Unionism From Below: Interview with Burgerville Workers Union

Burgerville workers

Launching a historic three-day strike and boycott launch that began on February 1, workers across several Portland, OR Burgerville stores took the next steps in what is perhaps an unprecedented campaign for the current US labor movement. The strike was centered at the prominent Convention Center Burgerville store and spread to three additional locations, in total involving 40 workers of the Pacific Northwest fast food chain that markets itself as a “fresh, local, sustainable” alternative to mainstream burger chains.

In an era where labor organizing of low wage service workers is often stage-managed and relies far more on media narratives than on-the-job action and the power of workers to withdraw their labor, the campaign stands in contrast to more typical mainstream labor union efforts. As a recent Truth Out piece on the organizing of Stamford hotel workers notes, “many unions have resorted to experimenting with campaigns that seek to win union recognition without substantial worker organization.” But this is quite the opposite of the Burgerville Workers Union.

Backed by the Portland Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as “the wobblies,” the union is no stranger to pushing the envelope of labor organizing. One time thought unorganizable the union made important inroads with nationally prominent campaigns at Starbucks from 2004 until roughly 2008, a series of Jimmy John’s stores in Minneapolis from 2007-2011, and more recently at Times Square Stardust diner. Each campaign has used the approach of “solidarity unionism” which emphasizes rank and file democracy and eschews traditional forms of legalistic and staff driven organizing models. The Bugerville Workers Union has followed in these footsteps, slowly building their organized presence of shop committees over nearly two years and taking on smaller issues such as gaining a 50-cent raise, a floor mat added at one location and intervening with a manager to allow a sick worker to go home early. On Labor Day in 2017 more than half the workers at one location waged a one-day strike around the demand of holiday pay. With this recent action Burgerville workers are hopefully bringing back to the table the strike as “the most important source of union power.” Let’s hope they continue to pave the way in showing that building a militant, worker-led, alternative unionism of low-wage workers is possible. #PowerFromBelow 

Introduction by Adam Weaver. The below interview is an edited transcription of It’s Going Down podcast “Audio Report: Burgerville Workers Union Finish Three Day Strike” released on February 3, 2018. Please consider donating to support their work. 

Workers fired from Burgerville

It’s Going Down: We’re joining you today with somebody from the Burgerville workers Union in Portland, which is a part of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World. They just finished a three day strike that included four stores. So we’re going to be talking about that strike today, what went into it, what all went down, what’s next. But first, our guest, if you want to introduce yourself.

Luis: Sure, my name is Luis Brennan. I’m an organiser with the Burgerville workers Union. I’ve worked at Burgerville for three and a half years now, I work at the Portland Airport location. And yes, it’s exciting, we’re all pretty energized.

IGD: Yes, it’s incredible to think that four stores were going to end up going on strike and this is just the next phase in the struggle. But let’s just take people back to how this came about? Was this a straw that broke the camel’s back type of situation or this was something that was in the works? How did this strike come about?

Luis: We’ve always been oriented towards direction action, we’ve always been thinking about how we can use our power as workers directly on the job to try to make things happen and this is not the first time we been on strike. We had a few workers go out on strike on Labor Day demanding holiday pay. It was successful. It didn’t win holiday pay but it definitely shook management.

And I think this one is really in response to the increasing anti-union campaign and in response to the fact that it’s been so many months and almost two years now of just management sticking its head in the ground pretending we don’t exist. We wanted to prove to them that they couldn’t ignore us anymore. So the best way that we know how to prove that is to take action on the job, we ourselves wanted to go on strike.

A Burgerville store during lunch hour.
A Burgerville store during lunch hour.

IGD: Was the plan that there was going to be four stores that eventually went out or was that just something that spread?

Luis: Yes, that was the plan to have four stores go out. I mean my message to anyone who wants to do this is it does take planning and it does take preparation and organizing work. Those magic, spontaneous moments happen but there’s a lot of hard work behind too.

The cornerstone of the strike was three days at the Convention Center location where we had 13 workers on strike and then three other stores did one day strikes in solidarity with that. The most successful one was at the 92nd and Powell location where we had everyone who wasn’t a manager walk off the floor and they had to shuffle in people from around the company to come in and cover for that day. And I think that they really didn’t expect that sort of show up and that kind of force and we were all really proud of the folks in that shop for that kind of solidarity.

IGD: So just off the gate has anybody been retaliated against by the company for engaging in the strike?

Luis: We haven’t seen anything directly yet. It’s only been a couple of days. [Editor’s Note: Since this interview Burgerville management has fired another worker of color and union leader, Michelle.] We’ve seen some great improvements. At the Convention Center location they got a table to hold stuff for the grill line that they’ve been asking about for months and another store management is working on fixing the air conditioning that they’ve been talking about for months as well – so managements riled a little bit. But we’re not out of the woods yet, I mean there’s definitely a few workers who I think we need to be careful with.

They did fire two workers in the weeks before the strike. Presumably they were union supporters and presumably it was to try to shake up the organizing. One of them, a man named Canaan, was fired for putting a little bit of ice cream in his coffee, something a manager had told him he was allowed to do the day before.

And then a week before that another worker, Arsenio, was fired. Management claimed that he smelled like marijuana. They didn’t have him do a drug test, they didn’t do anything. He never admitted that he had smoked or whatever, and marijuana is legal in Oregon, so the fact that he smelt like marijuana could have been that he’d walked by a pot store. But the fact is that he actually does have a medical prescription for marijuana because he has epilepsy. He’s got a newborn child, he has epilepsy, he’s managing that, he’s an active performer and MC with a hip-hop crew and they fired him. They gave him a week’s suspension and then they fired him. He’s an active union supporter and the combination of racism and anti-unionism in that is pretty transparent to everybody.

Fired Burgerville workers

Workers fired from Burgerville for their union efforts. From left to right: Michelle Ceballos, Arsenio Arnold, Canaan Schlesinger, and Jordan Vaandering. (Images: Northwest Labor Press)

IGD: Bringing it back to the IWW, I was told by somebody that was in the Wobblies that because the IWW members run the union when they decide to strike that is not considered a wildcat strike. That it is just a strike. Is that a fair assumption?

Luis: Yes, I would love to take on the word wildcat at work, but my understanding is it applies to when the rank and file strikes in opposition to the official agreement of the organization. The IWW is unique among unions in the United States in that our constitution prohibits us from signing agreements that have no strike clauses. So there’s never going to be a time when we give up our right to strike. It’s your labor, it’s your time, it’s your body on or off the clock. And you know, that kind of direct action is always there as an option.

IGD: We know that there is the Fight for $15 movement in the United States. There’s been lots of actions but what are the ramifications of this strike over the weekend? I mean what’s the historical precedent?

Luis: Yes, I’m humble enough to know there’s always stuff I don’t know. The past strikes [by Fight for $15], for folks who are knowledgeable about stuff will know that these usually had a small handful of workers at any given store walk off and only for one day at a time.

There was also a strike in the ’70s at Church’s Chicken, a wave of strikes organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Council, organized around racism. And no matter what the numbers are [for the recent Burgerville strike] I think it is historical. I feel like the Burgerville Workers Union is historically noteworthy in that we’re building a real organization of fast food workers. We’re building something that’s trying to have staying power, that’s trying to be a voice for low wage workers in a way that very few attempts have been made previously.

IGD: So I think some people listening to this may wonder why the strike was three days long. Was that the plan all along or why three days?

Luis: Well, three days is a good time to show that kind of force. A one day strike is one thing, a three day strike disrupts it for that much longer. And there’s also a question of legal protections in thinking about this because given the state of labor law in the United States, it’s very hard for workers to be protected going on strike. We declared to management that this was a strike over unfair labor practices. If they replaced workers then they would have to have left but they could have contested that of it being over unfair labor practice.

And if you strike over wages management can hire scabs and then you don’t have to get your job back at the end of the strike. And so there’s a sort of tactical calculation about how long the strike could be. But it’s a show of force and we wanted make management stand up and listen and realize that they can only ignore us for so long before we start forcing their hand.

IGD: From my understanding the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Portland has a hall, there’s other IWW members, people within the community that support Burgerville workers, but I’m just curious how did the union, the IWW itself, support the strike?

Luis: There’s lots of work to do. Whether it’s making buttons, getting snack packs together for striking workers, turning out to pickets, putting media press releases together, or doing turn out for things – there’s lots of work to do whenever you pull off actions like this. And I think it’s a beautiful thing that it was our fellow workers who don’t work at Burgerville who spent a lot of their valuable time and energy making those things happen.

We have a big support of other working class folks in town who believe in our cause and believe in supporting us. I think it’s inspiring to see people inspired by our struggle and it’s inspiring to realize that we’re bigger than just Burgerville. We’re really a movement for workers in Portland.

Burgerville labor solidarity

IGD: Can you just talk a little bit about the support from other labor unions? Looking at the pictures there’s construction workers and people from other unions that are out there. What role did they play and more importantly how did you build those relationships to get them to take such an active role?

Luis: The support from other unions in town has been crucial to keeping us going and to getting as far as we have. I apologize to any unions that I miss but there have been a number that have been really good friends [to us]. The Carpenters Local 1503 has been a real strong support for us. Longshoremen, especially the Longshoremen Local 4 in Vancouver have been a real help to us. SEIU, UNITE-HERE, Portland Association of Teachers, and Laborer’s Union always lent us their inflatable rat.

IGD: Scabby?

Luis: Scabby, yes. So labor has been super important and they’ve done all things from turning out to picket to running pickets for us, to doing actions, donating money, and signing onto the boycott. And you know, the work of doing that is really the work of organizing and building relationships.

I would also like to think that we’re inspiring to folks and people want to support us. As good unionists know, labor struggle going on in our town helps all workers, one of the most exciting things that I can imagine coming out of this is rank-and-file members of other unions thinking that more is possible and being inspired to take action themselves.

The Carpenters have this great program called Carpenters in Action where they are developing a core of their rank and file who are ready to take action and they are on a text alert system. Just that experience of walking picket lines and turning cars away, staying cool when the cops show up, and heckling management – that kind of under-your-fingernails experience is crucial. And I can’t wait till there’s a carpenters struggle that they want our help with because I want to return that solidarity.

IGD: Let’s talk about the boycott. You mentioned turning cars around. First off, what was the response from potential customers that saw the strike unfolding? And give a little bit of a spiel as far as the active boycott.

Luis: Portland is a unique town, it really is true. If we were in Little Rock, Arkansas it would be a different experience but we had a lot of success just having conversations with people in their cars coming into the drive thru and asking them to go somewhere else. It’s nice to be in a town that appreciates workers and appreciates organizing.

We’ve launched an active boycott which is a new step coming out of the strike. We have a long list of organizations who have signed on, including many union locals who have already endorsed. And this is a hard decision for workers to make because when the company isn’t making money, we’re not necessarily getting hours. It’s been two years we’re facing a serious anti-union campaign and Burgerville needs to stand up and take notice. And it’s going to take longer than just the three day strike to turn this situation around and so we’re calling a boycott until we come to agreement with the company.

I think the response has been tremendous [so far], I’ve heard through the grapevine a number of my friends who are not connected to activist left the networks who have said they’ve heard about the boycott and have said that they’re not going to cross the line. I heard an anecdote from a worker I know at a Burgerville where we don’t have an active campaign that the construction workers stopped coming in today, that he’s used to a rush in the morning with the construction workers. And I think that Jill Taylor, the current CEO of Burgerville, should be doing some hard thinking round about now.


IGD: Can you explain to people the anti-union campaign that Burgerville has launched against you all?

Luis: Yes, it’s looked like a lot of things in different places. They’ve hired a union busting law firm called Bullard Law which has a long history of breaking up unions. And they’ve just released a new employee handbook that includes two full pages about their perspective on the union. They’ve pulled workers off the floor and had them sit down and watch videos from the CEO telling them why they shouldn’t join the union.

They’ve done nastier stuff too, whether its cutting people’s hours or firing people like Jordan, Canaan and Arsenio, and just intimidating people. For instance one of the workers at Convention Center told me that this one corporate goon [sent by the company] was just standing behind him for a whole day Just sort of standing there [saying] ‘I’m not doing anything, just managing.’ But it didn’t feel great. So I think that when you try to make change you should expect resistance, the system is the way it is for a reason. And I think that Burgerville is definitely not living up to the values that it says it lives up to.

As a matter of fact [on February 6] the current CEO of Burgerville, Jill Taylor, was speaking at a conference in Seattle called the Sound Food Summit which was a progressive food movement event, talking about living out your philosophy in business. And we had our fellow workers from the Seattle IWW and other organizations up there passing out leaflets and talking to people about why it was pretty ridiculous that she be doing that while running a union busting campaign and firing workers on lies.

IGD: In closing what’s next for the campaign and, more importantly, people listening to this that want to support what should they do?

Luis: Next in this campaign is we’re going to keep rolling with this boycott and keep pressure on the company. We are going to keep organizing and keep taking action. You know, that’s the lifeblood of any struggle, is taking action. So keep your ears peeled on our Facebook.

How you support? You should join the boycott if you’re living in the Burgerville area. Don’t go to Burgerville or go to Burgerville and tell them you’re not going to pay any money there because they don’t support the union. And you know there are ways to donate if you have some extra cash lying around. We’re low wage workers so running stuff like this is important. And the website for the boycott is boycottburgerville.com and there’s plenty of other information about how to get involved there.

IGD: Awesome. Well thanks so much for joining us. Anything else you want to say that we perhaps didn’t cover?

Luis: I think the last thing I’ll say is that we’re really only going to win if other people take on fights like this of their own in workplaces or in our communities. So we want to be an inspiration and we want everyone to be taking action and fighting back against the system.

IGD: Well thanks so much for joining us and again best of luck to you.