Beyond the Fight for 15: The Worker-led Fast Food Union Campaign Building Power on the Shop Floor

Arun Gupta

Burgerville Workers Union members and supporters rally in Portland, Ore.

Last year, at age 17, Eli Fishel moved out of her par­ents’ house in Van­cou­ver, Wash­ing­ton, squeez­ing into a three-bed­room apart­ment with five oth­er room­mates. To pay her bills as she fin­ished high school, Fishel land­ed a job at Burg­erville, a fast-food chain with 42 out­lets and more than 1,500 employ­ees in the Pacif­ic Northwest.

Found­ed in 1961, Burg­erville has cul­ti­vat­ed a loy­al fol­low­ing by empha­siz­ing fresh, local food, com­bined with sus­tain­able busi­ness prac­tices like renew­able ener­gy and recy­cling. But Fishel quick­ly real­ized she wasn’t part of Burgerville’s com­mit­ment to region­al vital­i­ty” and future generations.”

After 16 months on the job, she earns just $9.85 an hour, bare­ly above the Wash­ing­ton State min­i­mum wage. Her hours and shifts fluc­tu­ate week­ly, with only a few days’ notice, and every month she goes hun­gry because she runs out of mon­ey to buy food.

Speak­ing of the pri­vate­ly-owned Burg­erville, Fishel says, We’re poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because we’re poor.”

Dis­grun­tled Burg­erville work­ers began covert­ly orga­niz­ing in 2015. The Burg­erville Work­ers Union (BVWU) went pub­lic on April 26 with a march of more than 100 peo­ple through Port­land, Ore­gon, and the deliv­ery of a let­ter to the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in Van­cou­ver. BVWU demands include a $5‑an-hour raise for all hourly work­ers, recog­ni­tion of a work­ers orga­ni­za­tion, afford­able, qual­i­ty health­care, a safe and healthy work­place, and fair and con­sis­tent sched­ul­ing with ample notice.

Some BVWU mem­bers call their effort Fight for $15, 2.0,” play­ing off the name of the fast-food work­er cam­paign launched in 2011 by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU).

SEIU has won plau­dits for mak­ing the plight of low-wage work­ers a nation­al issue and ignit­ing the move­ment for new laws boost­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour. But the cam­paign has not, thus far, includ­ed efforts to union­ize indi­vid­ual workplaces.

Unlike Fight for $15, which Mid­dle­bury Col­lege soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor and labor expert Jamie McCal­lum describes as a fair­ly top-down cam­paign,” BVWU is a work­er-ini­ti­at­ed and ‑led project backed by numer­ous labor orga­ni­za­tions. The group of Burg­erville work­ers who came up with the idea includes mem­bers of Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW), a mil­i­tant union with West Coast roots that date back to the ear­ly 1900s. The cam­paign has the back­ing of the Port­land chap­ter of IWW and the sup­port SEIU Local 49, the Port­land Asso­ci­a­tion of Teach­ers, and Jobs with Justice.

This scrap­py approach enabled BVWU to leapfrog Fight for $15 by declar­ing a union from the start. While BVWU has not yet for­mal­ly peti­tioned for recog­ni­tion and Burg­erville has not cho­sen to vol­un­tar­i­ly nego­ti­ate with it, the union has estab­lished work­er com­mit­tees in five stores, is devel­op­ing units in a sim­i­lar num­ber of shops and counts scores of work­ers as members.

BVWU is full of lessons in how orga­niz­ing works. One mem­ber likens the cam­paign to low-lev­el guer­ril­la war­fare” with work­ers maneu­ver­ing to increase their ranks, build pow­er on the shop floor, expand the ter­rain from shop to shop, while skir­mish­ing with man­agers over the work process, and suf­fer­ing casu­al­ties as some mem­bers have quit or say they were pushed out of their jobs at Burg­erville. In the work­place, the strat­e­gy is to devel­op lead­ers, form com­mit­tees for each store, and nur­ture trust and respect between work­ers. Out­side, BVWU uses direct action to empow­er work­ers and bring sup­pli­ers into the con­ver­sa­tion. The union also works to build com­mu­ni­ty sup­port by mobi­liz­ing social-jus­tice groups, cler­gy, and orga­nized labor to win over the pub­lic and pres­sure the company.

McCal­lum says that BVWU an exam­ple of social move­ment union­ism. It’s about orga­niz­ing as a class against anoth­er class,” he says. It’s to win demands not just against a sin­gle boss or to change a law, but to engage in class struggle.”

Beyond the Fight for $15

McCal­lum also sees the cam­paign as an attempt to build on Fight for $15. For the first time since the Jus­tice for Jan­i­tors cam­paign began 30 years ago, we have low-wage work­ers who are peo­ple of col­or work­ing with tra­di­tion­al unions to change pol­i­tics,” he says. If the IWW is inter­est­ed in push­ing that agen­da for­ward to make it more demo­c­ra­t­ic and rad­i­cal, that’s awesome.”

Fight for $15 is one of the most suc­cess­ful and inspir­ing labor vic­to­ries in the last 20 years,” says McCal­lum. They’ve accom­plished things, like dou­bling the min­i­mum wage, thought impos­si­ble three years ago. They man­aged to raise the pro­file of low-wage work­ers in a fail­ing econ­o­my.” He acknowl­edges, how­ev­er, that Fight for $15 is large­ly polit­i­cal organizing.”

It doesn’t require a mass base. It requires mobi­lized work­ers with incred­i­bly tal­ent­ed orga­niz­ers to move sym­pa­thet­ic politi­cians in a defined geo­graph­ic area,” McCal­lum says.

To that end, Fight for $15 devotes con­sid­er­able mon­ey and effort to media. A Fight for $15 strat­e­gy doc­u­ment called Strike in a Box” lists these cri­te­ria for a good [orga­niz­ing] site to focus on”: Is it an icon­ic brand? Does the brand help tell a sto­ry, local­ly and/​or nation­al­ly? Do we have spokes­peo­ple? Trained? Reli­able? Expe­ri­enced? Do we have sto­ries? Com­pelling work­er sto­ries, Hor­ror sto­ries about site prac­tices (wage theft, sex­u­al harass­ment, etc).”

By con­trast, Burg­erville work­er Flana­gan says BVWU uses media pri­mar­i­ly as a tool to fos­ter the growth of the union along with work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty and con­scious­ness. She says media helps con­nect the dots between our per­son­al strug­gles and col­lec­tive strug­gle.” She adds that explain­ing what unions do and how they orga­nize helps to edu­cate my gen­er­a­tion, which has very lit­tle under­stand­ing of unions.”

Indeed, although the Fight for $15 demands “$15 and a union,” SEIU has made a strate­gic deci­sion not to attempt to orga­nize the nation’s tens of thou­sands of fast-food restau­rants shop by shop. The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” Kendall Fells, Fight for $15’s orga­niz­ing direc­tor, told Work­ing in These Times in May. This move­ment is too large to be put in that process.”

Adri­ana Alvarez, a Chica­go McDonald’s work­er, says that while Fight for $15 may not be a for­mal union, We’re act­ing like a union, not wait­ing for any­one to tell us we can have one.”

To me a union is work­ers join­ing togeth­er to accom­plish things we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own,” Alvarez says. And that’s exact­ly what we’ve been doing — com­ing togeth­er and win­ning life-chang­ing rais­es for 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, includ­ing more than 10 mil­lion who are on the way to $15. By stand­ing togeth­er, we’ve gone from pow­er­less to hav­ing pow­er­ful voic­es in our stores.”

If SEIU can prove that McDonald’s calls the shots in its fran­chis­es, it could also push open the door to union­iz­ing the whole com­pa­ny at once instead of the Sisyphean task of one fran­chise at a time. Deploy­ing orga­niz­ers, researchers and lawyers, SEIU has gath­ered evi­dence for 181 cas­es alleg­ing that McDonald’s con­trols its fran­chisees’ employ­ment prac­tices and there­fore should be held account­able for unfair labor prac­tices in fran­chisees, includ­ing retal­i­a­tion against work­ers who sup­port­ed union­iza­tion. In 2014, the NLRB issued a pre­lim­i­nary find­ing in favor of SEIU’s case and, then the next year in a sep­a­rate case involv­ing Brown­ing Fer­ris Indus­tries of Cal­i­for­nia the labor board revised the def­i­n­i­tion of joint employ­er to con­sid­er whether an employ­er has exer­cised con­trol over terms and con­di­tions of employ­ment through an inter­me­di­ary.” Years lat­er, the McDonald’s case is still grind­ing its way through a judi­cial process, with a mul­ti-city case being argued before an admin­is­tra­tive law judge that was kicked back to the NLRB on Octo­ber 12. If the board finds or any of the court cas­es, which includes mul­ti­ple class-action suits SEIU has backed against McDonald’s for wage theft, deter­mine that McDonald’s is a joint employ­er with its fran­chisees, that may final­ly open the door to a com­pa­ny-wide union drive.

It’s a huge amount of work”

The Burg­erville campaign’s strat­e­gy of painstak­ing­ly orga­niz­ing shop by shop empha­sizes build­ing work­er pow­er,” which is both a means and a goal,” says Flanagan.

For BVWU, the ini­tial orga­niz­ing dri­ve was rel­a­tive­ly easy, with work­ers chaf­ing at dif­fi­cult work­ing con­di­tions and pover­ty-lev­el wages.

Deb­by Olson, 49, a mil­i­tary vet­er­an, has worked at Burg­erville since her home-clean­ing busi­ness tanked dur­ing the Great Reces­sion. She says the peo­ple are nice, but the pay is hor­ri­ble.” After six years, she makes $10.75 an hour.

Olson, says the job is hard­er than my house-clean­ing busi­ness. You are lit­er­al­ly mov­ing all day. For hours you don’t get to breathe. When I get home, I’m men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly exhausted.”

Five oth­er Burg­erville work­ers also described the pace as non-stop. Olson reduced her full-time sched­ule to three days a week because, as she says, I could bare­ly walk when I got off work and my qual­i­ty of life was real­ly poor. It’s scary that my feet were get­ting so dam­aged that it could affect my abil­i­ty to get anoth­er job or enjoy my lat­er years.”

Burgerville’s lure is gourmet-style food, sourced local­ly from 988 farms, ranch­es, and arti­sans,” which requires labor-inten­sive prepa­ra­tion. Luis Bren­nan, 27, a two-year Burg­erville employ­ee, says, The job is real­ly hard. We actu­al­ly cook the food. We core straw­ber­ries, we hand-blend milk­shakes. We cook the meat and eggs fresh, we cut the onion rings and bat­ter them twice. It’s a huge amount of work.”

The Burg­erville cam­paign builds on the IWW’s expe­ri­ence over the last decade in fast-food orga­niz­ing at Jim­my John’s and Star­bucks. Pick­ing a region­al chain works to the ben­e­fit of the union as it can exert more pres­sure because Burg­erville doesn’t have the might of a glob­al food giant and its care­ful­ly craft­ed image is ripe for attack.

The pub­lic may eat up buzz­words like local, fresh and sus­tain­able, but Burgerville’s rhetoric sticks in work­ers’ throats. Fishel says that despite a 70 per­cent dis­count for food on shift, she still some­times can’t afford it.

If your work­ers are going with­out food, how can you say you are a bet­ter, more sus­tain­able option for your com­mu­ni­ty?” she asks.

This is my community”

Build­ing a work­place orga­ni­za­tion has been a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence for work­ers. Fishel says, Being in the union has been very uplift­ing, inspir­ing, and super-pos­i­tive to come togeth­er with so many peo­ple. We deserve a liv­ing wage, to be treat­ed with respect and to have more than what we have right now.”

Claire Flana­gan, 26, who’s worked at the chain since June 2015, says, The union has changed people’s rela­tion­ship with the job and work. It’s gone from being a place I go to work to pay my bills to feel­ing invest­ed in our cowork­ers and the job in a much deep­er way. This is my community.”

Burg­erville is hard­ly rolling over, how­ev­er. Flana­gan says, The com­pa­ny has dug in their heels and refus­es what­ev­er we ask for.” She alleges in her store, Man­agers spread anti-union rumors and encour­age work­ers to talk shit about the union as a way to gain favoritism. The com­pa­ny is engaged in a mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign and spread­ing fear.”

But BVWU mem­bers keep the heat on whether by wear­ing a union but­ton on the job or tus­sling over floor mats. Mem­bers are demand­ing mats to ease the stress of stand­ing for hours. Man­age­ment relent­ed in a few stores, but the mats have emerged as a proxy war. Flana­gan says despite hav­ing mats, man­agers will put them away and she will bring them back out.

Jor­dan Vaan­der­ing, 26, says of work­ers at his out­let, where he’s been for a year, We own the cul­ture where­as before it was man­age­ment push­ing peo­ple to meet speed of ser­vice times, meet sales goals.”

Build­ing work­er power

BVWU’s strat­e­gy is known as minor­i­ty union­ism” because BVWU may not have a major­i­ty in each shop will­ing to declare sup­port for a union. This sort of orga­niz­ing cir­cum­vents a fed­er­al labor-law process that makes union elec­tions dif­fi­cult, time-con­sum­ing and expen­sive. But BVWU uti­lizes the NLRB process when it is to its advan­tage, such as by fil­ing unfair labor prac­tice charges that allege Burg­erville is ille­gal­ly retal­i­at­ing against the union and workers.

Burg­erville work­er Bren­nan says BVWU relies on the IWW mod­el: It teach­es, You’re a work­er who hates your job, here’s how to build a com­mit­tee.’ ” Each orga­nized store began with a com­mit­tee and grew from there.

One use­ful ques­tion, says Bren­nan, is ask­ing work­ers, What could you do with $5 an hour more?” He says talk­ing to cowork­ers about what they need changed and why they need it changed helps to break down the walls of silence around hard stuff in our lives.”

Bren­nan explains, Build­ing rela­tion­ships in the work­place is not nat­ur­al, but it’s deeply human. The work­place is full of pow­er rela­tion­ships and incred­i­bly con­strained by the boss, by pay, by gen­der, by race, by lan­guage. You need to get to know some­one to know whether or not they will fight and why they’ll fight.”

These rela­tion­ships come into play when man­age­ment goes after work­ers. One notable case involves Ivy Fleak, a mem­ber whom BVWU claims was tar­get­ed by man­age­ment for stand­ing up on the job and stand­ing up against sex­u­al harass­ment.” Flana­gan says, They took Ivy off the sched­ule for two weeks. We orga­nized actions and a vig­il. She spoke out pub­licly and won, receiv­ing back pay for when she was off-schedule.”

Flana­gan says, Peo­ple relat­ed to Ivy’s sto­ry,” which boost­ed sup­port for the union. At anoth­er job they saw some­one being tar­get­ed or fired for stand­ing up, or that hap­pened to them. Being part of the union means when I’m at work, I know peo­ple have my back.”

BVWU claims Fleak was lat­er forced to quit under pres­sure after the com­pa­ny alleged­ly threat­ened to file spu­ri­ous crim­i­nal charges against her for gift-card theft. Burg­erville declined to com­ment on her case, saying,“Burgerville is ded­i­cat­ed to con­tin­u­ous­ly enhanc­ing our rela­tion­ship with our employ­ees. We do not com­ment on indi­vid­ual employ­ee mat­ters or inter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions.” The com­pa­ny also opt­ed not to com­ment on the BVWU cam­paign or on com­plaints about wages and work­ing conditions.

In the case of anoth­er BVWU sup­port­er fired over a work­place acci­dent, the union orga­nized a del­e­ga­tion of 50 peo­ple to the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters ask­ing for the worker’s job back and con­duct­ed a food dri­ve for the work­er. It pub­li­cized the fir­ing to make the case that Burg­erville push­es work­ers past their lim­its” and demand­ed a trans­par­ent dis­ci­pli­nary process. More than half the work­ers in that out­let also signed a peti­tion ask­ing for the work­er to be rehired. The work­er remains fired.

BVWU mem­bers view the fir­ings as part of a wider anti-union cam­paign. The com­pa­ny has set up a web­site to inform” work­ers of their rights, but which dis­cour­ages them from union­iz­ing. Store man­agers have also been hold­ing anti-union ses­sions with work­ers, where they play a video fea­tur­ing Burg­erville CEO Jeff Har­vey. In the video, Har­vey states, I don’t think a union is in the best inter­est of the com­pa­ny, our employ­ees, our sup­pli­ers, or our guests.” He admits, Burg­erville under­stands employ­ees face cer­tain chal­lenges like trans­porta­tion, food, and hous­ing to name just a few.” Har­vey then claims, We have spent well over a year look­ing into the press­ing issues that con­cern you [but] can’t act” as under cur­rent labor laws, we are oblig­at­ed to main­tain the sta­tus quo.”

Flana­gan claims when Burg­erville says it has to main­tain the sta­tus quo,” what it’s real­ly say­ing to work­ers is, If you didn’t get a raise, blame the union.” On August 15, Burg­erville Work­ers Union filed four charges of unfair labor prac­tices with the NLRB, includ­ing one con­cern­ing the anti-union video. Labor law is fuzzy on the issue. Com­pa­nies are pro­hib­it­ed from increas­ing ben­e­fits dur­ing a tra­di­tion­al union elec­tion cam­paign, but as a minor­i­ty union, BVWU is act­ing out­side of this frame­work as a minor­i­ty union.

BVWU has also tak­en the offen­sive by hit­ting at the company’s pub­lic image. The work­er-orga­niz­ers have kept up a brisk pace for five months, aver­ag­ing an action a week such as vig­ils, march­es, pick­ets and a bicy­cle ride. When BVWU mem­bers vis­it­ed Liepold Farms near Port­land, which sup­plies Burg­erville with berries for its sig­na­ture shakes, to ask for sup­port, the farm own­er was tak­en aback but accept­ed their let­ter. Short­ly after BVWU was unveiled, dozens of work­ers, local labor lead­ers, activists, and cler­gy packed the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in support.

Know­ing they have the back­ing of the com­mu­ni­ty bol­sters the con­fi­dence of work­ers on the shop floor. Flana­gan says the cur­rent plan is to build orga­ni­za­tion­al capac­i­ty and infra­struc­ture to pull off larg­er actions.”

Time may be on the side of BVWU. The more shops the union can orga­nize, the more work­ers who join, and the more com­mu­ni­ty sup­port it builds, the like­li­er it is BVWU will force Burg­erville to the bar­gain­ing table, with or with­out a major­i­ty union. Then the Burg­erville Work­ers Union may be the one open­ing new outlets.

To find out more about the Burg­erville Work­ers Union, go to burg​erville​work​er​sunion​.org.

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