceries, and whoever guessed closest to the amount would win the contents. According to the union official, the workers were told that the total value of the groceries was equivalent to the union dues they would pay over the course of a year.