Members of the Burgerville Workers Union say their relationship with the local fast food company has broken down amid a contract negotiation that has seen the union file a number of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Burgerville workers became the first fast food workers in the nation to unionize more than five years ago, and made history again last year when they voted to ratify their first contract and became the first fast food workers ever to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement. 

But that historic contract ran for just a single year and expired on May 1. Since then, workers at the five unionized Burgerville locations in the Portland metro area have been working without a deal. 

Mark Medina, a longtime organizer with the union, said that is primarily the fault of a company that has failed to negotiate in good faith and attempted to intimidate union organizers. 

“The new CEO [Ed Casey] had said some pretty neutral-yet-kind-of-pro-union-sounding quotes, and so we hoped that maybe the new relationship would be based a little bit more on cooperation than this save money, harm workers at all costs position we have come to expect,” Medina said. “It hasn’t played out that way at all.”

An inflection point came in late July, when Burgerville workers at the Convention Center location in Northeast Portland staged a one-day strike to protest alleged unfair labor practices (ULP) by the company. 

Medina said the union wanted to run a “test case” to see how the company would respond to the threat of a strike, and chose the Convention Center store as the location because of clashes between management and a worker active in the union there.

In preparation for the strike, Medina said, the company hired a slew of replacement workers to fill in for striking staff—offering them hourly wages far beyond the $17 per hour the most senior member of the union bargaining team makes. 

The picketing workers successfully turned away a number of those replacement workers from the store, but said the company’s willingness to pay replacement workers far more than they make was a slap in the face, regardless.  

That was just the beginning of the discord. Under national labor law, ULP strikers cannot be fired and are entitled to return to their jobs at the conclusion of their strike. But that’s not exactly what happened after the July 28 strike. 

When workers at the Convention Center location showed up to work the day following the strike, they were locked out of the building and told that the company did not require their services that day. 

“Anyone who was on the picket line or who went on strike, their shifts were canceled,” Medina said. 

A Burgerville spokesperson declined to answer specific questions from the Mercury for this story, but provided a statement in which they said the company is “committed to bargaining in good faith with the union for a successor contract that ensures fair treatment, competitive pay and benefits.”

In the aftermath of the strike and lockout, workers say the atmosphere at union stores has been tense.

“It has definitely influenced the level of stress around the store and the general frustration, but up until recently it was mostly annoying—and then the company escalated into actively disciplining crew members over infractions that were overblown,” Petra Hoover, a worker at the Convention Center location, said. 

Hoover said the company has retaliated not just against individual organizers, but against the unionized stores as a whole. Earlier this year, Hoover said, the company increased the value of the daily meal afforded to workers from $10 to $13—but only for workers at non-unionized stores.

“There are a lot of very blatant biases against the union stores and people working in the union,” Hoover said. 

With the relationship between the company and the union deteriorating, the union has filed ten ULP complaints with the NLRB since the start of the year—alleging that Burgerville has threatened, disciplined and surveilled workers in violation of labor law. 

All of those cases remain open to this point, with the NLRB underfunded, understaffed, and struggling to keep up with a wave of labor activity that began shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Medina said he hopes rulings in the ULP cases could convince Casey, the CEO, who founded the downtown Portland restaurant Cheryl’s on 12th before taking the reins at Burgerville, to take a more active hand in negotiations. 

The union is seeking to make progress on several fronts with its next contract, including securing more consistent scheduling and increasing wages and meal allowances, but has said that Burgerville has only made one unsatisfactory contract offer to this point. 

Meanwhile, the union is continuing to investigate allegations of mistreatment of workers by management—a pattern at Burgerville that dates back years. Last year, a manager at the Southeast Powell location was accused of sexually harassing underage workers, while a manager at the Convention Center location was accused of racism. As far back as four years ago, management at the Convention Center was similarly accused of engaging in union-busting tactics. 

But despite all that history, Medina, who has been involved in organizing Burgerville workers since the beginning, said the current anti-union atmosphere at the company is unprecedented. “I think their position now is that they’re in opposition to workers’ rights or advocacy,” Medina said.

This story has been updated from an earlier version.