By Don McIntosh
In its zeal to stomp out a union campaign among some of its workers, Portland-based fast food chain Little Big Burger got clever last month. Through an attorney at Bullard Law, Little Big Burger on May 24 asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union election at all 13 of its stores in Oregon.
It’s very rare for U.S. employers to ask for union elections. That happened in only 50 cases last year, compared to 1,597 union elections that were petitioned for by private sector unions or workers. When an employer calls for a union election, it’s almost always because they think an existing union has lost majority support. If the union election proves that, the employer isn’t legally obligated to deal with the union any more.
In Little Big Burger’s case, the call for union elections is a gamble that the union idea hasn’t had time to gain support at many stores. Little Big Union only just announced its formation on March 16, and has been most active at the company’s Northwest 23rd Avenue location in Portland.
Little Big Burger is owned by Chanticleer Holdings, a publicly traded restaurant giant that owns Hooters and three other chains. Little Big Union is affiliated with the Portland chapter of Industrial Workers of the World, a grassroots independent union with no staff and few resources. So when workers learned their employer had requested a union election, they were unprepared and unfamiliar with the process. Noah Warman of the McKanna Bishop Joffe labor law firm stepped up to represent them pro bono, and won terms favorable to the union.
Little Big Burger had proposed a near-immediate in-person election, to be held in person at three suburban stores, with workers at all 12 Portland-area locations plus a store in Eugene taking part. But NLRB regional director Ron Hooks agreed with the union that a mail ballot would be more appropriate: Some Little Big Burger stores are too small to have a private polling area, and to hold a vote at only some stores would place a significant burden on those not employed at those locations, Hooks ruled. And Eugene, 113 miles away, is out.
Ballots will be mailed July 1, and will be counted July 23.
Besides jumping the gun on a union election, Little Big Burger has also taken action against union supporters. On May 3, it fired union supporters Ashley Reyes and Jules Jones and suspended Bradley Meyers, after the three took part in a brief strike to protest unsafe conditions. The workers walked out during a dinner rush after a chronically clogged drain turned the kitchen area into a slip hazard zone. Three workers had already slipped and been injured at the same location in previous months. The workers wrote down their demands for a safe work space and pledged to unconditionally return at closing time, but were dismissed when they returned.
Little Big Burger also fired Lily Aguilar, a union supporter at its Northeast Alberta location.
To protest the firings, Little Big Union picketed outside the stores, and filed charges with the NLRB. It also filed a safety complaint with the Oregon-Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Union supporter Cameron Crowell says there’s been a day-to-day campaign in stores, with managers taking down union posters, and labor relations consultants meeting one-on-one with workers. Still, even though the union election is taking place at the company’s initiative, Crowell thinks there’s a good chance the union will prevail.
“We’re fairly confident the people are on our side,” Crowell told the Labor Press. “All management has been doing is stoke fear and division. All we can do is provide mutual aid and be there for one another, and try and improve one another’s lives. That’s a message that resonates much better than fear and division.”