Self-organizing a union on a shoestring? Winning the supposedly unwinnable? Workers at a local burger chain out of Portland, Oregon, were doing it before it was cool.
The Burgerville Workers Union, which went public in 2016 and won its first contract in 2021, has recently been influencing and supporting independent union efforts in the region—and it has a few lessons to offer independent unions around the country.
While the union is affiliated with the Portland branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, it operates largely autonomously.
“What workers want is to form a union, not necessarily join a union,” asserts founding member Luis Brennan.
BVWU’s intensive member-organizer training and member-led organizing, use of direct action inside the shop, and creative community events in the streets have become more common with recent independent union drives—like those at Amazon, Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and the high-end supermarket chain New Seasons.
Starbucks Workers United and the Union of Southern Service Workers have a similarly independent spirit, even if both have ties to SEIU.
Many of these efforts are being led by immigrants, people of color, youth, women, and queer and trans organizers. Forming a union gives them a chance to prioritize the fight against oppression alongside economic justice and workplace democracy.
ORGANIZING FAST FOOD
The Portland IWW started with years of agitation among fast food and other low-wage workers in the region before the Burgerville workers took the lead.
They took the next step in April 2016. The BVWU held a rally at one of the restaurants to announce itself publicly, then delivered a demand letter to corporate headquarters.
But BVWU didn’t call for voluntary recognition or a NLRB election right away. Instead, members demanded that management begin negotiations with their union immediately—and focused on building a union culture in the shops.
Management attempted to ignore the union—until organizing drives with escalating shop floor and public actions popped up at other Burgerville locations, initially through the independent action of workers there and then in coordination with BVWU.
Workers wore buttons, posted flyers in the breakrooms, marched on the boss, and continued to agitate and educate their co-workers. Pickets outside the stores became commonplace, with considerable support from the community and the local labor movement. BVWU became one of the loudest voices for militant, independent organizing and direct action in the Northwest.
RECOGNITION AND BARGAINING
Two years after going public, and a month after launching a boycott as part of an effort to force voluntary recognition, BVWU members changed tactics.
— Read on labornotes.org/blogs/2023/01/viewpoint-burgerville-workers-lessons-independent-unions