At Laughing Planet, a union forms

WE ARE THE UNION  Inspired by labor organizing around the country, workers at the Woodstock Boulevard Laughing Planet decided to form their own: From left, Anna Wright, Elia Bufton-Gilford, Sasha Dalton, Sofia Richardson, and Ellie Hendricks | Photo by Logan Kerbs

By DON McINTOSH

In a Jan. 23 election administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), workers at the 4110 SE Woodstock Blvd. location of Laughing Planet Cafe voted 10-1 to certify that they wish to be represented by the union they themselves formed, Laughing Planet Workers United.

Laughing Planet is a health-conscious burrito chain with eight locations in the Portland area and six other locations in Eugene, Corvallis, Bend, and Reno.

Locally it pays its workers at or near the Portland area’s $15.45 per hour minimum wage, though workers also commonly earn $5 to $10 an hour in tips from customers, said union supporter Ellie Hendricks. Hendricks said only managers and shift leads are given full-time work and employer-provided health insurance, and workers must contend with inconsistent schedules and earnings. Still Hendricks said she and her coworkers love working there. They like their manager and the job, and through unionizing they hope to make improvements.

Up to now Laughing Planet has cultivated a progressive reputation. In 2015 its Pearl District location was visited by Barack Obama’s U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who praised the company for offering employees up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

Laughing Planet cafes have in the past proclaimed their support of the nurses union. In November, the company offered discounts to striking teachers at Portland Public Schools. But in December when its own employees asked for voluntary union recognition, the company declined, and asked the NLRB to hold a union election instead.

Laughing Planet owner Franz Spielvogel failed to follow up on a pledge to return a call from the Labor Press.

“I was a little bit surprised,” Hendricks said. “I was prepared for them to be like, ‘Yeah, we love unions, and support you guys organizing if you feel like that’s what you need to do.’”

Then anti-union fliers turned up in the break room. As clueless copy-paste, they were laughably bad. “Fact: Dues, fees, and assessments are set by the Union without direct approval from Union members,” said one flier. “To our knowledge, the Union has not set initiation fees or dues rates, but they are often hundreds of dollars per year.”

The fledgling Laughing Planet Workers United union has fewer than a dozen members and its only asset is an Instagram account with 10 followers. In other words, the union is the employees themselves. Up to now, they “bargained” as individuals and were strung along for months when they asked for 50 cents above minimum wage. Now they’d like to exercise their federally protected right to bargain together.

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