For the last several months, union activity in Portland has appeared to surge, matching the national energy toward worker's rights particularly demonstrated by the ongoing, high-profile Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. And Portland labor organizers say it's not all hype: Union membership is growing across all industries, and it's here to stay.
"In my 10 or so years in the labor movement in one capacity or another, I've never seen this scale of interest and organizing or the level of positive attitudes towards it," longtime Portland labor organizer Mark Medina told the Mercury. Medina, who was a leader in organizing the historic Burgerville Workers Union across five Portland locations, is currently an organizer for Portland Jobs With Justice.
To Medina, the diversity of workers getting organized right now is especially notable. While certain fields— like the automobile and education industries— have long been seen as fixtures in American organized labor, other industries have much less union participation. But Portland retail and restaurant workers are leading a paradigm shift. In addition to Burgerville, which formed its union in 2016 and reached a contract in 2021, workers are getting organized at Portland's donut shops, grocery stores, pet shops, strip clubs, and more.
"I think there's a general sense by workers that they have gotten a bad shake in the current society," Medina said. "I think that there is this reckoning, particularly with workers 30 and under, that a better world is possible...that there's a lot more on the table."
Efforts in Portland come as unionization is growing, nationally. Last year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reported a 53% uptick in petitions for newly established union representation. New federal rules against union busting have also made organizing easier for employees. Earlier this year, the NLRB announced companies that interfere in organizing efforts must automatically recognize that union.
But not all union drives are created equal. While some local businesses have been relatively quick to embrace workers' desire to unionize, other efforts have been rocky. Sometimes, union elections fail: In 2019, Little Big Burger employees voted against unionizing, with organizers stating the company interfered in the campaign with union-busting tactics.
Recognized unions experience pushback from company management, too. It took unionized Burgerville workers years to negotiate their first contract with the company, and Burgerville Workers Union members have recently alleged more unfair labor practices by management. Members of the New Seasons Labor Union, formed in mid-2022, also claim their management is employing union-busting measures and refusing to negotiate a fair contract.
And even long-established unions can experience problems when it's time to update their contracts. Employees at Powell's Books and adjunct professors at Portland State University, both of which have been unionized for well over two decades, have made their grievances with ongoing contract negotiations public.
The road toward organized labor isn't always easy, but the current union fervor in Portland is palpable, and labor activists are optimistic about its future.
While energy is high across the board, some establishments have been more receptive to unionizing workers than others. Portland's Voodoo Doughnut employees started Doughnut Workers United (DWU) in 2020, but it took more than two years for them to officially vote to unionize. Organizers said store management engaged in a variety of union-busting tactics and was unwilling to voluntarily recognize the union.
In contrast, workers at Doe Donuts voted to unionize in August, and their union was voluntarily recognized by management shortly after. Employees at Fang! Pet & Garden Supply and Salty’s Pet Supply, also had their union voluntarily recognized by Sarah Horton, who owns both stores.
In late August, ILWU Local 5 — the union Fang! and Salty's joined — announced they'd finalized first-year contract negotiations. At the same time, fellow ILWU workers at Powell's Books were about to hold a one-day strike, which they did on Labor Day, after months of attempts to negotiate higher wages for employees.
"It's interesting to note, at a time where Powell's workers are preparing to strike, that smaller employers have found a way forward with negotiating in good faith with the union and in a way that ultimately supports workers," ILWU Local 5 Secretary Treasurer Ryan Takas wrote in a press statement.
Medina also said he's hopeful that more people—including employers—will begin to embrace unions more fully.
"Having a unionized workplace is not a negative thing. It's not a stain. In the past, a union label has been a mark of quality...and it was seen by the community as a positive," he said. "I think any good employer should not be afraid of workers having an independent democratic voice in the workplace."
Hundreds of workers and labor supporters showed up to support Powell's employees on Labor Day, but that wasn't the only action that took place that weekend. On Sept. 2, employees at two unionized New Seasons grocery locations — Arbor Lodge and Grant Park — held walkouts to protest alleged unfair labor practices at the grocery store. That same day, the Coalition of Independent Unions (CIU) held its first Trans Day of Solidarity downtown, with the aim of "building a stronger bond between the needs of the trans community and the power of the labor movement."
"We believe in the current political climate within the United States that organizations
such as unions can be a beacon of hope for trans individuals against employers who are
increasingly turning their backs on LGBTQ+ peoples and embracing fascist politicians and
political movements," a spokesperson from CIU wrote in a press statement.
Medina said he thinks actions like the Trans Day of Solidarity demonstrate the importance of diversity and intersectionality within labor organizing.
"There's a lot workers have to show the world about their potential. The future is going to be more intersectional, and have more and more power in the hands of working people," he said.
Last week, 16 dancers at Magic Tavern Strip Club voted to unionize with Actors' Equity, making the Northwest Portland spot the second unionized strip club in the country. The first was the Star Garden bar in Hollywood, Calif. The move was another sign of Portland's growing coalition of organized workers.
In the meantime, workers at Powell's and other workplaces continue to bargain for a new contract, and have been shown substantial community support. Well over 100 authors have signed a pledge to support Powell's workers, and nearly 15,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Powell's management to pay their workers a living wage.
The Portland State University Faculty Association (PSUFA), the union representing PSU's adjunct professors, is also continuing to bargain with university management for an updated economic contract agreement. A growing number of elected officials, including Portland Commissioner Carmen Rubio, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, members of Oregon's legislature, and Oregon Metro Councilors, have signed a letter of support for the adjuncts.
Medina thinks solidarity will only continue to grow.
"Hope springs very eternal for me. I am very optimistic about the future," Medina said. "When I see workers who have never organized before take it upon themselves to tell their employers they're human beings on equal footing with their employer, and build solidarity...nothing fills me with greater hope for the future than that."