The Portland branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. Danny O'Brien/PSU Vanguard

The State of the Unions

After discouraging reports involving Voodoo Doughnuts and the union fights at Burgerville, Call to Safety and the IWW have pledged to help union efforts in the PNW

A recent wave of union activity has inundated Portland this summer, in light of heatwaves, wildfires, the ongoing pandemic and attempts from employers throughout the labor market to make unionizing more difficult.  

Workers in what they allege are unfair working conditions, despite historically significant circumstances, have fought for their labor rights. Unionization attempts at small food service locations, like Burgerville and Voodoo Doughnuts, are a typically small sector of national union strength, so their efforts and activity can be a good litmus test for union effectiveness. 

While many union efforts are being crushed, the fact that there is so much activity bodes well for union strength across Portland.

Workers at Burgerville, a Vancouver-based fast food restaurant, first started their union in April of 2018 with demands for parental leave, access to better health care and wage increases. At the time, that made the Burgerville Workers Union one of the only federally recognized fast food unions.

Last summer, the union held a strike over COVID-19 conditions, and, before that, held a strike over meager pay increases. Following the recent closing of the SE 92nd and Powell Burgerville locationciting the nearby houseless encampment as reason for closuremembers of the Burgerville Workers Union are beginning to grow suspicious. 

The closure was sudden and unknown to the union, and occurred at the same site where workers first unionized. The company maintains that the closure was not a union-busting move, but one concerned with “health” and “safety,” while the union asserts that workers did not see the encampment as a “serious issue.” The Burgerville Workers Union wishes to respond by filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the company.

Lizz Schallert, the liaison between the Portland branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Call to Safety, a Portland-based crisis hotline created as an alternative to the county hotlines, spoke with Portland State Vanguard.

“This has been an unprecedented burn-out year,” Schallert said. “Folks are beginning to wonder what would happen if they could have a union at their workplace. There’s been a spike in people reaching out to the IWW to try and start a union in their workplace, and this speaks to an agitation felt by the pandemic and working conditions.”

Workers at Call to Safety, an independent, non-profit crisis line, have enjoyed a 10-year contract with the IWW, making them a relatively long-standing union in town. Lizz notes that Call to Safety has a “surprisingly radical union within its structure.” 

The union was put in place directly by the workers mediating between themselves and management, as opposed to negotiating with the help of a paid lawyer. One of the tools at the disposal of the Call to Safety Workers Union that sets them apart as particularly effective is their contractwhich is legible, accessible and allows for strikes. It is able to be used flexibly by the workers and their demands, instead of being a more rigid, constitutional framework.

Voodoo Doughnuts, a Portland tourist hotspot and home to many an eccentric pastry, has had a burst of unionization efforts this summer. The workers first began to unionize in response to lay-offs due to COVID-19 early in the pandemic, and fought hard for official union recognition in the face of union-busting attempts from the company. 

The union lost in the election for its establishment with the National Labor Relations Board, and, as such, is not legally established. During the record-breaking heat waves in June, some workers walked out in retaliation for unsafe working conditions, and were fired by the company for doing so.  

When asked what she considered to be the biggest threat to unionization in Portland, Schallert said that “Bullard Law firm in Portland is known for union-busting. The fact that there are people making tons of money doing that kind of dirty work is very upsetting.” 

She also notes an increase in the rights of corporations, more funding for bosses to hire union-busting lawyers, a strengthening radicalism on the right and the widely-held “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality in the United States as threats to effective unionization effort.

“Unfortunately, it’s easier to get information on how to bust a union, then on how to organize one,” Schallert said. However, she also emphasized that the IWW’s plays a role in a union’s success by getting organizing started or getting involved in active union efforts. 

Anyone can join the IWW, regardless of prior union or trade experience, and Schallert stresses that the organization “really believes in direct action and workers’ autonomy.” Their website has a free pamphlet on how to organize one’s own workplace during COVID-19, entitled “When Shit Hits the Fan—Organize.” The IWW also holds training sessions for attendees to learn organizing.

Despite the rocky path of the Burgerville Workers Union and the busted efforts at Voodoo Doughnuts, Schallert said that, right now, “there’s more agitation, more interest in unionization, and less folks having faith in a system that can’t catch them,” and that with the proper organizing, the climate could be right for unionization efforts to gather more and more momentum.

Portland-based doughnut chain Voodoo Doughnuts, where workers unsuccessfully sought to unionize this summer. Thomas Peipert/AP Images