Pensacola group successfully forms first pizza drivers union

Published 1:05 am Sunday, September 24, 2006

Domino’s Pizza delivery driver Jim Pohle could have quit when he saw a competitor offering an extra 25 cents an hour in wages and his bosses wouldn’t match it, but he decided instead to stand up and form the nation’s only pizza drivers union to successfully organize workers.

Now he represents 11 drivers as president of the American Union of Pizza Delivery Drivers Inc. at the franchise where he has worked off and on for more than a dozen years. Experts say he has created a model for fast food workers wanting to organize in other locations.

“When they declared us tipped employees and refused to pay us the Florida minimum wage of $6.40, I was kind of angry. I came home that night and I told my buddy, I said ‘we are forming a union,’” he said.

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Pohle said his friend, a fellow ex-Marine, “thought I was venting steam.” The 37-year-old, who delivers pizzas because he likes to sleep late, smoke on the job and listen to the radio, got on the Internet and found St. Louis labor attorney Mark Potashnick.

Potashnick worked on failed organizing efforts by pizza workers in Ohio, Michigan and St. Louis, including those of The Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers. He coached Pohle on submitting a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, which recognized the union this summer.

Rodney Johnson, a regional director for the board, said the case appears to be the first of its kind. He has a petition pending from Pensacola-area pizza makers wanting to join Pohle’s union.

Tim McIntyre, a spokesman for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s Pizza Inc., said that while the Pensacola franchise was independently owned and operated, the company was disappointed by the union vote.

“We do not believe it is necessary in our industry, and are surprised that the individual employees in that store voted to turn over their ability to represent themselves to their supervisor to someone else,” he said in a statement.

Pohle’s union and the franchise owner haven’t agreed on wages and working conditions, he said. Apart from wages, many pizza delivery drivers nationally have discussed forming unions because they are often the victims of robbers.

In the meantime, the franchise owners have raised the pay of some drivers at their six nonunion stores, Pohle said.

Attorney Keith Pyburn, who is representing the franchise owner, said the formation of Pohle’s union did not surprise his clients.

“Their company is complying with its legal obligation to bargain with the union and that process is ongoing,” said Pyburn, who would not discuss employee pay.

The union could open doors for other fast food workers, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

She pointed to recent organizing efforts by Starbucks employees in New York and Chicago. The Industrial Workers of the World has members at seven Starbucks Corp. stores.

Food service workers are different from the government, auto, steel and blue-collar workers that represented the bedrock of union membership in decades past but whose union numbers are dwindling, she said. “Employers can fight very hard” with food workers because they are easily replaceable, she said.

Mark Damron, spokesman for Industrial Workers of the World, said that is changing because older workers are taking service industry jobs that were traditionally held by younger workers.

“As these people move into those jobs, they have higher expectations. You are going to see more agitation and expectations among middle-aged men who have been downsized and are now working as baristas or short-order cooks,” he said.