By Don McIntosh
PORTLAND, Ore. — Twenty-one months into a union campaign at Burgerville, the Burgerville Workers Union has announced a major escalation: A call for consumers to boycott the regional fast food chain until the company agrees to negotiate with the union.
The announcement came at a 4 p.m. rally amid a three-day strike that began yesterday at the Northeast MLK Boulevard store. Today the strike spread to the store at Southeast Powell and 26th.
“We’re striking to protest illegal union busting, and because we want our union to be recognized,” says Michelle Ceballos, a night shift crew member at the MLK store. “Without recognition, we’re not going to get our demands met.”
No law prevents Burgerville from agreeing to meet with the union, but the company has opposed the union effort and said it won’t parley with the union unless the union proves it has majority support in a government-administered election. The company has 44 locations and about 1,300 employees in Oregon and Washington.
The union’s chief demands are a $5 an hour raise, affordable health benefits, and for the company to negotiate with the union. But they also want the reinstatement of workers they say were fired for supporting the union.
The union says as many as six pro-union workers have been terminated by the company on trivial pretexts.
The most recent was Canaan Schlesinger, fired Jan. 31 from the MLK store less than two months after he was hired. The official reason: Theft, for having put a dollop of SoftServe ice cream in his coffee instead of cream. The real reason, he says: “They identified me as a union agitator.”
It wasn’t that he wore union buttons like some of his coworkers, Schlesinger said, but that he asked questions and showed independence. For instance, asked by a manager to sign an acknowledgement that he’d read and would agree to the rules in the employee handbook, he declined to sign until after he’d read the rules.
Schlesinger said his firing came just one day after a pro-union drive-through worker was fired at the same store, just weeks after becoming a father — ostensibly for smelling of cannabis, which he uses to treat epilepsy.
Firing a worker for supporting a union is a violation of federal labor law, known as an “unfair labor practice.” At least 18 separate unfair labor practice charges have been filed by the union with the National Labor Relations Board since the campaign began. Six are still pending investigation. Ten have been withdrawn or dismissed. In two cases, the NLRB found the company had broken the law, but Burgerville settled the charges and agreed to post a notice pledging not to do the things it was accused of doing. In those cases, a manager at Vancouver Plaza location told employees who were distributing “Burgerville Workers Need a Raise!” leaflets outside the store that they could not be on the property; after that, all employees received notice of a rule prohibiting employees from loitering on the property before and after their work shifts. A federal administrative law judge found that both the rule, and the manager’s conduct, broke federal labor law.
The union says as many as 25 workers at the two stores are taking part in the strike.
Burgerville Workers Union is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). So that the minimum wage workers could afford to take part in the strike, the union spent months fundraising to build a strike fund. Not all workers walked off the job at the two locations, and the stores remained open, though business was quite a bit slower than normal during the picketing. And strikers didn’t appear to bear any animosity toward their non-striking coworkers.
The Burgerville Workers Union campaign has been endorsed by the state and local AFL-CIO, and strike pickets at both locations were joined by contingents from several unions that pledged to mobilize solidarity picketers: Members of Iron Workers Local 29 in hard hats and work clothes blocked the drive-through during lunch hour Thursday, and a similar group of Carpenters Local 1503 showed up during dinner along with a large inflatable pig. Today’s Powell walkout was joined by a purple-clad group from SEIU Local 49, the health care and building services union whose headquarters is just across the street.
“We’re down here to support the workers who are trying to make a fair wage,” said union iron worker Matt Momb.
UPDATE 2/2/18, 6 PM: After rallying at Northeast Portland’s Holladay Park, strikers and supporters marched to the struck MLK Blvd. store. There, accompanied by several clergymen, State Representative Tawna Sanchez (D-Portland) tried to present a letter to managers, but they refused to accept it. Sanchez told the Labor Press that wasn’t the first time she was rebuffed: A previous call to a company executive went unreturned.
“The fact of the matter is: People can’t afford to live here any more if they can’t make a decent wage,” Sanchez said. “Corporations have a responsibility to make sure their workers can afford to live a decent life, and it’s not okay for them to keep poor people poor.”