Executive Summary: On April 23, 2018, employees at a Portland, Oregon location of the fast food restaurant chain Burgerville voted to unionize. After a nearly two-year campaign, the Industrial Workers of the World Portland Chapter, a.k.a the Burgerville Workers Union (the “Union”), convinced 18 of the 25-member unit to vote “yes” – making it “the first formally recognized fast food union in the country” according to the Union’s announcement on social media. A spokesperson for Burgerville indicated that the company intends to recognize the Union and begin the collective-bargaining process. Following the recent win, employees at a second Burgerville restaurant in Portland followed suit and filed a petition to vote on union representation.

The Union’s success in winning an election does not automatically mark the beginning of a significant transition in the fast food restaurant industry. For years, unions have struggled to represent restaurant employees. Recent fast food restaurant worker walkouts and the “Fight for $15” movement have not resulted in union success in organizing restaurant employees. Nevertheless, the Burgerville case does illustrate that under the right set of circumstances fast food restaurant workers can be organized.

Based in Vancouver, Washington, Burgerville is a Pacific Northwest chain with 42 restaurants and over 1,600 employees. Employees receive 20 percent more pay, on average, than industry peers. They also receive generous benefits. As a result, employee tenure at the company averages 29 months – significantly longer than the average industry worker.

A major impediment to union organizing has been the restaurant industry’s high turnover. Ironically, Burgerville’s competitive wages and benefits contributed to low turnover which likely assisted the Union’s organizing efforts over a two-year campaign.

Burgerville illustrates that competitive compensation and benefit packages do not always insulate a company from union activity. Non-economic workplace issues often pose just as much risk as pay and benefits. When actual or perceived non-economic problems go unaddressed (including concerns involving a company’s overall culture) employees are more inclined to seek third-party intervention.

Employers need to be aware of non-economic issues that could make employees receptive to a union’s sales pitch, including, but not limited to:

  • Whether employees feel that they are treated with dignity and respect by management;
  • Whether internal complaints are taken seriously and promptly addressed;
  • Whether policies and any changes to them are communicated to employees and explained;
  • Whether employees feel they are being taken for granted or taken advantage of; and
  • Whether employees believe management decisions are unfair and arbitrary.

Employers' Bottom Line:

This election result should be a wake-up call to fast food restaurant employers lulled into thinking that a union could not organize their workplace. While providing employees competitive wages and benefits can help make employees unreceptive to an organizer’s sales pitch, employers need to do more. Management should get to know their employees and establish a work environment where employees know they are valued and that their concerns will be listened to and addressed internally.