Burgerville continues to fire pro-union workers

When Michelle Ceballos picketed Feb. 1 in protest of the firing of her co-workers, she didn’t imagine she’d be fired herself two weeks later. But Ceballos believes in the union movement and says she has no regrets.

By Don McIntosh

The ink was barely dry on our Feb. 16 print edition when we learned that one of the young workers pictured in our front page story about the Burgerville strike and boycott had been terminated.

Arsenio Arnold, fired from the MLK store Jan. 30 (weeks after becoming a father) for smelling of cannabis, which, as he informed a manager when he was hired, he uses to combat seizures.

On a picket line Feb. 1 outside the Burgerville’s Northeast MLK Jr. Boulevard store, Burgerville employee Michelle Ceballos talked to the Labor Press and other news media about why she and her co-workers were taking part in a three-day strike. Plain-spoken and open-hearted, she came across as a sincere and articulate advocate for the Burgerville Workers Union, and showed courage in taking part in a strike. Two weeks later, on Valentines Day, she was fired.

Michelle Ceballos, fired from the MLK Boulevard store Feb. 14 for theft of a chicken patty. Ceballos denies the charge, and says she threw away a patty she believed had been left behind by a co-worker.

Ceballos may be the latest casualty of what increasingly appears to be a campaign by Burgerville of firing pro-union workers. Supporters of the union say the company has fired as many as seven union supporters since the campaign began in April 2016. The pattern has been to fire otherwise exemplary workers for what appear like trivial pretexts: an unpaid-for bagel or dollop of soft serve ice cream. In Ceballos’ case, it was an unaccounted-for chicken patty.

Canaan Schlesinger, fired from the MLK store Jan. 31 for using a dollop of soft serve ice cream instead of cream in his free coffee. Managers said he should have paid for the ice cream.

“It was a leftover cold piece of chicken,” Ceballos says. A Burgerville manager accused her of stealing it, and told her they had video evidence of her handling the chicken patty. Ceballos denies stealing it. She says she threw away a patty she believed belonged to a co-worker who’d forgotten about it and left work.

Portland’s labor market is tight these days. The official unemployment rate is down around 4.0 percent, the lowest in 18 years. So it can’t be easy for Burgerville to find workers given that their starting wage is minimum wage. Yet company managers are terminating pro-union employees at an impressive clip.

Jordan Vaandering, fired from the Vancouver Plaza store January 2017 for failing to pay for a bagel and cream cheese. He says he was set up: An assistant manager gave it to him and didn’t ask payment.

Some restaurants have policies forbidding employees to eat food they haven’t paid for. But it’s extremely common — and one of the few perks of the low-wage food service industry — for employees to be allowed to consume food that’s otherwise going to waste. When your take-home pay is $184 a week (half-time hours at Portland’s minimum wage), those extra calories help you get through the week.

It’s a violation of federal labor law for an employer to fire a worker for their union sympathies, but the federal agency that enforces that law has an unimpressive record. Employees need the equivalent of a smoking gun to prove their union sympathies are what they were fired for. Even then it’s time-consuming to get resolution — and the law’s only remedy is reinstatement with back pay (minus any wages the worker earned in the meantime!)

Asked about the strike, the boycott, and the firings of pro-union workers, the company said in a statement attributed to its senior vice president of operations Beth Brewer: “Burgerville does not comment on individual employee matters or internal company policies.” 

Burgerville Workers Union is continuing its fight. It’s calling on the public to boycott the company until it deals with the union. The boycott has been endorsed by 11 unions and by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek.

10 Comments on Burgerville continues to fire pro-union workers

  1. Seems unfair to me that BURGERVILLE is denying worker rights, the company is allowed to write off food spoilage as part of their business plan. Perhaps they have an ulterior motive in denying workers their right of expression, or their right to express Union sympathies. If someone is going to steal something, it might as well be valuable, not something petty like a doll up of ice cream or a burger or chicken patty. I guess I won’t be patronizing BURGERVILLE anytime soon, I don’t support unfair business management decisions especially when it relates to employees.

  2. Portland IWW is proud to be associated with the Burgerville Workers Union. An injury to one is an injury to all. Boycott Burgerville!

  3. Im a big supporter of the BV union. I have been to that store many times during conferences at the convention center. Its sad they will not be serving all those supportes. They will learn the hard way like many other businesses. When you replace your workforce with entry employees that have no interest in the business other than a paycheck, you get what you get. Poor quality ect. Sounds as if BV already has those type of people managing the place.
    Too bad i used to like that place and all the other BV stores.
    Good luck corporate it wont be long now. Either you will get your $//# straight or be comming up with a new name for the Chain.
    Union brothers and sisters, stay strong, you deserve what you are asking for. As i said iv’e been to that store. Everytime, you have all been busting ass to serve the customers.

    • It’s not even a real union for one and second. Have you been to burgerville lately? Everytime I drive by they’re pretty busy. Most of these “union” employees think they are owed something and really if most of them just did what they’re paid to do it would be great.

  4. Stop stealing?? You have to wonder why these “union” employees would risk their job over food. You want health insurance? Work more hours. Burgerville always needs shifts filled and from I’ve seen most of these employees have limited availability and attendance issues and if they wanted insurance they could easily have it by picking up a shift or two. And to the guy taking a “dollop” of ice cream, that would have cost him 25 cents (remember bv owns that ice cream he took). The guy that smelled like weed (at work), its within burgervilles right to not hire weed smokers. First you wanted 15 an hour and now it’s 5 bucks. People manage to work for bv for years without issue and get insurance.

  5. It’s not even a real union for one and second. Have you been to burgerville lately? Everytime I drive by they’re pretty busy. Most of these “union” employees think they are owed something and really if most of them just did what they’re paid to do it would be great.

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