On a sunny Saturday morning, a crowd was starting to overwhelm the popular Couch St. Park in a high-rent Northwest Portland neighborhood, coalescing around a series of makeshift tables filled with union signs and shirts. With no public announcement, and no previous public campaign branding, the workers at the popular Portland burger chain Little Big Burgers had managed to draw a large crowd of supporters on March 16 for what was going to be the first labor action of their unionization campaign. The workers were not alone. They were also joined by a large contingent of Burgerville Workers Union workers who had blazed the trail that the Little Big Union was about to join them on.
“The purpose of today’s action is to announce the union and to state that we’re here and that we are going to be fighting to make sure our basic labor rights are met,” said Gerry West, a Little Big Union worker for the last year. “We’re presenting a letter to our bosses asking to them to recognize the union and to go into negotiations with us, and we hope they do so.”
After a series of speeches from Little Big Union workers and local labor organizations like the Portland Jobs With Justice, the workers led a march through the streets to the popular Little Big Burger location on NW 23rd Avenue. The crowd surrounded the location, chanting and arranging a moving picket line, while management decided to close their door rather than address the contingent of workers.
The workers at Little Big Burger, and the larger campaign of the Portland IWW — a radical labor union known for its direct action approach — did not happen in a vacuum.
Fighting for ourselves
The “Fight for $15” campaign — started by workers at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, with the support of the Service Employees International Union — has sparked a near revolution in the fast food industry over the last seven years. Low-wage, high-turnover jobs like fast food have been a difficult proposition for labor unions since building up organizing committees at restaurants is difficult, they require significant resources and have corporate owners that are intent on crushing unionization attempts. The Fight for $15 rested on a mass organizing campaign that relied on public action and support, often through visible actions and public relations. Over time, the fight shifted to being a successful minimum wage battle across the country, and their efforts to unionize have largely been absent.
The IWW instead uses a different model: workers organizing each other, shop to shop, rather than relying on large institutional resources and budgets. What Burgerville workers did with the IWW was take their time, build up strong bonds with workers, win victories and develop community support. Now Burgerville has just won its fourth National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, election — meaning four shops are bargaining their first contract together — and they are helping Little Big Burger workers step up and go public as well.
Little big problems
While Little Big Burger has portrayed itself as a local Portland favorite, it was sold off by founder Micah Camden in 2017 to the North Carolina-based company Chanticleer Holdings. It has now grown rapidly in Texas, Washington and North Carolina, giving the potential of mass unionization more significance since it could affect a nationwide chain.
After the sale of the company, workers say they began seeing some of the same issues that many low-wage service workers do: bad wages, absent benefits, difficult scheduling and unsafe working conditions.
“Management allows equipment to break and doesn’t replace it,” West said. “They promise people hours that they can’t provide and then cut them constantly to make labor costs as low as possible. They are basically creating an atmosphere that encourages atomization and division.”
The organizing drive was focused on tangible issues that workers were facing day to day.
The wages are so low that employees are rarely making enough to rent an apartment in Portland’s increasingly volatile rental market. Right now workers are paid minimum wage, $11.25 per hour, plus tips. West reported that he makes about $1,300 a month at his position. The average rent for a two bedroom apartment in Portland is currently $1,640.
“[I am living] far below the poverty line, but they sell this as a job that we should be bending over backwards to keep,” West said.
Workers report chronic understaffing, particularly during the lunch and dinner periods when they are slammed by a loyal customer base. Workers also allege that sick time, which employers must provide in Oregon, is a mirage since they are required to find someone to cover their shift if they need the time off to recover. If they cannot find someone they are required to come in or face discipline, which is problematic given how communicable illness can be spread through food preparation
The staff began meeting in 2018 to discuss the issues they were facing and what they could do about it. The organizing drive was not focused solely on campaigning for official union recognition, but instead they have worked on tangible issues that workers were facing day to day.
“[We were] getting our schedules only two days, sometimes one day, before we work,” said Cameron Crowell, who has been working at Little Big Burger for about two years. “A group of workers started talking about how we could change that. So we wrote a letter and everyone in my store signed the letter. We showed our manager, asking them to give us schedules a week in advance, and that really kicked things off for us.”
Management conceded the scheduling demand, allowing workers to have their schedules two weeks in advance. Union members have organized confrontations with managers at four Little Big Burger restaurants asking them to respect workers, and even won no slip mats for their worksite.
“Speaking with coworkers about how we can better fulfill our lives together has been really a life-changing thing for me,” Crowell said.
Fast food solidarity
The Burgerville Workers Union changed the playing field for directly democratic labor unions in Portland, and across the country, when they went public in April 2016. Their campaign used “solidarity union” tactics of organizing workers before going for standard union legal mechanisms like NLRB recognition. Over two years they arranged public “marches on the boss” to deliver worker demands, pickets, strikes, and finally a Burgerville boycott, all of which culminated in five Burgerville locations going union in individual NLRB elections.
Their strategy, of building bonds between workers and with the community — all of which require time and passion more than money — proved to be a winning one. After they proved unionizing these fast food locations was possible, even though large labor unions had been unable to see it through, it served as an inspiration to the workers of Little Big Burger. The experience that the Burgerville Workers Union had in doing this kind of organizing, particularly since it was a very similar workplace, allowed for workers to share training and skills in a way that prepared them to launch a public campaign even more efficiently.
“We actually have gleaned a lot of advice from the Burgerville workers, and they consider our campaign an extension of their campaign,” said Isabel Crosby, a supporter of the Little Big Union who organizes on their Solidarity Committee.
Little Big Burger presents challenges that Burgerville did not, especially given that they are now owned by a large conglomerate that is not based in the region. “We don’t expect them to be as nice as Burgerville because they don’t have this nice local reputation to uphold,” Crosby said.
The union marches on
The union has asked Chanticleer Holdings to “voluntarily recognize” the union, but the company declined to do so, and said in a statement that they wanted a “fair, secret ballot election.” This means that workers will have to file for a union election with the NLRB or continue with shop-floor organizing without the benefit of recognition and a collective bargaining agreement.
Workers have now issued a series of public demands of Little Big Burger, including a $5 per hour raise, paid time off, benefits, safe workplace conditions, holiday pay, transparency around hiring and firing, and for Little Big Burger to become a “sanctuary workplace” that refuses to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Right now workers at the NW 23rd Avenue location say they have an overwhelming majority of workers in support of the union, and they are organizing at five other locations that may go public in the near future. Shortly after the public action announcing the formation of the Little Big Union, workers allege that management removed union posters from the break room. Management later said this was because of their “no solicitation” policy and insisted that they were not anti-union, though decisions like this could be cited as grounds for Unfair Labor Practice complaints.
Shortly after this happened the Little Big Union put out a public statement saying they are “disappointed that the corporate executives of Chanticleer Holdings and Little Big Burger regional managers have chosen to ignore our basic request to not disparage their workers or engage in union busting.” Little Big Burger relented on their policy, but workers report that a manager said “unions cost too much.”
This behavior from Little Big Burger came shortly after Burgerville posted anti-union flyers on public boards at their restaurants in what workers allege is an attempt to dissuade further restaurants from voting in the Burgerville Workers Union.
If the Burgerville Workers Union campaign is any indication, the Little Big Union will need to build steam over the next several months. This could mean eventually filing for an NLRB election, or it could simply be building numbers and power in their shops to continue to pressure management and the parent company for reforms.
The strategy, as Burgerville has shown, is successful when the workers’ needs and workplace connections drive the campaign. As the Little Big Union continues to grow it will likely continue to focus on the personal bonds that are necessary when doing this long-game kind of democratic unionism. This is the model that the IWW was founded on and why it seems to be growing in conditions that have been so tough for labor in the past.
“To see the IWW come back in force and tackle this problem of organizing workplaces that have not been able to be organized before, which was always the IWW’s strong suit, is incredible,” said West.
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