Supporters of the Burgerville Workers Union surrounded the Convention Center Burgerville restaurant Oct. 25, turning away customers on an evening that might otherwise have been one of the busiest for the restaurant. The Convention Center Burgerville at 1135 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is three blocks from the Moda Center sports arena, and the Portland Trail Blazers were holding their season opening game there on Oct. 25. As fans streamed toward the arena, pro-union demonstrators, including one dressed in a french fry costume, handed out printed placards: On one side was the Blazers logo to wave in support of the team; on the other side, the crossed-spatula logo of the Burgerville Workers Union.
Meanwhile, roving lines of picketers at the restaurant’s two entrances deterred cars from entering, idling the drive-through. And union picketers invited potential Burgerville customers who were on foot to turn away and enjoy free union burgers instead — at a double-grill hamburger trailer set up directly in front of the store. A few still crossed the picket line and entered the restaurant, but others kept going or accepted the union burgers.
The protest was called to mark six months since the public launch of the Burgerville Workers Union, a grassroots organization affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Burgerville Workers Union is calling for a $5 an hour raise for all hourly workers, plus more affordable health benefits, and scheduling and safety improvements. But at least initially the union isn’t claiming to have the support of the majority of workers at the 42-store regional chain — or seeking an election to be certified as their exclusive representative.
“We’re not opposed to signing a contract, but we don’t need that to be a union,” said Luis Brennan, a worker at Burgerville’s Portland airport location. “We’re already functioning as a union. We’re concretely supporting workers every day.”
The Burgerville Workers Union campaign has been endorsed by the state and local AFL-CIO, and the Oct. 25 picket was supported by Portland Jobs With Justice and several unions. United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1503 provided and supplied the hamburger trailer. Laborers Local 737 lent the use of their fearsome-looking inflatable rat. And members and leaders of at least half a dozen unions took part in the demonstration.
Burgerville has so far refused to meet with the union officially. CEO Jeff Harvey did meet with an official designee of the union but insisted on treating what she had to say as her own individual viewpoint instead of the collective voice of a group of employees. [The company put up an anti-union web site aimed at its “team members.”]
Since the campaign began, at least one known union supporter has been terminated, and another was persuaded to resign. The union has filed six charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging company violations of federal labor law. Two have since been withdrawn; the others are still pending investigation.
But Brennan credits small-scale acts of solidarity with small workplace improvements, like a 50-cent raise, a floor mat added at one location, and a manager who told a sick worker to stay on the job but came around after getting a call from the union. And in general, Brennan said, company managers seem to be on their best behavior since the union launched.
And the Blazers? They had a 113-104 win in the season opener against the Utah Jazz.