For customers, it’s just another busy day at the Burgerville on SE 92nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard in Portland. A line of people waiting to order stretches past signs advertising local strawberry shakes and rosemary seasoned French fries. Plush booths and red barstools fill up as hungry diners saunter in for a late lunch. It’s a familiar scene to regulars of the Pacific Northwest chain that prides itself on offering local produce and meats.
Behind the counter though, things are starting to change.
Among the 29 employees at the Southeast Portland store, 18 have aligned themselves with the Burgerville Workers Union, a campaign launched by members of the Industrial Workers of the World in April 2016.
The group celebrated a big victory Monday evening after a two-day election, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, secured an 82 percent vote in support of forming a union. Organizers say that makes them one of the only federally recognized unions in the fast food industry. The election win will now legally require Burgerville to negotiate in good faith with its workers, who have a list of demands that include a wage increase, parental leave and greater access to affordable health care.
“A lot of us need the money. We work hard but can’t get by on what they pay us,” said Nicholas Jones, a Burgerville employee for three years at the 92nd and Powell location.
He stopped by the store on his day off to drop off his ballot in favor of forming a union. A big factor is the promise of a five dollar raise. Jones currently makes $11.65 an hour, about 40 cents above the city’s minimum wage.
“I need more money for my family, this is a no-brainer,” said Jones. “I got one baby and maybe $11.65 an hour just isn’t enough. Poverty is poverty.”
Jones lines up behind a row of workers who have stopped by on their day off or have stepped away from their stations long enough to drop their vote in the ballot box. Many have fashioned their work aprons with an array of pins, some with the Burgerville Workers Union logo – a pair of crossed spatulas – and others that simply declare “I voted yes.”
Toward the front of the line is a worker named Mark Medina, who’s been a leading force in organizing staff at this store.
Medina says all of this began about three years ago when he connected with Luis Brennan, a Burgerville employee who is also a member of the IWW.
“We started talking to people and finding out what it was like at Burgerville,” said Brennan. “And the union just grew and we eventually went public.”
Brennan, Medina and a group of other low wage workers eventually hatched a plan to form a Burgerville union and officially went public with their campaign in 2016.
“It wasn’t a big union that did it. It was this small organization of workers,” said Medina. “I know I feel really excited, not just for us, but to be an inspiration for other workers in the industry and to know that it’s not impossible. You can do it too.”
Attempts to increase wages for fast food workers have made national headlines in recent years. In 2012, 200 fast food workers walked off the job in New York City to push for a $15 per hour wage. Part of the national Fight For 15, it was one of the largest strikes in fast food history.
“These are the fastest growing jobs in our economy and it’s becoming harder for those workers to have a family-sustaining job,” said Ceilidh Gao, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.
“These fast food worker demonstrations have really shown it’s the low wage workforce leading the way here,” said Gao.
The Burgerville fight to unionize is about money in part, but it’s also about workers wanting respect and having more of a say in decisions that affect their jobs.
Efforts to unionize in the fast food industry have been slower to take off, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor research and senior lecturer at Cornell University. But after seeing what’s happening in Portland, she says that could change.
“It’s going to create some debate,” Bronfenbrenner explained. “Of course, Burgerville is not McDonald’s, it’s not Burger King. But there are other smaller chains out there that may be ripe for this model.”
When the union effort originally started, Burgerville employee Luis Brennan said the company distributed anti-union information to its employees. Some workers even claim they were retaliated against for trying to organize.
“We’ve seen consistently harsher punishment for supporters of the union and its been clear that Burgerville does not want the union to exist,” Brennan said.
Liz Graham, Burgerville’s Director of Human Resources, disagrees and says there have been no findings by the NLRB that suggest unjust termination because of practicing union activities.
“If there is a violation of a policy in regard to theft, safety or security, we have to discipline employees and that can lead to termination,” Graham says. “But that decision has nothing to do with union support.”
But in recent months, the company has started to become more accepting of their worker’s right to choose. After the election results on the union vote were released Monday night, Burgerville released a statement saying they will continue to provide a fair, positive work environment for all.
“Our employees have spoken, we hear them, and we support their decision,” wrote Beth Brewer, senior vice president of operations. “We will navigate this new working relationship together in a positive, productive way and bargain in good faith with the union.”
After the union election results were announced, Burgerville employees at the 92nd and Powell location celebrated their win. Some debated moving the party across the street to a nearby Chuck E. Cheese. Others, like 18-year-old Denny Glenn, sat in reflection.
“I think this is going to be the realization that any fast food worker, any fast food company can be changed,” Glenn said. “We can fight back against not fair treatment in the workplace. I think it’s going to be revolutionary.”
And it’s a movement that’s already spreading. A second Burgerville location in Gladstone, Oregon, has begun the process to hold a union vote of its own.