Employees at two Portland Burgerville locations—one by the Convention Center, the other in Montavilla—will vote this week on whether they will join the burgeoning Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU). As the elections draw closer, workers are facing significant anti-union rhetoric and tactics from the company.
Burgerville has sharing what BVWU organizers say is misleading information with employees through an aggressive email campaign, one-on-one conversations, and new signs posted in Burgerville break rooms.
“At the end of the day, you want us to be afraid of you,” said Chris Merkel, an employee at the Burgerville location near the Oregon Convention Center, about Burgerville’s anti-union messaging. “That is Burgerville’s business model.”
When employees at Burgerville’s SE 92nd and Powell store location voted to form a union last April, it was a historic moment: the nation’s first fast food union would receive federal recognition. Since then, two other locations have voted to unionize—and employees at Little Big Burger have also taken steps to unionize. Workers at the Convention Center and Montavilla locations will vote later this week.
Emmett Schlenz, a BVWU spokesperson, told the Mercury that Burgerville has ramped up its anti-union strategies with each new vote. As Willamette Week reported last month, employees received many suspicious write-ups and firings shortly after the union vote was announced. After the WW story broke, Burgerville promised to reverse those disciplinary actions and strike a new tone moving forward.
After that, Schlenz said, “We thought, maybe they’ll hold off on this one. But we were very wrong about that.”
“Workers will report various forms of meddling and subtle intimidation,” Schlenz added. “Nothing like the grotesque mismanagement at the Convention Center, but it’s still happening. It seems like their main tactic right now is this barrage of anti-union messaging.”
Merkel said that in the weeks leading up to the vote, he and his coworkers have had managers single them out for one-on-one meetings, where managers share negative points about unions. While these meetings are considered voluntary, Merkel said, many employees feel pressured to participate in them.
“You can technically say no to that, but no one does,” he said. “It’s your boss.”
Employees at the Convention Center and Montavilla locations have also received emails regarding the union from Burgerville’s corporate office “every day for the last week and a half,” Merkel said. While no emails explicitly tell workers how to vote—that would be illegal under federal labor law—they do list exclusively critical points about BVWU’s collective bargaining proposal. Each email includes a large heading that reads “FACTS MATTER.”
One point used repeatedly is that forming a union will require employees to pay union dues—and that they could be fired if they don’t pay them on time.
The emails also warn that if employees unionize, they could be forced to go on strike, and would not be paid by the company for the duration of that strike.
Mark Medina, a Burgerville employee and one of the union’s main contract negotiators, said both of these claims are misleading.
“The reality is, no one pays dues currently in the BVWU,” Medina said. “No one’s going to be paying dues until we get a significant, life-changing pay increase from the company.”
Medina also said that the BVWU maintains a donation-based strike hardship fund to help cover employees’ lost wages in the event of a strike—and that if Burgerville is concerned about its workers’ financial wellbeing, “they could raise their goddamn pay right now.”
The BVWU is demanding a $5-per-hour raise for each employee, better health insurance coverage, and a more reliable scheduling system, among other things. As rising housing prices continue to drive displacement in Portland, Merkel said, these demands are necessary for employees to maintain a living wage.
“I have coworkers who commute two hours to get paid $12 an hour with no benefits or health insurance,” he said.
In a statement sent to the Mercury, Burgerville said that it “wants each of its employees to have an equal voice in the creation of a union.”
The statement continues:
“The [BVWU] has offered conflicting information to employees, and Burgerville is making sure its employees at Stores. No. 4 and No. 14 [the Convention Center and Montavilla locations] have all the facts in order to make an informed decision about whether to unionize. ... Burgerville is not telling its employees which way to vote; it's telling them what to expect if they vote to unionize or not. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) monitors all of the information Burgerville shares with employees regarding the union. All of the information is allowed under the NLRB."
In its marketing materials, the company pushes a progressive image, placing particular emphasis on the fact that it uses local, ethically sourced meat, and that its restaurants are powered by renewable energy. But as with its actions before previous votes, Burgerville’s recent tactics and talking points are reflective of the “right to work” movement, a conservative anti-union drive that has gained momentum in the last few years. Medina said it’s become clear at the bargaining table that Burgerville “explicitly supports right to work in Oregon and in their company.”
While the most recent union vote, at the Hawthorne location, was uncomfortably close, BVWU leaders say they expect both of this week’s votes to pass with a wide margin.
“We’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to keep organizing,” Merkel said. “I feel confident that we’re going to win the election.”