Workers at the Afuri Ramen and Dumpling restaurant in downtown Portland filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday.

The unionization push at the acclaimed Japanese restaurant comes in the midst of a wave of organizing efforts by Portland food service workers. Afuri organizers say that more than 80 percent of the restaurant’s 19 employees have signed union cards. 

Workers at Afuri described working conditions that have been particularly chaotic over the last several months as the company expands in the Portland area, with managers cycling in and out of a short-staffed restaurant and workers being asked to pick up the slack.

“There’s just been general instability in the company lately that’s made our lives really miserable,” Lizzy, a line cook who declined to give her last name out of fear of retaliation, said. “They can’t get their shit together enough to manage everything that needs to function at the higher levels—scheduling, tip pools, structure in general.”

A turning point for some workers came during a meeting with human resources representatives from the company where workers raised concerns about the effect of inflation. 

“We don’t have any kind of system for pay raises currently,” Destiny, a bartender who also declined to give her last name, said. 

Destiny said that management told front-of-house employees that they needed to be on call on one of their days off and ready to come into work at any point—or face termination. She said it’s unclear if that policy has actually been put in place or not, but that it drove two shift leads to quit and illustrated the need for workers to organize a union. 

Afuri did not respond to the Mercury’s request for comment on the union push. 

Workers have a range of issues they’re seeking to address through a potential contract negotiation. One of the major issues is pay: Workers said the starting pay rate for most positions at the restaurant is just around $15 per hour and that the company does not have a payscale and has enacted a raise freeze despite the high cost of inflation. 

Workers are also seeking to end at-will employment at the restaurant and secure affordable healthcare coverage. Currently, Lizzy said, the company only covers 50 percent of healthcare insurance plans for full-time employees who work 40 hours per week—a mark that most employees don’t even qualify for to begin with. 

It’s not just economic issues driving the union effort. Workplace culture is also a concern. Lizzy, who is transgender, said that restaurant management consistently misgenders workers and gives male employees preferential treatment. 

Afuri began in Tokyo, but now has franchised locations across Japan, the United States, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Portugal. The company opened its first US location in Portland in 2016 under the direction of CEO Taichi Ishizuki. After a recent round of expansion, the company now has four locations across Portland and one in Beaverton.

Lizzy described Afuri as a “blossoming empire,” adding significance to the unionization push at the downtown restaurant, which is located at SW 3rd Ave and SW Ash St. Lizzy characterized the downtown location as Afuri’s most profitable in the area, and that the restaurant has been especially busy as the weather has turned colder this fall.

Early in the process of sketching out what a potential unionization push might look like, core organizers at Afuri decided that they wanted to launch their own independent union as opposed to joining a bigger, more established union. 

“Restaurant unions, in general, just don’t have the exact tailored needs that we have, and we have a strong desire for independent democracy,” Lizzy said. “We want to be our own masters, basically. We want to organize our own deals and do our own thing for our needs.”

Mark Medina, an organizer with the Burgerville Workers Union who is helping the Afuri organizing effort, noted that Portland has seen an explosion of independent union organizing recently at companies like New Seasons, Starbucks, and Voodoo Donuts. 

“Being a part of this groundswell of independent labor unions across the United States is historic,” Medina said. “Workers here want to be part of that history.” 

The group chose to organize under the broad name of the Restaurant Workers Of Portland so that other local restaurant workers could feel welcome joining the burgeoning union if they so choose. 

Medina said that other restaurants will be announcing unionization pushes in the coming weeks, as a wave of labor activity in the region and in the country that began shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to gather momentum. 

The increase in labor activity has corresponded to a change in how the general public views that activity, too: labor unions are now enjoying more public support than they have in more than more than a half century, with a Gallup poll taken in August finding that 68 percent of Americans approve of them.  

The other thing that Afuri workers wanted was to keep the organizing effort quiet. They said they didn’t believe that Afuri management was aware that workers were organizing and signing union cards before the union went public with its push on Thursday night, and Lizzy said that they expect the company to fight back in the coming weeks and months. 

While organizers hope the company voluntarily recognizes their union, they’re preparing for a battle that may ultimately end in a National Labor Relations Board union election down the line. 

“If they don’t give us voluntary recognition within a couple of hours, we’re going to start to look at other options,” Medina said.