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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.