After nearly two years of organizing efforts by the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU), workers at the 92nd Ave Burgerville in Portland, Oregon have voted for representation by the BVWU. The affirmative vote makes the workers at this Burgerville franchise the first formally recognized fast-food union in the US.
As the BVWU posted on their Facebook page
“We won the election. We did it. We made history […] For a long time people have dismissed fast food as unorganizable, saying that turnover is too high, or the workers are too spread out. Today Burgerville workers proved them wrong.”
Burgerville senior vice president of operations Beth Brewer had earlier stated that “If the [BVWU] were to win an election at Burgerville Store #41, Burgerville will bargain in good faith with the union.” Brewer also claimed “Burgerville believes that every employee’s voice needs to be respected and protected,” despite the company’s years-long history of ignoring workers’ demands.
Burgerville has been a popular fast food chain in Oregon and southwest Washington since 1961. They currently have 47 locations that employ around 1500 people.
Educating workers, providing resources
Since its founding in April 2016, the Burgerville Workers Union, as part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), has advocated for “fair wages, consistent scheduling, and affordable healthcare.” With its founding, the union began educating workers about organizing, as well as setting up resources for members such as free childcare.
According to a 2016 article about the founding of the BVWU in Yes! Magazine, “a typical [Burgerville] crew member, not including managers, earns $9.60 an hour.” As of 2018, wages remain slightly above Oregon’s $10.25 minimum wage but are not enough for many workers to afford the cost of living in the rapidly gentrifying Portland area. A livable wage has been a central concern of the BVWU since its very beginnings.
“We have the right to organize”
On February 1, workers at the Convention Center Burgerville in Portland began a strike that lasted three days. Workers from four Burgerville locations participated in the strike and picketed many other Burgerville storefronts throughout Oregon. The central demand of the strikers was that Burgerville negotiate with the Burgerville Workers Union. Strikers also urged the public to boycott the company until negotiation occurred.
On the first day of the strike, the BVWU described their goals and reasons for action in a communiqué in It’s Going Down:
“We are on strike today because every worker deserves a voice. We have the right to organize, but Burgerville has waged an intense union busting campaign. They have fired us, intimidated us, and threatened us, even resorting to physical aggression. This cannot stand.
We are on strike today because Burgerville needs to stop ignoring us. They need to recognize the poverty its wages have forced workers into. They need to acknowledge that health care, consistent scheduling, and basic dignity on the job are all necessary parts of living a full, human life. They need to realize there’s nothing it can do to bust this union.”
Following the three-day strike, the Union was concerned by what appeared to be a slew of firings or suspensions of pro-union employees at store locations that participated in the strike. Three of the union-active employees suspended at the Convention Center location, which reportedly has “a management which remains entirely white despite the diversity of the crew,” were people of color.
During their struggle for union recognition, the BVWU received support from other Portland-area food workers, including New Seasons Workers United, who helped to throw a benefit show and fundraiser in late February.
A win for workers and their communities
Seven weeks after the strike ended, BVWU announced that the union would seek a National Labor Relations Board-administered election should Burgerville continue to refuse to recognize them. Soon after that, Burgerville officials issued a press release stating that they would honor the election process at the 92nd Ave Burgerville.
BVWU acknowledged their victory on Facebook:
“This victory for the union testifies to the power of the workers at Burgerville, the strength of our February strikes, and the commitment of our community supporters. The win was not just given to us by Burgerville, after all. It was won by workers and their communities fighting hard and fighting together.
But the fight is not over. Until Burgerville negotiates a fair contract with workers we are continuing to call for a boycott. Because even though Burgerville’s press release claims that they believe “that every employee’s voice needs to be respected,” we know the lengths they have gone to over the past two years to silence workers and bust the union. Burgerville has fired multiple workers for supporting the union, has assaulted workers on the picket lines, and has spent God knows how much on a union busting law firm while continuing to pay workers poverty wages.
If Burgerville truly respected its workers voices, they would have negotiated with us a long time ago. They would have started paying us living wage, provided consistent scheduling,” stopped using e-verify, and offered affordable health care a long time ago.
Unionizing all fast-food workers
Since their success at the 92nd Ave store, the BVWU has begun to shift its efforts to spurring union elections at other Burgerville locations. The BVWU has requested that the public continue to boycott Burgerville until a fair contract is negotiated between the company and the union.
While focusing intently on their struggles yet to come, the Burgerville workers do celebrate the hope for low-wage workers that their win represents. “We became the only recognized fast food union in the country,” wrote the BVWU on Facebook, “but we won’t be the only one for long.”
In their victory statement, the BVWU also urged their supporters to “turn [their] attention to the 4.5 million other fast-food workers in the United States” who continue to receive poverty wages, unpredictable schedules and minimal if any benefits.
If you haven’t already, you can sign a boycott pledge at http://www.boycottburgerville.com/ to show the company you know what it means to respect workers’ voices, and that no one should live in poverty.
Kelly Miller organizes with Economics for Everyone in Olympia, and studied political economy at The Evergreen State College.