Portland Fast Food Workers Don’t Just Want a Raise—They Want a Union Too

Employees at Burgerville, a Pacific Northwest restaurant chain, are unionizing and demanding benefits. Even without their employer’s recognition, their union offers an alternative model for organizing low-wage workers.
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Burgerville workers hold Burgerville Workers Union and IWW banners in front of Burgerville's 26th and Powell location. All photos by Tamara Kneese.

Earlier this week, about 100 community members gathered at the historic Clinton Street Theater in Portland, Oregon, to watch the Burgerville Workers Union make its public debut. The theater’s marquee read, “Fast Food Union Rally.” Flyers passed out to attendees proclaimed, “We are the heart of Burgerville. We deserve a voice.” Chants like, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” were heard along with cries of, “Hey, Burgerville, look around. Portland is a union town.”

“We are the heart of Burgerville. We deserve a voice.”

This rally helped launch Portland’s fast food workers’ fight for higher wages and collective bargaining rights. Portland, though known for its quirky food carts and local, seasonal ingredients, continues to allow its service workers to be paid low wages without benefits. Fight for 15 pushed for a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers in cities across the United States. In Oregon, 15 Now made strides for home care workers and Portland city workers, such as janitors. Now, Burgerville workers are unionizing and demanding a raise, parental leave, child care, and health coverage, offering an alternative model for organizing low-wage workers.

In January, workers at Burgerville, a regional chain with more than 40 franchises throughout Oregon and Washington, began organizing a union with the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Portland chapter. For the IWW, an international, member-led union founded in Chicago in 1905, “unions are not about government certification or employer recognition,” as its Portland chapter’s website reads, “but about workers coming together to address common concerns.” So the Burgerville Workers Union was born—so far unrecognized by Burgerville, but very real to its members.

The Burgerville Workers Union claims a typical crew member, not including managers, earns $9.60 an hour. This is higher than the state minimum wage of $9.25 an hour, which is slated to climb to $9.75 in Portland and $9.50 in rural areas this July, but, as Burgerville workers argue, this is not enough. Rent has increased by 13 percent in Portland over the past year, far outpacing the national average of about 4 percent, according to a report by Multifamily NW, a regional housing association. A recent survey by GoBankingRates.com, which collects and researches national financial data, estimated that a single Portland resident must make more than $60,000 to live comfortably in the area.

Burgerville prides itself on sustainability by carrying cage-free eggs and relying on renewable energy sources, embodying values recognizable to many Portlanders. Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer, wrote in an email that the company was surprised by the union’s public entrance. “At this time, the workers union is forming, so there is no one for us to talk or meet with yet,” Graves wrote. But Luis Brennan, a worker at Burgerville’s Portland International Airport location, says the union has yet to hear from Burgerville since workers delivered a formal letter announcing their unionization to the company headquarters in Vancouver, Washington. “We are a union regardless of whether or not the federal government says we are,” Brennan says.

Workers and supporters gather by the Clinton Street Theater in Southeast Portland for a rally and march.

With relatively few national chains like McDonald’s in Portland (It has only 25 McDonald’s locations, whereas New York City has more than 250.), service union giant SEIU, which backs the national Fight for 15, never poured its energy and resources into organizing fast food workers in Oregon the way it did in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. So Burgerville workers decided to instead partner with IWW.

“[Fight for 15] did so much important work to change the climate,” Brennan says, “but we’re trying to take the next step.” Rather than focusing on a particular number and stopping once it has been reached, Brennan says the Burgerville Workers Union wants to “build power for workers so they have some say over their lives.”

Indeed, a diverse coalition of community groups has already endorsed the Burgerville Workers Union, including SEIU Local 49, the Portland Association of Teachers, Portland Jobs With Justice, Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, and the People’s Food Co-op. At the Clinton Street Theater rally, Adrienne Cabouet from Black Lives Matter noted that many fast food workers across the country are Black, linking Portland-area workers to national struggles for economic and racial justice.

Oregon’s food prep and service workers, including those in fast food, comprise the largest sector of workers who earn less than $10 per hour, according to a February 2016 State of Oregon Employment Department report. As found by a 2015 Portland State University report to the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, food service industry workers, including workers at food markets and grocery stores, make up 7 percent of all Portland workers, earn less than $20,000 per year, and are predominantly women and people of color.

Deborah Olson has been working at Burgerville for six years. Prior to this, Olson cleaned houses and served in the United States Marine Corps. Compared to her past jobs, Burgerville “is the hardest job and pays the least.” She remembers when the city’s 15 Now campaign first started in early 2014. She says her heart broke when it officially ended, along with the statewide campaign, in March.

Debby Olson stands in front of the Burgerville sign at the 26th and Powell location.

15 Now Oregon stopped gathering signatures for a $15 minimum wage statewide ballot measure after Gov. Kate Brown signed a three-tiered minimum wage bill that will raise Portland’s minimum wage to $14.75 by 2022. According to 15 Now representatives, union and public support for a $15 minimum wage sharply declined as a result of the bill’s passing. The new minimum wage bill passed as a direct result of pressure on lawmakers from labor unions and activist groups. The campaign for a $15 minimum wage still continues at Portland State University, as well as at Portland International Airport.

While the movement’s rallying cry has been “$15 and a union” since the wave of national fast food worker strikes in 2012, the subject of minimum wage has often overshadowed the union focus. So far, none of the fast food workers organized by SEIU as part of the Fight for 15 have a recognized union of their own. However, recent victories in California and New York, where the statewide minimum wage is set to rise to $15 by the end of 2022 and mid-2021 respectively, may allow unionizing efforts to take the spotlight. In the Los Angeles Times, SEIU officials said their focus would now shift to unionizing California workers.

Minimum wage increases can offset the cost of living in expensive cities, but they do not solve other workplace issues pertaining to sick and vacation days, shift lengths, safety, and other problems addressed by collective bargaining.

For Olson, the problem is as simple as the need for standing pads, which help alleviate back and joint pain caused by standing in place for hours on a hard floor. Her requests to management were denied. With a union to mediate such issues, Burgerville workers would have more leverage and, with it, more dignity.

“If we can do this,” Olson says, “everyone can.”

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