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Beyond the Fight for 15: The Worker-led Fast Food Union Campaign Building Power on the Shop Floor

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

psdtnwbe_400x400Last year, at age 17, Eli Fishel moved out of her parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, squeezing into a three-bedroom apartment with five other roommates. To pay her bills as she finished high school, Fishel landed a job at Burgerville, a fast-food chain with 42 outlets and more than 1,500 employees in the Pacific Northwest.

Founded in 1961, Burgerville has cultivated a loyal following by emphasizing fresh, local food, combined with sustainable business practices like renewable energy and recycling. But Fishel quickly realized she wasn’t part of Burgerville’s commitment to “regional vitality” and “future generations.”

After 16 months on the job, she earns just $9.85 an hour, barely above the Washington State minimum wage. Her hours and shifts fluctuate weekly, with only a few days’ notice, and every month she goes hungry because she runs out of money to buy food.

Speaking of the privately-owned Burgerville, Fishel says, “We’re poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because we’re poor.”

Disgruntled Burgerville workers began covertly organizing in 2015. The Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) went public on April 26 with a march of more than 100 people through Portland, Oregon, and the delivery of a letter to the corporate headquarters in Vancouver. BVWU demands include a $5-an-hour raise for all hourly workers, recognition of a workers organization, affordable, quality healthcare, a safe and healthy workplace, and fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice.

Some BVWU members call their effort “Fight for $15, 2.0,” playing off the name of the fast-food worker campaign launched in 2011 by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

SEIU has won plaudits for making the plight of low-wage workers a national issue and igniting the movement for new laws boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But the campaign has not, thus far, included efforts to unionize individual workplaces.

Unlike Fight for $15, which Middlebury College sociology professor and labor expert Jamie McCallum describes as “a fairly top-down campaign,” BVWU is a worker-initiated and -led project backed by numerous labor organizations. The group of Burgerville workers who came up with the idea includes members of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant union with West Coast roots that date back to the early 1900s. The campaign has the backing of the Portland chapter of IWW and the support SEIU Local 49, the Portland Association of Teachers, and Jobs with Justice.

This scrappy approach enabled BVWU to leapfrog Fight for $15 by declaring a union from the start. While BVWU has not yet formally petitioned for recognition and Burgerville has not chosen to voluntarily negotiate with it, the union has established worker committees in five stores, is developing units in a similar number of shops and counts scores of workers as members.

BVWU is full of lessons in how organizing works. One member likens the campaign to “low-level guerrilla warfare” with workers maneuvering to increase their ranks, build power on the shop floor, expand the terrain from shop to shop, while skirmishing with managers over the work process, and suffering casualties as some members have quit or say they were pushed out of their jobs at Burgerville. In the workplace, the strategy is to develop leaders, form committees for each store, and nurture trust and respect between workers. Outside, BVWU uses direct action to empower workers and bring suppliers into the conversation. The union also works to build community support by mobilizing social-justice groups, clergy, and organized labor to win over the public and pressure the company.

McCallum says that BVWU an example of social movement unionism. “It’s about organizing as a class against another class,” he says. “It’s to win demands not just against a single boss or to change a law, but to engage in class struggle.”

Burgerville Workers Union members and supporters rally in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of the BVWU

Burgerville Workers Union members and supporters rally in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of the BVWU

Beyond the Fight for $15

McCallum also sees the campaign as an attempt to build on Fight for $15. “For the first time since the Justice for Janitors campaign began 30 years ago, we have low-wage workers who are people of color working with traditional unions to change politics,” he says. “If the IWW is interested in pushing that agenda forward to make it more democratic and radical, that’s awesome.”

Fight for $15 is “one of the most successful and inspiring labor victories in the last 20 years,” says McCallum. “They’ve accomplished things, like doubling the minimum wage, thought impossible three years ago. They managed to raise the profile of low-wage workers in a failing economy.” He acknowledges, however, that Fight for $15 is “largely political organizing.”

“It doesn’t require a mass base. It requires mobilized workers with incredibly talented organizers to move sympathetic politicians in a defined geographic area,” McCallum says.

To that end, Fight for $15 devotes considerable money and effort to media. A Fight for $15 strategy document called “Strike in a Box” lists these criteria for a “good [organizing] site to focus on”: “Is it an iconic brand? Does the brand help tell a story, locally and/or nationally? Do we have spokespeople? Trained? Reliable? Experienced? Do we have stories? Compelling worker stories, Horror stories about site practices (wage theft, sexual harassment, etc).”

By contrast, Burgerville worker Flanagan says BVWU uses media primarily as a tool to foster the growth of the union along with worker solidarity and consciousness. She says media helps “connect the dots between our personal struggles and collective struggle.” She adds that explaining what unions do and how they organize helps to educate “my generation, which has very little understanding of unions.”

Indeed, although the Fight for $15 demands “$15 and a union,” SEIU has made a strategic decision not to attempt to organize the nation’s tens of thousands of fast-food restaurants shop by shop. “The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” Kendall Fells, Fight for $15’s organizing director, told Working in These Times in May. “This movement is too large to be put in that process.”

Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker, says that while Fight for $15 may not be a formal union, “We’re acting like a union, not waiting for anyone to tell us we can have one.”

“To me a union is workers joining together to accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own,” Alvarez says. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing—coming together and winning life-changing raises for 20 million Americans, including more than 10 million who are on the way to $15. By standing together, we’ve gone from powerless to having powerful voices in our stores.”

If SEIU can prove that McDonald’s calls the shots in its franchises, it could also push open the door to unionizing the whole company at once instead of the Sisyphean task of one franchise at a time. Deploying organizers, researchers and lawyers, SEIU has gathered evidence for 181 cases alleging that McDonald’s controls its franchisees’ employment practices and therefore should be held accountable for unfair labor practices in franchisees, including retaliation against workers who supported unionization. In 2014, the NLRB issued a preliminary finding in favor of SEIU’s case and, then the next year in a separate case involving Browning Ferris Industries of California the labor board revised the definition of joint employer to “consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment through an intermediary.” Years later, the McDonald’s case is still grinding its way through a judicial process, with a multi-city case being argued before an administrative law judge that was kicked back to the NLRB on October 12. If the board finds or any of the court cases, which includes multiple class-action suits SEIU has backed against McDonald’s for wage theft, determine that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees, that may finally open the door to a company-wide union drive.

“It’s a huge amount of work”

The Burgerville campaign’s strategy of painstakingly organizing shop by shop emphasizes “building worker power,” which is both “a means and a goal,” says Flanagan.

For BVWU, the initial organizing drive was relatively easy, with workers chafing at difficult working conditions and poverty-level wages.

Debby Olson, 49, a military veteran, has worked at Burgerville since her home-cleaning business tanked during the Great Recession. She says the “people are nice, but the pay is horrible.” After six years, she makes $10.75 an hour.

Olson, says the job is “harder than my house-cleaning business. You are literally moving all day. For hours you don’t get to breathe. When I get home, I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”

Five other Burgerville workers also described the pace as non-stop. Olson reduced her full-time schedule to three days a week because, as she says, “I could barely walk when I got off work and my quality of life was really poor. It’s scary that my feet were getting so damaged that it could affect my ability to get another job or enjoy my later years.”

Burgerville’s lure is gourmet-style food, sourced locally from “988 farms, ranches, and artisans,” which requires labor-intensive preparation. Luis Brennan, 27, a two-year Burgerville employee, says, “The job is really hard. We actually cook the food. We core strawberries, we hand-blend milkshakes. We cook the meat and eggs fresh, we cut the onion rings and batter them twice. It’s a huge amount of work.”

The Burgerville campaign builds on the IWW’s experience over the last decade in fast-food organizing at Jimmy John’s and Starbucks. Picking a regional chain works to the benefit of the union as it can exert more pressure because Burgerville doesn’t have the might of a global food giant and its carefully crafted image is ripe for attack.

The public may eat up buzzwords like local, fresh and sustainable, but Burgerville’s rhetoric sticks in workers’ throats. Fishel says that despite a 70 percent discount for food on shift, she still sometimes can’t afford it.

“If your workers are going without food, how can you say you are a better, more sustainable option for your community?” she asks.

“This is my community”

Building a workplace organization has been a transformative experience for workers. Fishel says, “Being in the union has been very uplifting, inspiring, and super-positive to come together with so many people. We deserve a living wage, to be treated with respect and to have more than what we have right now.”

Claire Flanagan, 26, who’s worked at the chain since June 2015, says, “The union has changed people’s relationship with the job and work. It’s gone from being a place I go to work to pay my bills to feeling invested in our coworkers and the job in a much deeper way. This is my community.”

Burgerville is hardly rolling over, however. Flanagan says, “The company has dug in their heels and refuses whatever we ask for.” She alleges in her store, “Managers spread anti-union rumors and encourage workers to talk shit about the union as a way to gain favoritism. The company is engaged in a misinformation campaign and spreading fear.”

But BVWU members keep the heat on whether by wearing a union button on the job or tussling over floor mats. Members are demanding mats to ease the stress of standing for hours. Management relented in a few stores, but the mats have emerged as a proxy war. Flanagan says despite having mats, managers will put them away and she will bring them back out.

Jordan Vaandering, 26, says of workers at his outlet, where he’s been for a year, “We own the culture whereas before it was management pushing people to meet speed of service times, meet sales goals.”

Building worker power

BVWU’s strategy is known as “minority unionism” because BVWU may not have a majority in each shop willing to declare support for a union. This sort of organizing circumvents a federal labor-law process that makes union elections difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But BVWU utilizes the NLRB process when it is to its advantage, such as by filing unfair labor practice charges that allege Burgerville is illegally retaliating against the union and workers.

Burgerville worker Brennan says BVWU relies on the IWW model: “It teaches, ‘You’re a worker who hates your job, here’s how to build a committee.’ ” Each organized store began with a committee and grew from there.

One useful question, says Brennan, is asking workers, “What could you do with $5 an hour more?” He says talking to coworkers about “what they need changed and why they need it changed helps to break down the walls of silence around hard stuff in our lives.”

Brennan explains, “Building relationships in the workplace is not natural, but it’s deeply human. The workplace is full of power relationships and incredibly constrained by the boss, by pay, by gender, by race, by language. You need to get to know someone to know whether or not they will fight and why they’ll fight.”

These relationships come into play when management goes after workers. One notable case involves Ivy Fleak, a member whom BVWU claims was targeted by management “for standing up on the job and standing up against sexual harassment.” Flanagan says, “They took Ivy off the schedule for two weeks. We organized actions and a vigil. She spoke out publicly and won, receiving back pay for when she was off-schedule.”

Flanagan says, “People related to Ivy’s story,” which boosted support for the union. “At another job they saw someone being targeted or fired for standing up, or that happened to them. Being part of the union means when I’m at work, I know people have my back.”

BVWU claims Fleak was later forced to quit under pressure after the company allegedly threatened to file spurious criminal charges against her for gift-card theft. Burgerville declined to comment on her case, saying,“Burgerville is dedicated to continuously enhancing our relationship with our employees. We do not comment on individual employee matters or internal communications.” The company also opted not to comment on the BVWU campaign or on complaints about wages and working conditions.

In the case of another BVWU supporter fired over a workplace accident, the union organized a delegation of 50 people to the corporate headquarters asking for the worker’s job back and conducted a food drive for the worker. It publicized the firing to make the case that Burgerville pushes workers“past their limits” and demanded a transparent disciplinary process. More than half the workers in that outlet also signed a petition asking for the worker to be rehired. The worker remains fired.

BVWU members view the firings as part of a wider anti-union campaign. The company has set up a website to “inform” workers of their rights, but which discourages them from unionizing. Store managers have also been holding anti-union sessions with workers, where they play a video featuring Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey. In the video, Harvey states, “I don’t think a union is in the best interest of the company, our employees, our suppliers, or our guests.” He admits, “Burgerville understands employees face certain challenges like transportation, food, and housing to name just a few.” Harvey then claims, “We have spent well over a year looking into the pressing issues that concern you [but] can’t act” as “under current labor laws, we are obligated to maintain the status quo.”

Flanagan claims when Burgerville says it has to “maintain the status quo,” what it’s really saying to workers is, “If you didn’t get a raise, blame the union.” On August 15, Burgerville Workers Union filed four charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB, including one concerning the anti-union video. Labor law is fuzzy on the issue. Companies are prohibited from increasing benefits during a traditional union election campaign, but as a minority union, BVWU is acting outside of this framework as a minority union.

BVWU has also taken the offensive by hitting at the company’s public image. The worker-organizers have kept up a brisk pace for five months, averaging an action a week such as vigils, marches, pickets and a bicycle ride. When BVWU members visited Liepold Farms near Portland, which supplies Burgerville with berries for its signature shakes, to ask for support, the farm owner was taken aback but accepted their letter. Shortly after BVWU was unveiled, dozens of workers, local labor leaders, activists, and clergy packed the corporate headquarters in support.

Knowing they have the backing of the community bolsters the confidence of workers on the shop floor. Flanagan says the current plan is to “build organizational capacity and infrastructure to pull off larger actions.”

Time may be on the side of BVWU. The more shops the union can organize, the more workers who join, and the more community support it builds, the likelier it is BVWU will force Burgerville to the bargaining table, with or without a majority union. Then the Burgerville Workers Union may be the one opening new outlets.

To find out more about the Burgerville Workers Union, go to burgervilleworkersunion.org.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, The Progressive, Telesur English, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).

The Two-Tier Provision in the Chicago Teachers Union’s Tentative Agreement, Explained

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

The tentative agreement that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) struck with district management less than an hour before a midnight October 10 strike deadline has been hailed by many as a victory. Facing another round of concessionary demands, the union managed to extract $88 million from the mayor’s corporate slush fund to restore some badly needed funding to the school system. The union also managed to win an increase in compensation.

But the way that the compensation is structured—with current teachers keeping their current 7 percent pension “pickup,” and new hires receiving a salary increase in lieu of a pension contribution—has some critics decrying the deal as a solidarity-killing, two-tier contract. A pickup is the percentage of a worker’s pay that an employer puts directly into a pension fund.

The CTU’s House of Delegates meets Wednesday to deliberate over the tentative agreement and vote on whether to send it to the entire membership for ratification. If the deal is rejected, there is no guarantee that management will agree to more of the union’s demands—or even return to the table.

Two-tier contracts are an emotional subject in the labor movement. Beginning in the 1980s, employers used threats of off-shoring and sub-contracting, as well as their legal “right” to permanently replace striking union members, to force a wave of wage and benefit givebacks across many unionized industries. In order to make these cuts more palatable to the members who would have to vote on their ratification, unions negotiated agreements where current workers preserved most of their pay and benefits while future hires would bear the brunt of the cuts.

There are many epithets for this sort of thing, but the most common may be selling out the unborn. These ticking time bombs blow up years later, as the “new” hires become a larger portion of the bargaining unit and resent their veteran colleagues both for their more generous compensation packages and for the fact that the older workers signed away their younger colleagues’ right to enjoy the same. As the veterans become a minority in the workplace, there is an obvious financial incentive for supervisors to push them out through aggressive discipline. In such a situation, worker unity in future rounds of bargaining is hard to achieve.

To be clear, not all “two-tiers” are alike. The powerful New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council accepted a two-tier wage structure after surviving a 27-day strike in 1985. But the tiers only impacted workers during their first year of employment. By year two, all workers were earning the same pay rate. And, decades later, ending the tiered pay scale remained a union bargaining priority.

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) accepted a two-tier pay scale at Chrysler when the company went bankrupt in 2009. It was so severe that new hires earned only half the hourly wage of veteran employees. When members voted down a 2015 successor agreement that did not go far enough in reversing the double standard, the UAW was able to renegotiate a deal that brings newer workers closer to the traditional pay scaleover the course of seven years.

The CTU’s proposed “two-tier” is a bit more of a shell game than those concessions. The fight over Chicago’s 7 percent pension pickup has more to do with symbolism than anyone’s actual paycheck. Pension systems are complicated things that only accountants and union researchers fully understand. But basically, a pension fund needs a certain amount of money coming in every year in order to guarantee a livable retirement income for actual and projected retirees. Currently, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund has set that target at 9 percent of every pension-eligible employee’s annual income.

Before the CTU won collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, teachers had most, if not all, of their pension contributions deducted directly from their paychecks. Over the years, the CTU was able to bargain for 7 of that 9 percent to be contributed directly into the pension fund, instead of paid as a salary increase and then immediately deducted as a personal pension contribution.

Obviously, the difference between putting 7 percent in pension contributions directly versus rolling it into salaries, and then immediately deducting it, makes no financial difference to the employer. But the 7 percent became a visible target for Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It was money they could portray to the public and the press as “extra” compensation that teachers get that other workers don’t and demand that teachers give it up. (It should be noted that Chicago teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, so their pensions are the only thing that stand between them and an old age spent subsisting on cat food.)

Under the tentative agreement the CTU is considering, the pay for new hires would increase by an additional 3.5 percent in two successive years. It’s not entirely clear how soon new hires would be responsible for paying the full pension contribution.

Teachers at charter schools also participate in the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) at the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) are currently bargaining over the very same pension pickup, and have set a Wednesday strike deadline.

I was a part of the bargaining team that negotiated the first contract at UCSN in 2013. Because we had a significant amount of bargaining leverage in the wake of a very public insider dealing scandal, we realized that those negotiations were our best shot to get the charter network to pay more than the whole lot of nothing that it had been contributing to teachers’ pensions.

We were successful. That 7 percent was a part of an overall compensation package we were going to win anyway. But by directing the employer to put it towards the pension, we politicized a different figure: the network’s starting salaries. Because charters compete in the same labor market as the district to recruit new teachers, the salaries they can offer are key. If that 7 percent had simply been rolled into base pay, UCSN would be able to quote starting salaries that appear to be larger than what the district offers, but really aren’t, giving the union leverage to raise wages in future negotiations. Now that starting salaries at Chicago Public Schools will appear to be 7 percent larger—if CTU members ratify the deal—the salaries that UCSN offers will appear even less competitive.

As for ratification of their contract, CTU members have to decide how important the symbolism of that 7 percent is and what impact it will have on future rounds of negotiations. The shifting of that 7 percent from one column in a spreadsheet to another strikes me as a last minute ploy to give Rauner and Emanuel a face-saving narrative that allows them to say they didn’t suffer a humiliating defeat in this round of bargaining.

“This is not a perfect agreement,” said CTU president Karen Lewis. “But it is good for the kids. And good for the clinicians. And good for the teachers, and the paraprofessionals.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Culinary and Bartenders Unions Call for June 1 Strike in Las Vegas

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAt 5 a.m. on June 1, workers associated with the Culinary and Bartenders unions, affiliated with UNITE HERE, will launch a strike against nine casinos in Las Vegas, with plans for the strike to continue until a fair contract settlement is reached. The strike will include housekeepers, restaurant workers, servers, bartenders and other union members who work at the casinos, which are Binion’s, The D, El Cortez, Four Queens, Fremont, Golden Gate, Las Vegas Club, Main Street Station and the Plaza. Union members from all nine unsettled properties have been picketing in downtown Las Vegas after contracts were terminated.

The strike was authorized in a March 27 vote.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, a leader of the Culinary Union, said:

For nearly 80 years, our unions have made casino jobs good jobs in Las Vegas. Our members downtown deserve to earn a decent living by working hard under a fair contract. They should not be left behind as hundreds of millions of new investments pour in for downtown revitalization.

Ron Gladstone, a cook at The D, added:

I will strike for the opportunity to provide for my family. My co-workers and I will strike to make sure that these jobs continue to be good jobs with affordable benefits, fair wages and job security.

Patricia Montes, a housekeeper at the Four Queens, echoed those sentiments:

We are the people who clean the rooms, cook the food, serve the drinks and provide the quality service that has made the tourism industry flourish in Las Vegas. We are the backbone of downtown Las Vegas and we ask that the community support us by not crossing strike lines.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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