Getting the gift of unemployment

January 6, 2014

Bob Simpson reports from Chicago on a sandwich shop that wants to exact revenge on workers for raising their voices in the Fight for 15 campaign.

WORKERS AT a Snarf's Sandwiches on Chicago Avenue on the city's near North Side, received a nasty surprise on the night of December 22.

Based on an e-mail they received, they logged into the online scheduling website only to find that Snarf's was closing for a two-week "remodeling" period, and that they had been "terminated." As of this writing, there is no evidence of any remodeling.

Most of the workers at the closed-down location support the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) and had joined strikes in August and December organized as part of the the Fight for 15 campaign.

Sara Mergenthal was among the Snarf's workers who reacted with anger and disappointment to these firings without warning:

It's just so upsetting to me the way they would do that. I never thought of them as a fantastic corporation doing great things for the world, but I never thought they would do that to people who make money for them.

Snarf's is a chain of sandwich shops that began in 1996 with a single location in Boulder, Colo. Still based mostly in Colorado, with a few shops in the Midwest, Snarf's has plans to expand into Texas.

Snarf's workers and their supporters protest after learning the shop was closed
Snarf's workers and their supporters protest after learning the shop was closed (Bob Simpson | SW)

Jill Preston, director of marketing for Snarf's, did issue a public statement on December 24 saying that business had been bad, and the store would reopen as a hamburger joint. She said that while the company could not afford to pay $15 an hour, she also claimed that the workers "do make a lot of money on tips."

Preston expressed regret that workers were given no notice that they would be fired, but urged them to collect unemployment and "keep an eye out for the grand opening of the new store."

Perhaps realizing this response wasn't quite enough, Snarf's CEO Jim Seide released a Christmas-day apology via the media: "For now, as a token of our apology and in the holiday spirit, we will be providing impacted employees an additional week of wages. Again, we are deeply sorry."

However, according to one WOCC member I spoke with, this "additional week of wages" was only for those days when workers were assigned, and no one was scheduled for more than one day's work--so the token of Seide's apology was one day's pay.

During the December strike, Snarf's worker Kate Zieglar told me she had worked at the restaurant for two and a half years and still only made $9.50 an hour.

The December 5 walkout was able to shut down the store for the day. The strike issues were low wages, no sick leave, no vacation days and no rational system for raises. Snarf's did institute a complicated rating system, under which a worker who scored in the 90th percentile might get a raise. One Snarf's worker told me that most people never got one.

Snarf's workers had also gotten 500 signatures on a petition supporting their demands that was circulated among people in the 600 W. Chicago building. Zieglar told me that despite this support for the workers' demands from Snarf's customers, the owners made no real improvements.

AS SOON as WOCC organizers got the word about the firings, they began contacting members and supporters to assemble at the 600 W. Chicago building on Monday morning, December 23. By around 9 a.m., more than 30 people had arrived.

Kevin Brown, a Snarf's worker, and WOCC organizer Hannah Joravsky laid out the strategy: Two of us would leaflet people around the building and urge them to call Snarf's corporate headquarters to protest the firings. The rest of us would go in quietly as a delegation and ask the Snarf's manager inside to call corporate headquarters and tell them to rehire the workers and pay severance.

The shop was closed with a heavy iron gate, adorned with a sign saying the restaurant was being "remodeled," though there was no sign of that inside. William Ravert, the manager finally appeared, and peered out through the grate as a WOCC representative told him:

We are demanding that you put these workers back on schedule because you did not warn them and let them know there was going to be construction going on, and we feel you are retaliating against them. There are more than 30 people here, and there are going to be even more people here if you do not call corporate, and give these people their money back for the weeks that you took off. You also need to give these people their jobs back.

Hannah Joravsky then explained to the manager that WOCC would be filing formal charges and letting all of the customers in the building know what happened to the employees who had stood up for their rights.

Ravert then disappeared into the darkened depths of the store, after saying he would call corporate headquarters. Snarf's workers were skeptical that he would actually do it and figured he was probably just "running away."

By this time, an unhappy building security official was in the lobby. After some negotiations, the WOCC organizers decided that we should go to the other Snarf's location at Prudential Plaza, on Michigan Avenue downtown, and demand that the manager of that store call the corporate office.

There were no customers in the Prudential Plaza shop when we gathered around the front counter there. After some haggling, the manager did agree to call corporate headquarters in front of us. He even told us he agreed with most of WOCC's demands.

We left chanting, "We'll be back! We'll be back!" and gathered outside to plan the call-in to Snarf's corporate headquarters. As I left, WOCC was meeting with the Snarf's workers to plan further actions. This is the first mass retaliation against a WOCC protest, and WOCC does not plan to let this happen without a fight.

THE STORY of the firings went viral in the media and resulted in considerable bad publicity for a fast-food chain that is seeking to expand.

WOCC believes that Snarf's December 23 firings violate federal labor law, and it filed an official protest with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), claiming that the shutdown was retaliation. This is the second complaint about Snarf's filed with the NLRB alleging retaliation. WOCC filed an official complaint for a three-day company-enforced lockout after the December 5 strike.

Snarf's Jill Preston did say that that the fired workers would receive preferential treatment when hiring begins at the newly remodeled shop--unless people with "more experience" also applied. She also said these types of business decisions "happen all the time."

Since she would not guarantee that they would be rehired, her cheery message came as cold comfort to employees like Kevin Brown, Kate Zieglar and Sara Mergenthal, all of whom had worked so hard to improve conditions at Snarf's.

As we walked up the stairs away from the Prudential Plaza Snarf's, Sara Mergenthal told me that while Snarf's management had always claimed workers were a part of the Snarf's family, she now knows, "They really don't care about us."

Like several other Snarf's workers, she flew home for the holidays with news for the family: "Merry Christmas, Mom. I'm unemployed."

A previous version of this article was published at the Daily Kos.

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