Viewpoint: Burgerville Workers’ Lessons for Independent Unions

The Burgerville Workers Union uses direct action like this march on the boss to reinstate a fired co-worker. Photo: BVWU.

Self-organizing a union on a shoestring? Winning the supposedly unwinnable? Workers at a local burger chain out of Portland, Oregon, were doing it before it was cool.

The Burgerville Workers Union, which went public in 2016 and won its first contract in 2021, has recently been influencing and supporting independent union efforts in the region—and it has a few lessons to offer independent unions around the country.

While the union is affiliated with the Portland branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, it operates largely autonomously.

“What workers want is to form a union, not necessarily join a union,” asserts founding member Luis Brennan.

BVWU’s intensive member-organizer training and member-led organizing, use of direct action inside the shop, and creative community events in the streets have become more common with recent independent union drives—like those at Amazon, Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and the high-end supermarket chain New Seasons.

Starbucks Workers United and the Union of Southern Service Workers have a similarly independent spirit, even if both have ties to SEIU.

Many of these efforts are being led by immigrants, people of color, youth, women, and queer and trans organizers. Forming a union gives them a chance to prioritize the fight against oppression alongside economic justice and workplace democracy.

ORGANIZING FAST FOOD

The Portland IWW started with years of agitation among fast food and other low-wage workers in the region before the Burgerville workers took the lead.

They took the next step in April 2016. The BVWU held a rally at one of the restaurants to announce itself publicly, then delivered a demand letter to corporate headquarters.

But BVWU didn’t call for voluntary recognition or a NLRB election right away. Instead, members demanded that management begin negotiations with their union immediately—and focused on building a union culture in the shops.

Management attempted to ignore the union—until organizing drives with escalating shop floor and public actions popped up at other Burgerville locations, initially through the independent action of workers there and then in coordination with BVWU.

Workers wore buttons, posted flyers in the breakrooms, marched on the boss, and continued to agitate and educate their co-workers. Pickets outside the stores became commonplace, with considerable support from the community and the local labor movement. BVWU became one of the loudest voices for militant, independent organizing and direct action in the Northwest.

RECOGNITION AND BARGAINING

Two years after going public, and a month after launching a boycott as part of an effort to force voluntary recognition, BVWU members changed tactics.

Two shops filed in March 2018 for Labor Board-supervised union authorization elections. When the votes were counted a month later, the workers had overwhelmingly voted yes. Three more shops won recognition by the time BVWU began contract negotiations in June.

That fall, BVWU conducted rolling strike actions and a week-long strike to force movement at the table. Workers also engaged in on-the-job defiance: for instance, they routinely violated the company’s “flair policy” by wearing buttons in support of Black Lives Matter and trans liberation. When management forbade tipping, workers simply put out tip jars.

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BVWU workers ratified one the first contracts in the fast food industry in December 2021, after three and a half years of negotiating.

The union announced that workers had “won many of our demands for tips, free shift meals, holiday pay, and a fairer raise system… [a] wage scale that starts above minimum wage and includes raises after the first six months and then every year.”

When this first contract expires at the end of April 2023, the BVWU and its community of supporters will have a fight on their hands once again.

Meanwhile, BVWU has served as inspiration, advisor, and supporter to similar IWW-backed efforts at renowned local institution—such as the Crush Bar Workers Collective at a local queer bar, and Doughnut Workers United at Voodoo Doughnuts—and apparently, now, to other independent union efforts as well.

The fiercely independent New Seasons Labor Union has been organizing at eight stores in Portland. Six have voted to join the union, one more will vote this week, and one lost (33 to 29). In contrast, UFCW Local 555’s “Taking Back New Seasons” campaign at one store just outside the city lost its election; the union recently filed NLRB charges against “undue influence” from management.

With 10 more New Seasons stores in the Portland/Vancouver metro region, we may have the opportunity to see how different tactics, strategies, and organizations play out in first agreements and then afterward in the union culture at the shops.

A FEW LESSONS

Independent union drives can succeed where ones organized by traditional unions have failed. These newly formed unions are “coming out of workers’ own self-activity,” Brennan said, and they should be cautious about affiliating with a union that would not respect their autonomy or could insist they follow a different organizing strategy.

Moreover, Starbucks workers and other new organizers will soon discover that their parent unions can be undemocratic, with entrenched leadership that is hostile to union democracy and meaningful radical change.

Brennan and BVWU offer a few lessons for independent unions: Use solidarity and take direct action. Continuously reevaluate your strategies. Develop strong community partnerships—but just don’t forget that power among co-workers is what wins the day.

And amid the challenges of bargaining and implementing first contracts as independent unions, remember that negotiating with management is not the only way to win.

Kevin Van Meter is a labor scholar and union organizer in the Pacific Northwest.