Workers Just Organized the First Federally-Recognized Fast Food Union in the U.S.

Shane Burley May 10, 2018

(Photo: Burgerville Workers Union/Facebook)

As a crowd of 100 pro­test­ers sur­round­ed a Burg­erville fast-food restau­rant in Port­land, Ore­gon on April 26, man­age­ment sim­ply watched from a dis­tance as a famil­iar scene played out. The demon­stra­tion marked the two-year anniver­sary of a Burg­erville work­ers’ union­iza­tion cam­paign across the Port­land-Metro region, tar­get­ing a com­pa­ny with a rep­u­ta­tion for local­ly sourced ingredients.

The chants of the crowd that had gath­ered at the 92nd Avenue and South­east Pow­ell Boule­vard loca­tion, made up of work­ers and sup­port­ers, had more res­o­nance this time. Employ­ees had just won the first Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) elec­tion for a fast-food chain. The 25 work­ers at this spe­cif­ic loca­tion became the first — and only — fed­er­al­ly-rec­og­nized fast-food union in the coun­try, and they accom­plished this feat with­out paid staff, a mas­sive bud­get or a neu­tral workplace. 

The com­pa­ny has done noth­ing but ignore us pub­licly and retal­i­ate pri­vate­ly against work­ers, and after almost two years of wait­ing we fig­ured that this was the next step we need­ed to take to bring Burg­erville to the table and actu­al­ly get nego­ti­a­tions mov­ing,” Ste­fan Stack­house, an orga­niz­ing work­er at Burg­erville, tells In These Times.

Orga­niz­ing through solidarity

The Burg­erville Work­ers Union (BVWU) came out of the increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult con­di­tions of the fast-food indus­try and a cul­tur­al shift, cat­alyzed nation­al­ly by the Fight for $15, to orga­niz­ing low-wage, ser­vice-sec­tor work­ers along a com­mon demand. What sep­a­rat­ed this cam­paign Fight for $15 cam­paigns that made head­lines in Seat­tle and New York City was that the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) was the orga­ni­za­tion work­ers orga­nized with, rather than large labor unions like Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU).

The IWW has more than 100 years of his­to­ry of rad­i­cal, anti-cap­i­tal­ist sol­i­dar­i­ty union­ism,” with mem­bers pre­fer­ring direct-work­er action rather than nego­ti­at­ed con­ces­sions offered by fed­er­al agen­cies such as Col­lec­tive Bar­gain­ing Agree­ments (CBAs).

Dri­ven by this orga­niz­ing phi­los­o­phy, work­ers came togeth­er to con­front the low-wages, bad work­ing con­di­tions, and incon­sis­tent sched­ules Burg­erville loca­tions across Port­land were offering.

The BVWU went pub­lic” two years ago, mak­ing itself known to man­age­ment, and demand­ing a sit-down meet­ing to nego­ti­ate work­ing con­di­tions and wages. This announce­ment came with a series of pub­lic actions with com­mu­ni­ty and labor sup­port, yet Burg­erville — which has 42 stores across the Pacif­ic North­west — refused to take the union seri­ous­ly, and the BVWU kept orga­niz­ing shop-to-shop, work­er-to-work­er. Over the last two years, orga­niz­ers have issued a series of demands, mobi­lized pub­lic pick­ets, sent del­e­ga­tions to sup­pli­ers Burg­erville uses and even imple­ment­ed a mutu­al-aid-based ben­e­fits pro­gram where Burg­erville work­ers pro­vide sup­port to each oth­er such as vol­un­tary childcare. 

This cam­paign grew to include dozens of work­ers in six pub­lic BVWU shops across the city, cul­mi­nat­ing in a three-day strike in Feb­ru­ary that brought out the com­mu­ni­ty en masse and saw major unions such as SEIU and CWA join the pick­et line. This reliance on the strike as an orga­niz­ing method allowed the union to stand out, and was fol­lowed by a work­er-led boy­cott that oth­er unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions signed on to.

Work­ers say Burgerville’s response was to increase pres­sure on their under­paid work­force, fir­ing many of the orga­niz­ing work­ers after what they allege are minor infrac­tions. This only gal­va­nized the work­ers and their com­mu­ni­ty sup­port as the fir­ings made head­lines and Unfair Labor Prac­tices were filed.

I think it would real­ly astound peo­ple to real­ize the work we have done in the BVWU with a bud­get of $2,000 dol­lars,” Michelle Cebal­los, a work­er-orga­niz­er who says she was fired after the three-day strike, tells In These Times. It’s kind of unfath­omable the num­ber of folks that put in more than half of [each] week to doing this work unpaid, dri­ven by trust in Burg­erville work­ers and trust in this project and a real belief that work­ers have to be at the front lines of their own liberation.”

The choice to file for a for­mal NLRB elec­tion came as a sur­prise to many, as the IWW has a his­to­ry of avoid­ing this process: They allege it can often reduce the pow­er of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee and puts the process in the hands of a fed­er­al agency that leans in the favor of management.

As the news of the BVWU’s NLRB vic­to­ry went pub­lic, work­ers at the near­by Glad­stone store announced that they had also filed for an elec­tion. With four more stores pub­licly in play this could lead to a wave that would poten­tial­ly expand­ing the bar­gain­ing unit.

Work­er-led union

The BVWU’s vic­to­ry comes amid a wave of rank-and-file teach­ers strikes, as well as grow­ing inter­est in unions among younger gen­er­a­tions and the revival of sol­i­dar­i­ty action from long-stand­ing bar­gain­ing units who have had their labor rights chipped away. With a series of Supreme Court cas­es attack­ing pub­lic sec­tor union rights, chal­leng­ing to the union’s role as the exclu­sive bar­gain­ing agent,” and attack­ing right of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, the labor move­ment is look­ing towards rein­ven­tion to con­tin­ue mobi­liz­ing work­ing-class power.

This is a scrap­py union with no staff, all the com­mit­tees are work­er-led,” says Stack­house. We’re not pitch­ing any­thing to any­body, we’re not going out of our way mak­ing wild promis­es. We are build­ing an orga­ni­za­tion out of mutu­al aid and demon­strat­ed action that we can sup­port each other.”

The union elec­tion at Burg­erville may seem small, but it rep­re­sents a deep­er set of strate­gies. For many exter­nal orga­niz­ing depart­ments, the card-check itself can be the end of the road, but the BVWU saw the use of an elec­tion, and the sub­se­quent con­tract, as only one strat­e­gy among many. In oth­er cas­es, such as with the IWW-affil­i­at­ed Unit­ed Cam­paign Work­er cam­paigns in 2014, work­ers chose to for­go the NLRB process and rely on direct action. As labor rights con­tin­ue to erode, labor con­ces­sions are not as viable as they once were. Accord­ing to the IWW, CBAs, exclu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion and griev­ance pro­ce­dures are all prox­ies for what gives unions their pow­er: the sol­i­dar­i­ty between workers.

Shane Bur­ley is a writer and film­mak­er based in Port­land, Ore­gon. He is the author of Fas­cism Today: What It IS and How to End It (AK Press). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Alter­net, Polit­i­cal Research Asso­ciates, Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence, Labor Notes, ThinkProgress, ROAR Mag­a­zine and Upping the Anti. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @shane_burley1.
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