DRIVERS on SE 82nd Avenue, it turns out, love a protest.
A chorus of honks cheered on picketers gathered outside of Fubonn Shopping Center on January 3. Never mind that the somewhat lackluster chants—"Lies and threats and staff abuses, these are tactics Fubonn uses"—were largely drowned out by traffic, or that the roughly 40 protesters appeared to be confusing TriMet operators into pulling into a nearby bus stop. Judging from the horns, many motorists were on board.
This is what Fubonn fears.
Billed as Oregon's largest Asian shopping center, the architecturally distinct mini mall at SE 82nd and Woodward has been the target of activists since the summer, when a group called the Portland Solidarity Network began picketing the business and handing out unflattering flyers.
The gist is this: According to two former employees, managers sometimes force employees to work off the clock, refuse bathroom breaks, and once made a pregnant employee lift heavy objects. The women making the complaint have alleged men are paid more, and that employees are driven to tears by harsh reprimands.
In June, the women brought their grievances to the Solidarity Network, a coalition of tenant/worker activists formed in 2011. Since then the group has repeatedly demanded—via letters, flyers, and protests like Friday's—the women be given more than $4,000 for the allegedly unpaid work.
"The model is to show Fubonn the community disapproves of this," activist Shane Burley said at the demonstration. "Even if they're going to come at us with resources we don't have, we can build a movement."
Those resources Burley's talking about? Lawyers.
Fubonn hasn't borne the name-calling lightly, and it may soon fall to a Multnomah County judge to rule whether protesters' placards are telling the truth. In October, the center's owner, Michael Liu, filed a defamation suit against the two former employees, Marisol Elizalde and Norma Salazar, along with two activists. It says Fubonn is in full compliance with the law, that the activists are lying, and that their efforts—which have included circulating flyers near Liu's home—have harmed business.
And in December, Liu's attorneys sent a harsh letter demanding that the group abandon its efforts and disclose its financial interests in exchange for Liu dropping his lawsuit.
"Please note that this will be the defendants' last chance to settle this case without monetary consequences," reads the December 12, 2013 document. "From this point forward, Fubonn and Mr. Liu will use all of their resources to clear their names and obtain judgments against the defendants and anyone else that is discovered to have participated in this or any other defamatory campaign."
A woman who answered the phone at Fubonn recently referred questions to attorneys, who didn't call back.
What's interesting is that activists had all but ended their campaign by the time the lawsuit was filed. Now it's given them fresh energy. Beyond the $4,309 the women are demanding in back pay, the group's added dropping the lawsuit to its list of demands. Activists are also pushing a boycott of Fubonn, plan to hold weekly pickets, and are hoping to enlist the help of unions.
"If Fubonn wins this campaign, it sets a precedent for the working class in Portland," activist Marko Lamson said at the protest. "Any company could sue us and know they would win. Fuck that. We're gonna set a precedent."
There are, of course, other channels the women might have gone through to achieve change. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) investigates wage and civil rights complaints that largely line up with Elizalde and Salazar's.
"We would encourage any employee who was working with an outside organization to simultaneously file with us so we can investigate," says Charlie Burr, a BOLI spokesman.
And the bureau has received complaints about Fubonn. Most recently, an anonymous letter sent in January 2012 alleged the Fubonn Supermarket wasn't giving employees all of their entitled break time. BOLI sent two warning letters and closed the case.