In just the past month, strippers, vegan donut makers and thrift shop workers have all won union elections in Oregon. In a year of notable national union activity — from the WGA and SAF-AFTRA strikes shutting down Hollywood to the president joining the UAW picket line in Detroit — what’s happening here in Oregon is a little different: it’s driven by independent unions. Rather than join AFL-CIO, SEIU or other big unions, some Oregon workers are taking a “grow your own” approach to unionizing.
Local chain Burgerville’s independent union, Burgerville Workers Union, won federal recognition in 2018 and signed its first contract in 2021. Seeing Burgerville’s success in organizing without the resources of a bigger union inspired workers at Voodoo Doughnut.
Samantha Medina was one of the original union organizers at the donut shop in Portland’s Old Town in 2020. Medina said an independent union was a necessity in a sector largely seen as “un-organizable” by the big unions.
“We work in a high turnover industry that, unfortunately, a lot of larger unions aren’t that interested in taking on,” Medina said. “We didn’t have hope or faith that a larger union was going to step in and organize us. So we decided to take that power into our own hands and do it ourselves,” she said.
Voodoo’s union lost its first federally-recognized union election in 2021 after it resulted in a tie but found success the following year when employees won federal recognition of their independent union, Doughnut Workers United.
Gordon Lafer, professor and co-director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center, said that labor organizing is growing everywhere in the county, but in Oregon, we’re seeing more “young people in their teens and twenties organizing their own independent unions.” Lafer said that independent unions are spreading at small workplaces as “people taking inspiration from others’ examples.”
On average, Oregon has seen 43 petitions for new unions each year since 2004. In 2021, that number started climbing and hit a new record of 64. Last year, the record was broken again with 126 petitions for new unions. The union activity hasn’t slowed this year, with 81 elections filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as of Thursday.
Doughnut Workers United recently grew to include its second workplace: Doe Donuts, a small all-vegan donut outlet in the Hollywood District of Northeast Portland. When a coworker was let go after an illness, a group of employees started talking about unionizing and gathering the pledge cards required by the NLRB. They submitted a petition to the NLRB for a union to represent 11 workers on Aug. 21. Two days later, the owners voluntarily recognized the union, rather than fighting it.
That surprised Reagan Gray, a front counter worker at Doe Donuts who was involved in the organizing. Gray was prepared by other experienced local union organizers to expect a long and drawn-out fight with management. “We weren’t expecting them to voluntarily recognize. So it was really exciting, but I think we were all kind of in shock,” Gray said.
‘A union that represented us and was made by us’
When workers at New Seasons Seven Corners started talking about unionization in 2022, inspired by an Amazon warehouse union vote, they weighed their options. “It did not take much to move the needle on getting our coworkers ready to unionize,” said Tyler Fellini, one of the workers at the initial organizing meetings in a coworker’s backyard. “It just was a matter of how we did it. Did we join an existing union? Did we want to go independent?” he said.
In the grocery sector, unlike restaurants, many workers are already unionized. The United Food and Commercial Workers union represents Fred Meyer and Safeway. But New Seasons staff didn’t feel that an existing union would best represent them.
“We ended up deciding to go independent because we wanted to have our autonomy to make a union that represented us and was made by us,” Fellini said.
Once the New Seasons Seven Corners store won its election, other locations followed. Alex Gage helped organize the New Seasons Arbor Lodge store in less than three months after realizing someone would have to step up to make joining the union happen.
Now, eight of the 18 New Seasons stores in the Portland metro area are unionized, and the New Seasons Labor Union has more than 1,000 members.
More than just wages
Lafer, the UO labor researcher, said the stress of COVID-19 for service industry workers helped spur interest in union organizing.
“A lot of people went through COVID in the position of being asked to make sacrifices of all kinds, including putting their own personal safety at risk and coming out of that feel like, ‘OK, now we put up with whatever we had to put up with to get ourselves in the public through a pandemic,’” Lafer said. “And now we’ve come out the other side, and it’s like ‘We made sacrifices in times when times were tough. Don’t tell us we need to keep making those same sacrifices now that times are better.’”
Medina said the stress is felt all across the restaurant industry as “companies have kept a lot of restaurant crews as skeleton crews, understaffed, and the workload just piles up on the workers,” she said.
Much of the on-the-ground organizing work is being done by younger staff, particularly members of Generation Z, who may be the most pro-union generation yet. Many service workers in their early twenties have only ever known a pandemic workplace. And what they’re asking for isn’t necessarily just higher wages.
”About two years ago, workers were working in 100-plus-degree temperatures inside the restaurant over oil vats that are 375 degrees. And we were having people collapsing and getting heat stroke,” Medina said. “And at the time, the company was telling us, ‘Oh, we just can’t get air conditioning, we just can’t do it.’”
She continued: “Sure enough, as we organized and we showed our strength on the shop floor, the company was like, ‘All right, well, I guess we can get air conditioning,’” she said.
Other union organizers are asking for protections for transgender coworkers, more forgiving absence policies and a bigger say in managerial decisions. Part of the reason employees are motivated to ask for better working conditions in retail jobs, Lafer said, is that this kind of work is now a long-term career.
“You have people staying in those jobs. … Jobs that used to be a summer job for teenagers are now things that people are doing into their mid or late twenties, which means the jobs matter more to them,” Lafer said. “They’re willing to throw down in a fight more. And they’re sticking around longer, which means there’s more of a possibility of people getting to know each other and forming the kind of union that can actually stand up and do something to try to win a better contract.”
On Sept. 15, organizers at Buffalo Exchange in downtown Portland won an election to form the independent union Buffalo Exchange Workers United. Zoe Schaffner-Oldham, a buyer at the store, was part of a group that was inspired to organize after seeing too many coworkers lose their jobs due to a strict absence policy that didn’t make allowances for inclement weather or long illnesses.
Schaffner-Oldham’s dad was a union rep, and unions were always in the background growing up.
“The main thing I’ve always gotten from my parents [is that] you can never underestimate how much people care about their workplace. I felt like the company was really underestimating us,” said Schaffner-Oldham, who said the CEO of Buffalo Exchange came on a surprise visit to Portland after employees filed their union election. “I don’t think any of the managers ever met her before, and our manager has been working there for 17 years.”
And though Oregon is seeing record-high numbers of union elections, none of the independent unions in this story, aside from Burgerville Workers Union, have finalized contracts with their employers. Most of them are currently engaged in a series of back-and-forth bargaining. And even while more staff at New Seasons stores contemplate holding their own elections to join the union, the contract negotiations are slow.
But Gray at Doe Donuts is optimistic as the shop prepares to elect its first union representative. “A lot is happening right now. And it’s really exciting,” Gray said. “I think that it’s a really important time where people are seeing that it can happen even with smaller businesses.”