Workers at a Snarf’s Sandwiches, located inside of the Groupon Building on Chicago's 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 2 week “remodeling” period and they had been "terminated”
All 14 workers (or 20 according to the Huffington Post) had been fired without warning or just cause. Sara Mergenthal was among those Snarf’s workers who reacted with anger and disappointment:
”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.”
Most of the Snarf’s workers at her location support the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) and had joined both the August and recent December 5 Fight for $15 strikes.Some workers had been at Snarfs for as long as 3 years. At the December strike Snarf’s worker Kate Zieglar told me she had been there for 2 1/2 years and still only made $9.50 an hour.
Snarf's workers had gotten 500 signatures supporting their demands on a petition circulated among other people in the building. The December 5 strike 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 so that if a worker scored in the 90th percentile, they might get a raise. One Snarf’s worker told me that most people never got one.
Monday morning at the shuttered Snarf's
As soon as WOCC organizers got the word about the firings, they began contacting members and supporters to assemble at the Groupon Building on Monday morning, December 23. By around 9 am, 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 corporate HQ 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 HQ 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 it 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 to give these people their jobs back.”
Hannah Joravsky then explained to the manager that WOCC will be filing formal charges, and will let 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 HQ. Snarf’s workers were skeptical that he would actually do it and figured he was probably just “running away”.
By this time a building security official was in the lobby and clearly unhappy. After some negotiations, the WOCC organizers decided that we should go to the other Snarf’s location at Prudential Plaza near Michigan Ave downtown and demand that the manager of that store call the corporate office.
We meet the manager of the Snarf’s at Prudential Plaza
There were no customers in the shop when we gathered around the front counter of Snarf's at Prudential Plaza. After some haggling, the manager did agree to call corporate HQ in front of us. He even told us that 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 HQ. 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.
In addition, WOCC believes that Snarf’s actions violate federal labor laws and plan to make a case for that. WOCC has already filed an official complaint for a 3 day company enforced lockout after the December 5 strike, claiming that it was retaliation.
Huffington Post reported that Snarf’s corporate HQ finally did issue a response. Director of Marketing Jill Preston said that business had been bad and that 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.”
She expressed regret that no notice of the firings was given, but urged them to collect unemployment and ‘"...keep an eye out for the grand opening of the new store."
Since she would not guarantee that workers would be rehired at the “new store”, this 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 that the workers were a part of the Snarf’s family she now knows that,”They really don’t care about us.”
Like several other Snarf’s workers she will be flying home with news for the family,” Merry Christmas, Mom. I’m unemployed.”