Portland fast-food workers fighting for their $15

  • July 12, 2016

Work & Workers

The Burgerville Worker Union is one of many local unions formed across the US that have become the face of twenty-first century grassroots labor organizing.

As the staff of the Burgerville corporate headquarters saw the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) banner unfurled in front of their office, they began to scramble. A delegation had arrived, the second one in two weeks, bringing together almost two-dozen supporters from unions and community groups to stand with the workers. The employees had arrived to deliver a second letter, this one showing that the workers were asking that Burgerville not behave like Wal-Mart and other large corporations that have made a stand against unions.

The workers were responding to a letter Burgerville had delivered to every employee referencing the recently founded Burgerville Workers Union. The letter read,

We respect your right to support or not support a union, but Burgerville does not agree that union representation is in the best interests of our employees, or Burgerville, at this critical point in our evolution.

“We were very excited about the opportunity to partner with the company, and to make Burgerville better and make our lives better. And receiving that letter was a blow,” said Luis Brennan, a Burgerville employee and BVWU organizer. “The thing that affected me the most from the letter was the implication that we don’t need change at Burgerville.”

On April 26, the Burgerville Workers Union announced its formation as an independent labor union that was affiliating with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As the workers went public with four Burgerville locations in the Portland-Vancouver metro area, they had gained an unprecedented support from unions and community organizations in the area for a direct-union project. For over a century, the IWW has been known for using solidarity union tactics on its shop floors, where “no strike” clauses have been banned by its constitution. This commitment to direct worker organizing is why the BVWU decided to affiliate with the Portland IWW branch, and this radical approach to fast food organizing has only helped to bolster its connections to the larger labor movement.

The Fight for $15 has been a massive step in the direction of worker-led organizing for big labor unions, led by the massive Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The project started deep in the low-wage fast-food sector, with workers rising up with national action days and brief strikes to demand $15/hr and a formal union. Today, most fast-food employees are riding at, or just above, their regional minimum wage, which puts them at only a fraction of what a living wage would be in cities like Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. For SEIU, which is often trying to gain large bargaining units in health care, group homes, and property services, this was a chance to support a ground-up worker movement that had the ability to change the nature of the American labor movement.

Now, with many years in, and thousands of workers joining the fight, the movement has expanded and shifted into a minimum wage battle that is pushing $15/hr base-wage legislation in states around the country under the banner of $15Now. Many of these bills have created an incremental structure that some workers say is “too little, too late,” and a lot of labor organizers have been left wondering where the union has been left in this equation. For the Burgerville Workers Union, workers wanted to return to the real core of what made the Fight for $15 a promise for the future, where workers are directly at the heart of the decision making process and where collective action is what will ensure their longevity.

“The political revolution we need”

During a recent rally in Portland, Oregon, the Portland Association of Teachers, Black Lives Matter Portland, Portland Jobs With Justice joined the BVWU, and others, who spoke about the inspiration these workers promised for the rest of the community. The rally moved to a Southeast Portland Burgerville location, where workers came in to announce their formation to the management. Supporters streamed in by the dozens to voice their support for the union. At the same time, a delegation led by two of the organizing Burgerville workers went into the franchise’s corporate office in Vancouver, Washington. Here leaders from SEIU Local 503, Unite HERE! Local 8, and several ministers spoke out about the low-wages and trying working conditions at Burgerville, which, ironically, is a company that has a reputation for its local focus.

Burgerville’s average pay of around $9.60/hr is insufficient to meet the living costs of the region. Portland now has the fastest growing rental prices in the nation, and many reports say that a wage almost double their average is needed to live in the metro-area.

It is this dramatically low wage that has sparked an ongoing community campaign that has been driven by social media and the connections made by the organizing workers. People around the world have posted photos to social media holding signs of support for the union. As the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign returned to Oregon in advance of the May 17 primary election, Burgerville workers were invited to speak and share their story of organizing on the job.

“The Burgerville Workers Union is a perfect example of the type of political revolution that we need,” said Sanders in a public statement. “People coming together and demanding real change to improve the lives of working people.”

Sanders showed support for the major demands of the BVWU, including a $15/hr minimum wage for all employees, affordable health care, and flexible work schedules.

Burgerville stands against the union

While the workers were continuing this campaign and waiting to sit down with management to begin negotiations, Burgerville issued a formal letter to all workers along with their paychecks on May 5. In the letter they said that workers may not want to sign cards with the union, that they have the “right to refuse to sign a card,” and that workers need to “get the facts” about the union.

“It was basically urging workers to not sign authorization cards, saying all kinds of scary things that might happen if a union election did occur. Saying a union election is a disturbance,” said Jordan Vaandering, one of the organizing Burgerville workers. “They did explicitly say that they did not think that the union was in the best interest of Burgerville or Burgerville employees.”

It was this letter that workers say is intended to create a climate of fear, which led to their second delegation. With a large sample of labor allies supporting him, Luis Brennan, one of the BVWU workers, read a letter that shared their frustration with the response that Burgerville has had to the organizing drive.

“We were very disappointed to receive this letter,” read Brennan, referencing the anti-union letter that was given to employees. “By handing out this letter, and in choosing to confuse, scare, and mislead your co-workers about the union, Burgerville has started down a particular path.”

While a representative from Burgerville accepted the letter, few people in the building were willing to listen to hear the community supporters speak and asked the delegation to leave the building.

Fighting on the shop floor

On the shop floor, many workers report that management has treated the union as if it is not a legitimate organizing drive. When one worker, Ivy Fleak, was facing a disciplinary meeting with management, she reported that she was told that the union was “not real.” When asking if she could bring a union representative with her to her disciplinary meeting she was told if she did, she would be terminated. While waiting for the meeting to be set, Fleak filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against her Vancouver Plaza Burgerville location where she alleges sexual harassment from her manager. When she first complained she said that the manager was simply moved to another location rather than fired. She says that after she raised the issue with management, the situation at work changed for her.

“They have messed with my hours, they have cut down my hours, or they have overworked me too many hours,” said Fleak about her treatment after raising the issue to management. “They have had me do thirteen hour shifts, [and] not given me the correct breaks. I’ve been talked to everyday. I walk into Burgerville now expecting I’m going to get fired.”

In response the BVWU returned to the Burgerville headquarters in an attempt to show support both for Ivy and to confront the position Burgerville has taken towards the union. Supporters called in to the Burgerville corporate office for two days to show support for Ivy as she went to her disciplinary meeting, and the delegation held a vigil outside to show support since a union representative had been barred from attending.

Burgerville finally sided with Fleak, keeping her in her position and awarding her back pay. The union organized a hardship fundraiser to pay Fleak for the shifts she was not allowed to work during the disciplinary process.

The CEO of Burgerville Jeff Harvey was scheduled to speak at a Ted Talk in Vancouver on May 26, discussing entrepreneurship and the community. Workers and supporters decided to attend, and several employees lined up with their Burgerville uniforms on in the crowd while flyers announcing the union were handed out to guests at the entrance. After the talk Harvey bolted from the venue followed by a small contingent of workers requesting to speak with him. After yelling back to them that the union was “not real,” he said that he was legally barred from speaking to organizing workers.

One of the organizing workers, Claire Flanagan, finally was allowed to have a sit-down meeting with Harvey, as well as Beth Brewer, the Chief of Innovation and Learning at Burgerville. In the meeting Flanagan reported that she was interrupted by Brewer when trying to discuss the workers’ collective issues, and instead wanted to individualize her concerns. Harvey has said that the union is making it “impossible” to address the concerns that the workers are making, a statement that workers suggest is another part of the “misinformation about the union that the company has been actively spreading.”

When Flanagan invited Harvey to a sit-down meeting with the union workers, he declined.

The union grows

On May 30, a fifth Burgerville location went public, this time in the working class area of Outer Eastside Portland. In response to the announcement, supporters dropped a banner over Interstate-84 in support of the BVWU, which carries many of the commuters who make up that location’s customer base.

As the union is pushing for Burgerville to sit down for negotiations without filing for an NLRB sanctioned election, they are going to continue to draw support from its community partners. With unions like ILWU Local 5, IATSE Local 28, and SEIU Local 49 jumping on board with official endorsements, the message has been sent to Burgerville that while the workers are choosing an all-volunteer union model, they are doing so with the entire force of Portland’s labor community.

When the Oregon AFL-CIO and the Northwest Oregon Labor Council passed resolutions of support that sent an even louder message that this solidarity union campaign was being done with the backing of Big Labor. BVWU continued this direct dialogue with their community supporters by following up the delegations with a community event at the People’s Co-Op, a co-op grocery store in Southeast Portland that has also chosen to endorse the union. Organizers have even turned to fun community events to keep cohesion as the group gets larger, such as having yoga events and solidarity bike rides for workers and supporters to mingle.

The success of the campaign is going to depend on this outside support as all-volunteer unions like the BVWU does not have the massive cache of resources that are seen in many internationals. This proves its strength, and a lesson to a labor movement that many accuse of focusing on political influence rather than building a base in the working class that can confront power in workplaces. For a labor movement that has dwindled down to 11 percent density in the US, going back to the basics is what is going to be key for really making organizing possible in the changing 21st century labor market.

In an effort to broaden the support for the BVWU, workers staged additional delegations to the Portland headquarters of Franz, Sunshine Dairy, Liepold Farms, and the Tillamook Cheese Factory, all of which supply Burgerville with many of their base ingredients.

While Burgerville has made a public statement that indicates their hesitancy to support the union, workers are hoping that they are able to sit down and begin discussing the changes that have to happen in their workplaces.

“Burgerville workers need a union because we need respect, we need a wage that we can live on, we need a voice on the job to fix the issues that surround us,” says Vaandering. “We’re struggling to survive, and Burgerville is not.”

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Shane Burley

Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon.  His work has appeared at places like Truthout, Labor Notes, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net.

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