Burgerville, a fast food chain based in Vancouver, Washington, with 42 locations throughout Oregon and Washington, announced last week they would support employees at a Portland store who plan to vote on whether to establish a nationally recognized union.

If employees vote in favor of forming a union, it would establish the first nationally recognized fast food union in United States history. But union members are skeptical about management, and multiple members say they have faced retaliation.

The vote will occur on April 22 and 23 to ensure all employees have an opportunity to participate.

“Burgerville believes that every employee’s voice needs to be respected and protected in determining whether a majority of employees wish to be represented by a union,” said Beth Brewer, the senior vice president of Burgerville Operations in a press release.

The statement was issued in response to the Burgerville Workers Union filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a hearing to force Burgerville to recognize the union.

“They haven’t really agreed to much,” said Mark Medina, a Burgerville employee at store #41 in Portland, Oregon. “They have refused to negotiate in good faith for the past two plus years and have never recognized us.”

Medina added, “They’ve hired armed security guards who have assaulted people on the picket line. They’ve hired private investigators to investigate workers and fired workers for union activity under flimsy pretext. Anything moving forward with them should be taken with a grain of salt.”

He claimed he was assaulted by a Burgerville security guard in November 2017 during a Burgerville protest.

Portland Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Connor Smith filmed part of the confrontation between protesters and a Burgerville security guard with his cell phone.

“Burgerville hired security were very aggressive, confrontational, and created an unsafe environment, clearly responding with physical hostility to singing and chanting,” Smith recalled. He noted the Burgerville security guard shoving one of the protesters to the ground prompted him to start filming.

Asked to comment on allegations that hired private investigators and armed security guards intimidated union members, Burgerville did not respond.

In a statement, Burgerville Workers Union expressed their continued support for a consumer boycott of Burgerville until the company negotiates a fair contract with employees.

“If Burgerville truly respected its workers voices, they would have negotiated with us a long time ago. They would have started paying us living wage, provided consistent scheduling, stopped using e-verify, and offered affordable health care a long time ago,” the union asserted.

The announcement of an election for employees to unionize from Burgerville comes in the wake of a two-year battle between employees and the company.

In April 2016, employees at store #41 in Portland, Oregon formally launched the Burgerville Workers Union. They were not  formally recognized by the company, even as the union has spread to five other stores.

Union members have consistently called on Burgerville to enact  a $5 wage increase, cheaper healthcare, better scheduling, and the removal of E-Verify employment screening, a system designed to prevent the hiring of undocumented workers.

Since the union first organized, workers protested, marched, and coordinated worker strikes to rally local support and recognition. On Labor Day in 2017, several workers walked out on strike from their Portland location, and in February 2018, store #38 in Vancouver, Washington joined this location in a three-day strike.

In 2016, union members at store #14 organized a strike on the night of the Portland Trailblazers first home game, and offered free union burgers at a grill set up outside the nearby Burgerville location.

Publicly, Burgerville has largely ignored the union efforts, but employees have alleged retaliation from the company for participating in union activities, including Jordan Vandeering, who was fired in January 2017 for allegedly eating a bagel with cream cheese he did not pay for during a break.

Vandeering claimed an assistant manager set him up in giving it to him and not asking for payment.

Because retaliating against employees for participating in union activities is illegal, Burgerville Workers Union allege false pretenses are used to justify retaliatory firings.

In June 2017, Burgerville agreed to pay $10,000 to settle charges for failing to grant employees rest and meal breaks.

The National Labor Relations Board found Burgerville in violation of workers’ rights to participate in union activities in May 2017, after the Burgerville Workers Union alleged that  two employees were prohibited from passing out union leaflets while off-duty.

Another employee, Michelle Ceballos, was fired in February 2018 for stealing a chicken patty, though Ceballos claims she threw away a chicken patty that she thought was left out by another co-worker. The union has helped Ceballos and other employees file formal grievances with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Poverty wages and inconsistent scheduling are two big things that made it very hard to work there,” Ceballos shared. “They say they offer more benefits than other fast food places, but in order to get around actually giving workers those benefits, they don’t give consistent hours.”

Ceballos worked at Burgerville for over a year in Portland, where rent and home prices are among the fastest growing in the nation. She worked nearly 25 hours per week on a regular basis, keeping her ineligible for company benefits.

“It was really hard to get a second job working there because the hours were so inconsistent, and the schedule was posted three days before the start of the week,” she added.

Despite being fired, Ceballos continues to participate in Burgerville union activities.

“This is not just about Burgerville workers, it’s also about setting a precedent and working hard against the myth that poor people are just poor because we made bad decisions or deserve it.”

Burgerville was contacted for comment but declined to provide additional comment and pointed to its policy of not commenting on “individual employee matters or internal company policies.

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1