Is Burgerville Union Success a Bellwether for Fast Food?

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By Jaclyn Diaz

Three weeks after a landmark vote that created the country’s first union for fast-food workers, a second group of Burgerville employees decided to join an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The win at the chain’s Gladstone, Ore., location adds about 20 members to the Burgerville Workers Union, but organizers hope that small number belies a growing movement in the industry.

Other unions have tried and failed to organize fast-food workers. Why was the IWW successful? Observers credit the union’s democratic and small-scale approach to organizing.

Could this mean the IWW is coming for McDonalds? Don’t get your Mickey D union pins out just yet.

The fast food industry is still a difficult one to organize, in part because of the ongoing debate over joint employment, one observer said. Burgerville workers may have had an easier time of it because it’s not a franchise.

IWW’s Strategy: Power to the Rank and File

It took workers two years to organize Burgerville from the ground up, Mark Medina, a Burgerville employee and union organizer, said. Now the union has a presence in four restaurants and has plans to continue growing. The restaurant said it will begin bargaining with workers for a first contract May 22.

Medina points to the democratic structure of the IWW for the union’s success.

The IWW—with membership of little more than 3,000, according to the Department of Labor’s union financial forms—boasts a different structure than “business unions.”

The IWW says, “A cornerstone of the IWW is the belief that the rank and file must control the union and its officers, instead of being controlled by them.” All officers and policies are directly voted on by membership. No one is appointed, the union says.

The members “decide everything from boycotts to strikes to this very election,” Medina said. A paid union staffer wasn’t organizing the effort, he said. Usually during a union drive, a labor organization has paid organizers involved in the effort. The IWW guided the workers, but Medina says the employees made the decisions on what to go forward with.

The workers who led the low-cost organizing effort had little-to-no training in union work.

“All of us are rank and file workers. We’ve been able to do what people with 10 to 20 years of experience couldn’t. I think that demonstrates that a low cost, thoroughly democratic labor movement run by rank-and-file members can lead to successful campaigns,” he said.

Historically, IWW has been considered a more radical union focused on organizing workers in small areas, Rebecca Givan told Bloomberg Law. Givan is a labor professor at Rutgers University.

“They are trying to organize shop by shop, workplace by workplace. The larger Fight for $15 effort has focused on trying to organize larger swaths of the industry in major cities,” she said.

The Service Employees International Union, which is behind Fight for $15, has nearly 2 million members and deep pockets. Its Fight for $15 movement has looked to tackle large franchise holders, Givan said. There’s still a place for both strategies in the labor movement, and Burgerville’s success doesn’t mean SEIU should, or will, pivot to the IWW’s methods.

Givan notes that the SEIU hasn’t lost a fast food worker election—it just never pushed to get a vote with the National Labor Relations Board. The union has been successful in getting politicians to implement higher minimum wages at the local level.

Joint Employment Issue Complicates Things for Franchises

It’s still too early to say the Burgerville unions signify a turning point for the entire fast-food industry, Givan said. These elections were held at just two of the chain’s 42 locations.

The industry as a whole is still difficult to organize given its low wages and high turnover. Generally, there hasn’t been a huge effort to organize fast-food workers for those reasons.

The franchise nature of fast food brings an added challenge to organizing in that industry. The SEIU through Fight for $15 has tried to look at fast-food restaurants, like McDonald’s, as a joint employer and therefore responsible for wages, benefits, and working conditions at its chain locations.

Joint employer liability is one of the most heated labor policy and legal questions in recent years. Supporters say it prevents businesses from hiding behind complicated contractual relationships to avoid responsibility for labor and wage-and-hour violations or union bargaining.

Critics argue expanded liability could put franchisers on the hook for actions by franchisees.

If approached by a union, a franchise holder could argue it can’t afford raises because the franchiser dictates what it charges for food and other items, Givan said. They don’t control their own finances—the brands dictate this. On the other hand, the brands say they dictate some things, but the franchisee controls working conditions.

A union’s goal would be to bargain jointly with the brand and its franchisee to negotiate over all aspects of employment conditions. That’s the legal challenge, Givan said.

The question of joint employer liability is currently being tackled by the NLRB. Given the Republican majority of the board, it’s unlikely the issue will be addressed in a way that makes organizing any easier, she said.

Burgerville owns all of its restaurants, so workers are directly employed by the company, a representative said.

Still, the Burgerville workers are hoping larger unions are taking note, Medina said.

“Fight for $15 came around in the last few years but hasn’t resulted in a resurgence to the labor movement,” he said. “We want to be part of a revival. We want to create a model for other unions to show this is how to improve labor.”

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