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Here’s why it matters that the fast-food industry could finally get its first union

Here’s why it matters that the fast-food industry could finally get its first union
[Photo: Leon Brocard/Wikimedia Commons]

Fast-food chain Burgerville has earned die-hard fans in the Pacific Northwest by serving up local, seasonal fast food (think Tillamook Cheddar cheeseburgers, Walla Walla onion rings, and huckleberry milkshakes). Now Burgerville fans have something new to talk about: The chain’s employees are trying to form the first-ever fast-food union in the U.S.

On Monday, the employees behind the two-year-old Burgerville Workers Union gave their corporate head honchos a deadline. They had 48 hours to either recognize the union and discuss its demands—which include a raise, better healthcare, and consistent scheduling—or, according to the Portland Mercury, they would file paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a government-administered election to be held in April.

The deadline passed, and now Burgerville employees at one outpost filed the paperwork to establish the union, which is affiliated with the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World.

For its part, the burger chain vows to respect the process. “Burgerville respects the right of every employee to support or not to support the organization of a union,” Beth Brewer, Burgerville’s senior VP of operations, said in an email. “The NLRB has scheduled a hearing in this matter to determine if a vote is desired by the employees. Burgerville will abide by the NLRB’s decision and guidance.”

If Burgerville’s employees are successful in their bid to unionize, it could pave the way for a wave of fast-food unionizations, in part because it would show that it’s possible for these workers to organize. Historically, fast-food workers’ attempts to form unions have been hampered by the perception that the work is fleeting and temporary (even if tens of thousands of families are dependent on these wages), as well as the seemingly insurmountable resistance from the giant fast-food corporations.

With Burgerville proving it’s possible for workers to come together, employees at chains like Shake Shack, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell could then follow in their footsteps. That could mean higher wages, set schedules, and health insurance. According to one recent study, nearly 52% of all fast-food employees are dependent on public assistance. Unionizing could help change that.

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