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First Fast Food Workers Union in US Prepares to Strike

The strike could potentially become the largest in the history of the solidarity union.

Members of the Burgerville Workers Union — the first officially recognized fast food workers union in the United States — rally in front of a Burgerville location in Portland, Oregon.

Members of the Burgerville Workers Union ­­(BVWU) — the first officially recognized fast food workers union in the United States — now say they are preparing to engage in what could potentially become the largest strike in their union’s history.

The union, which represents workers at five Burgerville fast food stores in Oregon and Washington State, won official recognition in 2018 and 2019 and is part of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which differentiates itself from other unions with its use of direct action on the job, its explicit anti-capitalism, and its engagement in workplace organizing without many of the standard concessions unions depend on, such as legally binding contracts.

BVWU members had hoped to make their rally this past Saturday, October 19, in Portland, Oregon, into a celebration of their first union contract and the lifting of their almost three-year boycott of their employer. Instead, however, the union is announcing that it is taking the next steps to escalate the conflict with the Burgerville restaurant chain.

“[Management] chose for us to strike,” says Luis Brennan, a Burgerville worker who helped start the union organizing drive back in 2015, a year before the campaign even went public. “They chose to break negotiations. They chose to disrespect all the time and energy we put into this. And they chose to call the workers out on strike — which we were ready for.”

Burgerville Workers Union members and their supporters march across the Willamette River to the Hawthorne Burgerville location to announce their strike.
Burgerville Workers Union members and their supporters march across the Willamette River to the Hawthorne Burgerville location to announce their strike.

These last grueling months were just the most recent stage of what has been three years of aggressive campaigning and pushback from one of Oregon’s trademark companies. In May of 2016, the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) first went public with an above-ground campaign, asking Burgerville to voluntarily recognize the union and negotiate with the workers. Burgerville instead tried to ignore them, and then retaliated by firing or disciplining workers who had been involved in the organizing effort. The union continued to build up store to store, worker to worker, using what is commonly known as “solidarity unionism,” which means deriving the power to address problems in the workplace using collective action rather than government-sanctioned labor agreements. With this strategy, the Burgerville workers started confronting issues like safety and staffing using direct action organizing strategies.

Solidarity unionism led to massive support from community organizations and labor union locals, high-profile strikes at busy locations, dozens of pickets during peak hours and a high profile boycott that has galvanized an entire city to support them. All of this came with no paid staff or no “labor professionals” — only the determination of rank-and-file activists who brought a sense of social justice directly into their workplace.

“We think that people who work in fast food are incredible people who deserve power,” says Brennan, who had experience in rank-and-file unionism before working at Burgerville and brought those experiences in with him. “As we gained power, and as it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere, that’s when we started to see repression [from management].”

Eventually workers at several of the shops did file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election, winning recognition at five locations, which legally forces Burgerville to the table to negotiate in “good faith.” Now it has been 18 months since the first union election was certified, and the bargaining team representing the union shops is still miles away from settling a tentative agreement on some key economic proposals with management.

“Workers have been waiting a long time and we’re sick of it,” says Emmett Schlenz, who works at the Montavilla Burgerville location and sits on the bargaining team. “I think their move right now is to see if they can wait us out. They know that Burgerville workers are pretty poor and pretty desperate and they want to stall as long as they can.”

Workers have often described sporadic scheduling, grueling work shifts, and wages that are not keeping up with the costs of the area. While Burgerville has created an image of a progressive, local company, its workers are a part of the ultra-low-wage economy, with many reporting that they are unable to meet their own basic financial needs.

The Bargaining Table Heats Up

Over the course of bargaining, management refused to move from the wage scale that it had in place before the locations were unionized.

“Money was a really major thing [when organizing began]. The people who work at Burgerville are a part of the low-wage economy, so they didn’t feel particularly important,” says Brennan. “Their lives just weren’t working; their lives still aren’t working. Trying to raise families, trying to go to school, trying to live an independent life outside of your parent’s house … It just wouldn’t work.”

Other issues like health care continue to be contentious as few workers meet the threshold of hours worked to receive health care under the current system, and the employer’s plan does not provide adequate coverage for trans staff members. The bargaining team claims that management is also stalling on its proposals to refuse collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The union proposed disallowing ICE access to company records as a “sanctuary union” tool to protect undocumented workers, a move that has been spearheaded by unions like the Teamsters.

Despite having unity about the changes that workers wanted to see in the workplace, members of the union’s bargaining team say they were willing to work with management so that they could reach an adequate deal. They went as far as to walk back several proposals, such as 15-minute breaks, sick time and vacation accruals, and paid union activity, but management has still refused to budge.

Management has said that a final contract negotiated for the five stores will apply to all 1,500 workers at 41 locations — a move that would weaken the union’s standing with workers if the negotiated wages fall short of expectations, and give nonunion workers little incentive to join the union since they would receive contract benefits anyway. Management is also rolling out a free shift meal program in 2020, which they say is simply to support their struggling workforce.

“The reason they are doing this is the union. They are seeing labor unrest,” says Schlenz. “They want to appear like benevolent bosses, but the reality is they have fought us since day one.”

Negotiations Break Down

As negotiations started to break down, particularly over management’s immobile stance on economic contract articles, the workers returned to the rank-and-file activism that launched their struggle. Strike authorizations began to put pressure on management to bring useful proposals to the table. Workers returned to the bargaining table on October 16 prepared to hold management accountable for fair negotiations.

“Bargaining’s been going a lot better ever since we threatened to strike,” said Abby Cee, an organizing worker and member of the bargaining team, who spoke with Truthout on a break during the October 16 round of bargaining. “I think if we want anything resembling a humane and livable future, then the working class must rise up and take power from the capitalists. Forming radical unions builds our organization and power as a class and puts us in a better position for revolution.”

While management was willing to start settling different contract articles regarding working conditions, wages continued to be a place where they failed to meet the standards being demanded by the union. During recent negotiations, Burgerville announced that it would offer a full $1 raise, bringing up the base wage at their shops to $13.50. This was announced unilaterally, not just in the union shops, and falls in line with what the union describes as an attempt to make the organizing invisible and center the executives as benevolent leaders. This raise is, however, far below the $15 hourly wage being demanded by the bargaining team in negotiations, a rate that will bring workers closer to a living wage for the region.

“We’ve been making tremendous progress and signing lots of tentative agreements. Burgerville wants to avoid a strike,” Cee said. “We’re serious about getting a good contract, and we’re ready to take militant direct action if we don’t.”

Burgerville Management Refused to Budge

Both sides spent the week leading up to October 19 in negotiations, and with a number of tentative agreements settled between the parties, it seemed like the first union contract for the Burgerville Workers Union was within sight. This included agreements on things like “just cause” discipline, the grievance procedure and union security provisions, all of which came from aggressive bargaining at the table and were backed up by strike authorizations that were happening with the rank-and-file across the city. Yet as the hours counted down on Friday, Burgerville executives made it clear they were refusing to budget on economic proposals that would bring them closer in line with what the union considers a living wage.

“After hours and hours and days of bargaining, moving on things, getting progress, they wouldn’t move on wages,” says Brennan. “It is disrespectful, infuriating and ridiculous. They could not have thought we would ever entertain that offer, and so they forced us to do this.”

On Saturday morning, the workers led one of their largest rallies to date at Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland, and they marched across the river to a live picket at the Hawthorne Street Burgerville location. There they announced that workers would be walking off the job, initiating a mass strike over their inability to reach a comprehensive agreement with management. This launched a week of Halloween-themed actions, commencing with mass call-ins on Monday, October 21, to the Burgerville corporate office, along with pickets at various locations throughout the week, all using campy horror-themed names in an effort to keep up community engagement. On October 24, the union is planning to lead an overnight vigil and occupation at the Burgerville corporate location across the Columbia River from Portland in Vancouver, Washington.

“We are preparing to escalate. We had plans. It’s not like we didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Brennan. “I feel betrayed that they would treat us with such disrespect, though I also feel sort of embarrassed that I ever thought they had any integrity.”

The success of the Burgerville Workers Union will depend less on what happens in bargaining and more on its ability to build worker power. BVWU has already been successful in making huge gains in working conditions. Pushing the hand of management to offer raises was a major victory in itself. Now the union is taking the next steps to push through those final adjustments — ones that will determine whether or not Burgerville workers can afford to live in Portland’s rapidly intensifying economy.

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