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Power to the Workers

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Fast food employees grow movement for rights, wages

Danny Peterson | 1/2/2019, 6 a.m.

James Curry, 24, is an organizer for the Burgerville Workers’ Union, which recently got its third Portland area Burgerville restaurant to become federally recognized as a union shop allowing workers to bargain collectively for wages and working conditions, making Burgerville the only fast food chain in the nation to have unionized employees. Photo by Danny Peterson

Burgerville employee James Curry is on the front lines of a successful fight for workers rights and livable wages and he expects more victories in the New Year. Portland made history when workers at three area Burgerville restaurants voted last year for collective bargaining rights, the first fast food restaurant chain in the nation to have unionized employees.

The latest Burgerville Workers Union to gain recognition was for employees at the Burgerville at 1122 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., joining workers at the Burgerville on Southeast 92nd and

Powell, and at the Burgerville serving Gladstone and Milwaukie. Many more shops beyond those three have prominent union committees, Curry said.

Curry, 24, works at the Hawthorne shop and has been an employee and organizer for the union for the past two years. He told the Portland Observer that despite some stress due to anti-union pressure he’s received from Burgerville management, he feels good overall about the progress made.

“The future's bright, excited about what's coming next. Both for my shop and the union as a whole,” Curry said.

Burgerville employees and supporters held their first ever picket at the Hawthorne Burgerville a few days after store employees voted, 13-9, to unionize. The main issue was a demand for Burgerville corporate offices to pick up the pace of its labor negotiations and offer counter-proposals in response to the union’s proposed $5 hourly raise for all workers, protections for undocumented workers, accessible health care, and 15 minute breaks.

The demonstration came amidst a companywide boycott that the union has held since February, and will remain in effect until corporate signs a fair contract, organizers said.

“It's taken many months to get two mild tentative agreements,” Curry exclaimed. “Burgerville is definitely dragging their feet and trying to make this take as long as possible.”

The delay won’t stop the solidarity of Burgerville employees, Curry said, despite efforts from corporate to pit employees against each other.

An anti-union flier, which claimed “union management” would “enforce dues” on its members spooked some employees, Curry said.

The union currently does not collect dues, Curry clarified, but may eventually incorporate that at some point in the future.

“That will only ever come after we get a raise, and it will [be] democratically decided by the union,” Curry said.

He regrets that the written distribution of company materials about the union organizing efforts seems to paint him and other union leaders as oppressive to their constituents.

“One of the most stressful things about the union-busting campaign is seeing the company putting in all these resources to paint me and other folks at my job as sort of untrustworthy, shadowy people, who have no relationship with our co-workers and who are out here just to get their money,” he said, adding that the description would more closely fit the actions of corporate officers.

Already, the union has been able to fight back against unilateral decisions handed down by Burgerville’s corporate offices. One such example came this fall when a company-wide ban was imposed against employees wearing buttons that expressed things like support for Black Lives Matter and undocumented immigrants.

Photo by Danny Peterson

Edith Gillis pickets in front of the Hawthorne Burgerville days after it won federal recognition as a unionized shop

he union filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint over the ban with the National Labor Relations Board, which found merit in their claim last month.

Another stride that was made by the union included getting the Burgerville Convention Center location on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to enforce rest breaks for their employees. The lack of issuing regular breaks by management to employees—which is against Oregon state law--caused the store to get slapped last year with a $10,000 bill to settle the wage and hour violations,

“We get breaks now, that's a big victory,” Curry said.

In addition, one tentative agreement the union has reached during bargaining now allows workers to step aside from unsafe work or unsafe customers.

That’s important, Curry said, because several months back employees at the 92nd and Powell Burgerville were forced to serve a man who had Nazi tattoos and had been assaulting people at a picket outside the store moments earlier.

“It's not hypothetical for us,” Curry said. “Racist folks come into shops all the time and are really harmful to people.”

He added that many union workers have been retaliated against for supporting the union.

At the Hawthorne shop, Curry has witnessed things like management throwing pro-union buttons in the trash, or holding a meeting with employees a few days before a union election to offer a charity service that helps with budgeting and ignoring the company’s poverty-level wages.

Curry described the meeting as a “weird, confusing situation.”

One worker at the Gladstone Burgerville in Milwaukie was even fired for what the union alleged was because he was a prominent union member. When the Burgerville union workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the National Labor Relations Board, the board found the claim had merit, and mandated the employee be re-hired with significant back-pay.

Curry, who grew up near San Diego, Calif. at the U.S. border with Tijuana, Mexico, said he’s looking forward to working with other union members to hold the company accountable as negotiations continue.

“We have shown that we are willing to hold pickets and to go on strike to go on large multi-store strikes like we're serious about this. And we know that that's the only way that we win. We are also committed to good faith negotiations with Burgerville. We sometimes doubt that Burgerville is committed to good faith negotiations with us.”

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