PORTLAND, OREGON — “This is what I like to call our victory picket,” said Chance Alexander, an employee at regional fast-food chain Burgerville, referring to a string of workers and community supporters, brandishing signs with union slogans, who surrounded the entrance of one restaurant location last month.
Alexander is a member of the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU), which, after more than two years of organizing through strikes and workplace actions, had just struck another victory. A third Burgerville location won a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election in a 13-9 vote on December 11, 2018, following two other locations over the previous year. Now, the third shop could join the other two in bargaining the first contract, making it the largest federally-recognized fast-food workers union in the country.
The BVWU campaign, which grew out of the radical anti-capitalist labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), hasn’t just defied the odds — it has completely rewritten the rules of what is possible in a modern union. It officially launched in April 2016 after a year of preliminary organization, when a delegation of workers, supported by local faith and union leaders, marched into the Vancouver, Washington office of Burgerville and demanded recognition of their union. Burgerville pushed back, and what ensued was more than two years of worker-led organizing over multiple stores, all done without paid staff, large budgets, or political machines.
In 2018, the campaign escalated with a three-day strike in February, galvanizing community support. This momentum carried the workers into their next big move: filing for NLRB election. While the union had existed for two years, it did so without NLRB recognition and instead rested on the idea that workers coming together to support each other was what made a union, not necessarily just a legal contract.
After garnering support from community, political, and labor leaders, they won their first election at a single restaurant in April. A second shop won in May, and once they entered bargaining, the third shop filed for its election and won in December, allowing workers across the three locations to bargain for a joint contract.
“It’s been successful because fast-food workers can’t take it anymore,” said Hadley McAnn, who works at a Portland-area Burgerville. “The urgency is there and people think that it’s worth it to take risks and to fight for a better life.”
As the BVWU takes on a major regional chain without budgets, political connections, or an army of staff, they have already managed to successfully create what many in the industry considered to be impossible — a ground-up worker movement that is only growing.
“Organize the worker, not the workplace”
What has traditionally made it difficult for fast-food workers to organize is the high turnover of the position, the precarity of the work itself, and the massive corporate structures that run such restaurants, which often crush unionization attempts. The low wages and difficult workplace dynamics have also made it a hard proposition for many large labor unions, who would have to invest huge amounts of money into organizing a shop that is unlikely to win.
Fast-food worker organizing has been a major focus of organized labor for the past several years, and what invigorated the “Fight for $15” campaign that swept the country last year. While the campaign to organize fast-food continues in many areas, the unions have yet to find the perfect fit that would allow them to hone in on an employer and initiate a workplace fight that could win and sustain the cost of organizing.
This is part of what separated the approach of the IWW, which prioritized supporting all organizing workers, no matter their workplace.
“We have a phrase in the IWW: ‘organize the worker, not the workplace.’ We didn’t go into this to organize Burgerville, we went into this to organize Burgerville workers,” said Burgerville worker Luis Brennan, who helped start the campaign in 2015.
“The goal needs to be building enough power with your coworkers to take action, to put pressure on the company, to mutually support each other. Those are the things unions do to be a union. Whether or not we have written agreements with the company is a secondary question,” Brennan added.
“It’s been successful because fast-food workers can’t take it anymore.”
The first location that voted to unionize had only 25 workers, and going shop-to-shop on micro-units is hardly a strategy for a larger organization. But as they build up steam, they have the option of growing their bargaining units or providing a support base for workers in legally unrepresented stores to go after common issues, like the cost of public transportation or the fractious fear of unstable schedules.
“We have a militant minority that wants to take action, and that is part of the strategy for growing the connections between workers,” Forrest Arnold, from the Montavilla Burgerville location, told ThinkProgress.
This “minority union” strategy — one that involves union activists, who are members of BVWU, talking to other employees to get them involved — means that the union is present and organizing around issues even when they do not have a majority to win an NLRB election and move toward a collective bargaining agreement. This becomes especially relevant as federal restrictions tighten on unions with Right to Work laws (which make it illegal for unions to require “agency fees” from non-members who are still covered by contracts), anti-union court rulings (like Janus v. AFSCME), and by stripping the right to collective bargaining from public sector workers in places like West Virginia and Texas.
The strategy is not unheard of in the world of labor, with the United Auto Workers (UAW) taking on campaigns in auto plants in the South as minority movements, as well as the recent wave of teacher strikes in “red” states. That minority strategy has often led to a majority, and now most of the restaurants with the union present have tipped well over 50 percent of membership.
“We have been successful because we haven’t been afraid of organizing with a minority, with direct action, and because we aren’t afraid of using Salts,” said Arnold, referring to a long-standing union strategy of entering a workplace with the intention of improving it by organizing.
Workers organized around tangible issues, like unpredictable work schedules, as well as creating a “benefits” program for union members, which included childcare provided by other BVWU members as a form of mutual aid.
“The organization is composed of BV workers and other low wage workers in Portland. It’s the workers that are making the decisions,” said Stefan Stackhouse, a worker at the Gladstone Burgerville location. “We’re building an organization out of close relationships with each other, and I think that’s been its success.”
While dues are not currently compulsory, BVWU members who choose to voluntarily sign up must pay dues to be a member of the IWW. Dues are collected in person by a delegate, an unpaid IWW member who is also organizing. Workers say the lack of automatic dues do not generate a “free-rider problem” since the foundation of the union is relationships.
“We have gone back to the basics of what it means to be a worker’s union and rooting that in solidarity with your coworkers and building strong relationships so you can have each other’s backs.”
“The core of solidarity unionism, and the IWW’s unionism, is that the workers organizing on the shop floor are the union. So it doesn’t make sense to talk about the ‘free rider’ problem in the IWW because it’s not a service that is being paid for. It’s an activity, it’s organizing with your coworkers, which you are either financially pitching into or you are not,” said Brennan.
“We have kind of gone back to the basics of what it means to be a worker’s union and really rooting that in solidarity with your coworkers and building strong relationships with your coworkers so you can have each other’s backs,” Hadley McAnn, a BVWU member and Powell Street Burgerville employee, told ThinkProgress.
We are the community
The Portland community played a major role in BVWU’s success, as they considered themselves to be equal participants in the campaign. The result was a partnership that pulled progressive social issues and community support into a wider movement. A “solidarity committee” was created immediately after the union first went public and included community members committed to supporting the campaign. It was clear from the start that the BVWU wanted to focus on direct democracy — and it got people excited.
“The fact that we are at a local chain of fast-food means we have a lot more community support and community outreach [than] if we [were] just one of the thousands of McDonald’s in America,” said Esther Mann, a worker at the Montavilla location.
Much of the community support came from outreach by organizing workers, who from the start of the campaign in 2016, communicated with supporters and the media, launching branded materials, social media channels, and innovative online tools.
Burgerville’s own reputation, which bills itself using the “progressive” jargon of localism and sustainability, created its own problematic dynamic for corporate. This was a claim that workers were then able to call in, pointing out the hypocrisy of using the language of justice without providing a voice and living wage to workers. They created videos of Burgerville workers telling their stories of barely surviving, talked to workers and community members familiar with Burgerville, and asked Burgerville executives, often publicly, to live up to the promises they include in their marketing materials.
After the first store held its NLRB election and won in April 2018, almost two years after the campaign first began, Burgerville released a video appearing to celebrate their new “partnership.” Since this narrative ran counter to the claims of Burgerville’s union-busting tactics and the ongoing boycott, BVWU workers, within hours, put out a video calling out the burger chain for hypocrisy.
The fight ahead
The IWW bylaws disallow “no strike” clauses in union contracts, a concession in many collective bargaining agreements that bans strike actions when a contract is active. This could prove useful as the three Burgerville locations that won their NLRB recognition continue bargaining. They’ve had some challenges, such as meeting a living wage standard for Portland. They have also made issues like immigration front and center, using the contract as a way of creating protections for undocumented coworkers.
“We are excited to chart a new course for the labor movement by supporting undocumented workers,” said Emmett Schlenz, a Burgerville worker who serves on the bargaining team.
On September 18, 2018, or “National Cheeseburger Day,” Burgerville workers went on strike, staging a massive community picket in front of the Montavilla Burgerville location due to issues in bargaining and conflict with management after the latter disallowed workers to wear Black Lives Matter and Abolish ICE buttons at work. Three unfair labor practice complaints were filed in August for what the union said was “unlawful unilateral changes to working conditions in the midst of bargaining and bargaining in bad faith by breaking commitments made during negotiations.” The strike ended and workers returned to work, but they sent the message that management’s decisions will have consequences.
Stores filing for NLRB elections can only support the bargaining effort, with attention raised in the community and pressure mounting on Burgerville corporate to make concessions. Like every stage of the Burgerville campaign, the gains made by workers are intended to also act as a form of recruitment, spreading between stores and between workers. Economic demands, like wages and benefits, are likely to be some of the toughest fought issues, but large gains could be achieved as long as the pressure from the rest of the union, and the community, continues.
“We hope to lead a like a torchlight so that someone can say ‘well, Burgerville did it, why can’t we?’” said Alexander. “We hope to start the snowball effect.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of a Burgerville employee. The correct name is Chance Alexander.