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Burgerville Workers in Portland Successfully Form First Fast Food Union in US

The union marks a major victory in the ongoing struggle for fast food workers' rights.

by Dave Minsky
Apr 26 2018, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Elly Blue

Earlier this week, employees at a Burgerville restaurant in Portland voted to form a fast-food labor union, according to a Facebook announcement made by the newly-formed Burgerville Workers Union.

Mark Medina, a restaurant employee and a union member, tells MUNCHIES that the union is the nation’s only fast-food union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). For two days on April 22 and 23, Medina said, employees at the Burgerville located at 92nd and Powell Boulevard cast votes in a cramped storage section of the restaurant. The election was overseen by representatives of the NLRB, the union, and the restaurant, Medina said.

The formation of the union is significant for Burgerville employees, Medina said, because now the restaurant must bargain with its staff collectively for higher wages and working conditions. And more broadly, the new union represents a major step for restaurant workers in the nationwide struggle for a living wage.

Last September, according to Reuters, workers at several fast food chains, including McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken went on strike in 60 cities across the US to demand a $15-per-hour minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Some states and cities have already passed laws increasing hourly wages to $15, including Seattle and California.

Burgerville's, well, burgers. Photo via Flickr user aehdeschaine

The new union also serves as a landmark victory in the long, historical struggle of fast food workers’ attempts to form labor unions in the US. Medina notes that there have been at least three previous attempts to do so in American history.

In 1981, Burger King employees at a Detroit Greyhound bus station formed a short-lived union before the store was sold to a franchisee, according to Keith Kelleher, who went on to help found a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Chicago.

Then, in 2004, employees at a Starbucks store in Manhattan formed an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union that then filed for an election with the NLRB. However, the union election never went for a vote, according to Cole Dorsey, who was a part of the almost-union.

An election filed by workers at a group of Minneapolis Jimmy John’s restaurants in 2010 failed to form a union by two votes, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

According to the NLRB, there was a total of 22 votes, with four Burgerville employees voting against formation. Despite not all employees at the restaurant voting to be a part of the union, Medina said, they’ll still receive the benefits of any contract between the staff and the company. The union doesn’t include managers, he said, and doesn’t compel non-members to pay dues.

Dorsey told MUNCHIES that the BWU is different than bigger unions, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which don’t go after fast-food places because employees have such low income.

A sign at a Portland Burgerville location in 2011. Photo via Flickr user Todd Mecklem

“It's a big deal for low-wage workers and fast-food workers and workers that don’t have college degrees and are considered expendable,” Dorsey said.

Twenty-eight-year-old Medina, a native of the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles, told MUNCHIES that the new union intends to impact the entire US restaurant industry.

“No one who works should live in poverty,” Medina told MUNCHIES. “There’s precedence for what we’re doing. I think there's something to be learned from that by other workers in this industry.”

Burgerville is a Vancouver, Washington-based chain that owns and operates at least 40 restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. In an email to MUNCHIES via a public relations firm, a company spokeswoman said they support the union.

“Our employees have spoken, we hear them, and we support their decision,” wrote Beth Brewer, senior vice president of operations for Burgerville. “We will navigate this new working relationship together in a positive, productive way and bargain in good faith with the union.”

Medina said that the new union only affects employees at that particular restaurant. However, another Burgerville location in Gladstone is now awaiting a union vote in three weeks.

Both the union and Burgerville have one year to work out a contract, he said.