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(en) US, black rose fed Portland - UNIONISM FROM BELOW: INTERVIEW WITH BURGERVILLE WORKERS UNION
Fri, 9 Mar 2018 09:02:06 +0200
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Workers fired from Burgerville for their union efforts. From left to right: Michelle
Ceballos, Arsenio Arnold, Canaan Schlesinger, and Jordan Vaandering. (Images: Northwest
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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