By Don McIntosh
It took 51 bargaining sessions and more than three years, but roughly 100 employees at five Portland-area Burgerville locations are about to be the first fast food workers in America to have a union contract.
If members of the Burgerville Workers Union vote to ratify it in the coming weeks, the union contract will lock in current pay and working conditions and add notable improvements, including three-month set schedules, parental leave, and up to two weeks paid vacation a year depending on seniority.
The contract also gives union members the greater job security that comes with “just cause” protection. Just cause means an end to “at will” employment status in which workers can be terminated for just about any reason. Instead, managers will now have to document rule violations, use progressive discipline, and allow workers to bring a shop steward to defend them in investigatory and disciplinary meetings. Workers will also have a grievance procedure they can use to contest discipline they feel is unfair. All those are standard union rights, but unheard of outside union-represented workplaces.
“Now when it comes to a union shop, we will be able to say for the first time in the fast food industry, these workers are not going to be at will employees,” says union bargaining team member Mark Medina.
Medina, who has been involved since the campaign began in 2016, also credits the union with improvements that Burgerville implemented across the board for both union and non-union employees, including one free meal per shift, allowing tip jars at stores, and five paid holidays a year. Normally, when an employer on its own makes improvements for both union and non-union workers—without bargaining with the union over it—it’s seen as a union-busting tactic. It’s meant to show that the union didn’t win the improvement; it was just the employer being generous. Making improvements for both union and non-union also removes an incentive for workers to join the union since they’ll get the improvements either way. Medina said he and his fellow union members interpreted Burgerville’s unilateral improvements in that way, but they also say it’s clear the union was the cause of the changes, which came only after the union proposed them.
Starting wages under the contract are set at 25 cents above minimum wage, which is currently $14 an hour in the Portland area. But Medina said union workers will also benefit from a system the company agreed to set up that will make it possible for customers to tip when they pay with cards. The contract says the company will implement such a system at all union locations within 30 days. When it tried out the system at the Convention Center location this summer, Medina says it resulted in a pay bump of over $8 an hour for the workers there. Medina said the company initially opposed the idea of tipping, but its concession on that issue was key to reaching agreement on the contract.
Medina said he does give some credit to the company. Other employers might have stonewalled and rejected all union proposals, but Burgerville management did seem to want to reach agreement by the end.
Burgerville put out its own statement saying it’s excited to announce the agreement on the labor contract: “Burgerville is the first fast food company in the nation to achieve this, a remarkable accomplishment and something we can all be very proud of. Today we begin another chapter in a 60-year history of investing in our employees.”
If the contract is ratified as expected by mid-December, the union will end its call for customers to boycott the company and may instead encourage the public to patronize Burgerville.
The contract applies to the five locations that voted to unionize in 2018 and 2019: 3504 S.E. 92nd Ave.; 19119 SE McLoughlin Blvd.; 1122 SE Hawthorne Blvd.; 1135 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.; and 8218 NE Glisan St.
The store at SE 92nd Ave and Powell Boulevard closed in August, and employees were offered jobs at other locations. The company said the closure was temporary and was due to rising problems with crime and vandalism. According to an informal agreement with the union, the store is expected to reopen in December as one of the five union-represented locations.
Burgerville Workers Union is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World.
The contract expires May 1, 2023.