Lecturers talk union organizing

On Nov. 20, Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD) hosted a lecture by representatives of the Burgerville Workers Union. SLD organized a rally to promote better working condidions at Vassar last month./ Courtesy of Flickr
 Debates about proper working conditions and compensation have put pressure on relationships between workers, management and consumers not only at Vassar College, but also in other parts of the country where persistent inequality has frayed community bonds. On Nov. 20, Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD), in collaboration with several other student organizations and academic departments, invited representatives Amina Rahman and Michelle Ceballos from the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) to share their experience working in a fast-food chain based in Portland, OR and organizing in response to unaddressed grievances.

Burgerville currently operates about forty restaurants in the northwest region of the United States and markets food that is locally sourced, free of antibiotics and environmentally friendly. It primarily caters to a middle-class and affluent population who would pay a premium cost for better quality food and service. Rahman and Ceballos considered the perspective that management holds toward Burgerville workers and described, “As for how workers fit in this branding, they want us to serve with love and call people who patronize the restaurants our guests, not customers, as if they were guests in our house.”

Due to this positive image, Burgerville workers were surprised to discover that the restaurant management would perpetuate unfair labor practices and employ forceful methods to discourage workers wanting to unionize.

Burgerville workers collectively decided to form BVWU in April 2016 as a way to address the lack of maternity leave, denial of employee health insurance coverage, low wages, unsafe working conditions and inconsistent hours. Rahman and Ceballos suggested that management inflicted many of these grievances in a subtle fashion. For example, the service contract provides employee health insurance coverage to any worker who clocked at least thirty hours a week, but management would schedule part-time workers close to the thirty-hour threshold and switch in another set of part-time workers in order to avoid providing for health insurance. Similarly, Rahman and Ceballos reported that management could assign working hours that varied significantly between the morning, evening and night shifts. They said, “People have a completely different schedule every week and only find out what their schedule is going to be like Thursday, Friday beforehand. It basically makes it impossible to plan your life.”

The demands that BVWU presented to Burgerville closely mirrored those presented by SLD and dining service workers to Bon Appetit and the Vassar College administration last month. An SLD member who wished to remain anonymous elaborated, “We find that low wage workers will face similar forms of maltreatment across the country and around the world. Both Burgerville workers and workers at Vassar are working in a workplace that consistently attempts to exploit them for labor without regard to both their dignity and contracts. Earlier this year Deece workers demanded respect and dignity for all workers, safe working conditions, organized and regular schedules and a fair and transparent hiring process.” The SLD member observed that food service workers at Burgerville and at Vassar College both presented analogous demands for better working conditions and work hours.

BVWU received little response from management in the early negotiations and the situation soon deteriorated. Rahman and Ceballos remembered, “We waited six months to see if things would change, and that didn’t happen. Maybe Burgerville will listen to us, maybe we can appeal to their conscience. What happened was Burgerville hired a union-busting firm, a private security firm. They responded by firing a key organizer in the Vancouver, Washington camp; we’re met with silence and private security units.” Burgerville security forces clashed with Burgerville workers at union pickets outside restaurants and blocked other forms of union activity, such as worker delegations sent to present grievances to management. According to Rahman and Ceballos, the union organizer fired by Burgerville was accused of stealing from the company in an elaborate setup. Burgerville’s union-busting firm dispatched a private detective to the restaurant in Vancouver where the organizer worked as a supervisor. At the end of a lunch break, the detective pressured the organizer to begin working immediately and not pay for a bagel that the organizer had eaten. The organizer later contested his loss of job as an unfair labor practice but was not reinstated.

At Vassar, the demands presented by SLD and dining service workers had a greater initial impact but many feel there is room for improvement. The SLD member explained, “The administration has been receptive to these demands insofar as they have implemented a consistent break schedule and improved the physical conditions of the kitchen in the Deece. However, management’s disrespectful treatment of workers along with chronic under-staffing still make Vassar an unsafe and difficult place to work.” SLD’s vision for working conditions at Vassar aims for an environment that safeguards the physical and psychological well-being of workers. To achieve this vision, SLD believes that the college administration needs to provide tangible improvements such as the installation of a separate break room in the dining hall and raise expectations for respect and dignity in interactions between workers and management.

The presentation by Rahman and Ceballos on their past experiences in BVWU also spoke to the conscience of students who were not affiliated with SLD. Alex Wiltse ‘18, who attended the event, explained, “I worked a minimum-wage job at Panera for a year in high school, and [it] also trys to portray [itself] as a restaurant that really cares about its patrons, provides healthy food with no sneaky additives, supports local farms, tries to integrate itself into the local community, etc. Whether or not those things are true, I always felt that the managers really cared if I was happy, healthy and safe at work.” Thinking over the experiences presented by Rahman and Ceballos, Wiltse continued, “I was surprised to hear that Burgerville managers force sick employees to stay at work, or send people home early when the store is not busy. I know that most people working minimum wage jobs struggle to support themselves financially, but management practices like those can take a huge toll on a worker’s mental health.”

For SLD, discussing the structure and experience of Burgerville workers offers insight into different approaches for fostering worker solidarity. An SLD member elaborated, “I think that the BVWU stands out because they focus not only on traditional labor issues, like wages, workplace safety, time off, but also on building a powerful community within the workplace that is able to support the workers. For example, BVWU organizes a hotline that any Burgerville worker can call and have someone walk them through issues they face in the workplace. It’s this sort of powerful community building that will actually accomplish goals.” Rahman and Ceballos also mentioned that BVWU organized monthly childcare, discounted bus passes and a union benefits program through the efforts of workers rather than those of a paid union staffer from large and established unions such as the SEIU and the AFL-CIO.

In addition to organized collaborative efforts, BVWU makes a significant impact on the daily lives of its workers by mediating with management over the course of routine operations. Citing a use of the union hotline to address worker grievances in real-time, Rahman and Ceballos stated, “Someone named Brandon got sick at work and vomited. One of the managers wouldn’t let him leave. He reached out to the co-workers and the union. Folks did a delegation in 30 minutes and he was able to go home.” Another incident involved a Burgerville worker who reported a gas leak to the supervisor and was not granted permission to evacuate the building when the incident became a health hazard. The workers on shift used the union hotline to organize a delegation and secure permission to leave the premises until the gas leak could be evaluated and repaired.

BVWU offers an important model for worker solidarity and possible ways to transform engagement at Vassar. Looking forward to possibilities for change, Wiltse considered his own privilege as a student and the potential for student engagement to help ensure that marginalized voices are heard. He concluded, “I think SLD is doing great work for labor activism on campus, and that the more students that actively support them, the more we can achieve.”

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