Cameron Crowell is a former employee of Little Big Burger and a former member of the Little Big Union.
Working in a kitchen is difficult — long, strenuous hours on one’s feet, hustling next to hot oils, grill tops, and grease — but what adds to the physical strain is the constant psychological uncertainty. A deluge of questions runs through the average food-service worker’s mind on the line: “Will tips cover my rent this month? I couldn’t take time off to see the doctor even if I had health care — what if I get sick? It’s Saturday and next week’s schedule hasn’t come out yet — when am I working? Who can I get to watch the kids?” Then, “Order up! Fire three more!” gets thrown into the mental gymnasium.
In the past few years, Oregon saw historic laws passed to protect retail and food-service workers’ rights to sick leave and fair scheduling. Full-time employees are now entitled to 40 hours of paid sick leave a year and notification about their work schedules at least a week in advance; starting July 1, 2020, that law will extend to two weeks. While these sorts of laws are great in theory, in practice, the industry sees limited change: The scheduling law only applies to corporations that employ over 500 workers, for instance — places like fast-food chain Burgerville. Still, many argue that the most effective method to create positive change in the food-service industry is through wider-sweeping legislation and governmental oversight.
In the restaurant industry, legislation is one thing. The enforcement of new laws poses its own set of problems. Seeking justice through the legal system is like a Rube Goldberg machine — a complicated show of bureaucratic, regulative gears endlessly spinning in place. These systems are gamed for those with power and capital, who either have legal knowledge or can hire expensive lawyers who do. Organizations like the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are backed up for months. Now consider these delayed processes in the context of the food-service industry, which has a yearly turnover rate around 80 percent. Bosses who break labor laws also rely on the expectation that low-income workers living paycheck to paycheck — disproportionately workers of color and of national origins outside the U.S. — without institutional support or resources can hardly even begin a legal process, let alone stick out a years-long fight over which they have little control. By the time the machinery of state justice has run its course, the worker who filed a complaint has likely been in a new kitchen for seven months, and is so alienated by the process they know not to speak up again.
The restaurant industry needs to change to help its workers, but for that change to be long-lasting and meaningful, it needs to come from organized workers. What restaurant owners and corporations should recognize — before they throw money at anti-union lawyers and lobbyists — is that allowing workers to form independent organizations and actually listening to the demands of those organizations will make the industry sustainable. More than 40 percent of workers are in poverty, and those workers keep your business afloat. If they do end up organizing, which side do you want to be on?
I’d been working at Little Big Burger a year when State Bill 828 passed, making it mandatory for businesses with over 500 workers to publish schedules with at least a week’s notice. Management promised to implement two-week schedules before the law went into effect in July. February and March came. Then April, May, June, and July went by — still, our schedules came out with only one or two days’ notice before our shifts. My co-workers and I were fed up. We got together and wrote a letter to management asking that they abide by the law. Many of us were scared of conflict, possible retaliation, getting hours cut, or losing our jobs. Yet every worker at the store signed. Each signature loudly said, we can’t plan our lives on a day’s notice.
New law or not, the change would not come until we stood up for ourselves. One evening at the NW 23rd Little Big Burger location, every employee stayed after the shift to present the petition and the accompanying letter together. We approached our manager Julie* (not her real name) to read the letter out loud. Before we could finish, the manager took the letter, signed the petition, and agreed to send this to the general manager. Shortly after sending it, Julie got a call from Little Big Burger’s corporate office. The restaurant’s lobby was filled with workers, both on and off the clock. One worker followed out back to listen in on the call. She came running back, “I heard the GM ask [Julie] if we went to the press.” One frustrated cook expressed the outrage of many, “How can that be what they’re worried about right now? We’re just asking for our schedules.” At this moment, the priorities of Little Big Burger corporate were clear.
An hour later a corporate representative posted in our company group chat and sent a letter to our store printer. It detailed how Little Big Burger would never break the law and stated that saying so is just misinformation. Immediately thereafter, corporate released the next week’s schedule. From that point onward, they released our schedules a week in advance. On the line we blasted “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang and “Solidarity Forever” by Pete Seeger. We’d changed our workplace for the better in a single night.
When we took collective action at Little Big Burger, there was no year-long wait, bouncing between state and federal agencies giving affidavits in rooms with a framed photo of Donald Trump lording over us. We hadn’t even filed for an official NLRB election yet. Our strength was in our resolve in one another as co-workers; our power was in our union.
Worker organizing in the food-service industry is on the rise in the United States. Burgerville workers formed a union in 2016 and are currently bargaining one of the nation’s first fast-food union contracts. However, after a wave of strikes across several Portland stores, Burgerville conceded to union demands for holiday pay before even signing a contract, and finally came back to the bargaining table to negotiate raises for union workers.
The same year Burgerville Workers Union formed, workers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York City’s Times Square established Stardust Family United (SFU), a union of singing waitstaff, hosts, bussers, and cooks under the same banner of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They won huge gains, from safety improvements to raises to the reinstatement of illegally fired servers. Interestingly, SFU did so without a union contract. Rather, workers used immense pressure through actions ranging from singing union songs on the job to petitions to pickets and strikes. SFU independently collects dues, votes on officers, and holds union meetings. Their focus is on building worker power to address concerns with management directly as they come up.
“Sometimes [in organizing] you have to negotiate for years to settle matters,” says Alexis Ebers, Ellen’s Stardust Diner server since 2016. “[At Stardust Family United], workers make a demand with a deadline and can take immediate action if the demand isn’t met. After 3.5 years of union actions at Stardust, we rarely have to escalate anymore, because the management meets our demands fairly quickly. They understand that we will escalate if they do not.”
University of California San Diego Labor researcher John S. Ahlquist describes how in union-heavy industries, wages and working conditions are raised for all workers as “employers may raise wages to near-union levels to compete for labor or prevent unionization (the union threat effect).” Since workers effectively create a company’s profits by creating the product they sell, they also have the power to collectively stop production, therefore stopping the flow of money going to their bosses. When employers are forced to deal with this collective activity, they are also forced to concede to their workers’ needs — anything to make things run again. But sadly, industries like food service and retail record some of the lowest union membership rates (1.7 percent and 5 percent, respectively). Building worker-led organizations to address issues is not only the quickest way to make changes in the kitchen, it is also the cultural shift that builds democratic power among coworkers.
Working in a kitchen is unlike any other job I’ve had. The camaraderie and focus needed to crank out hundreds of orders a night is a testament to the teamwork required to run a restaurant. If we are the machine that keeps the kitchen running, we also have the power to say, “Stop! We need more to get by.” Together, we are not disposable. When bussers, servers, bartenders, dishwashers, cooks, and janitorial staff act together, it shifts the hierarchy at work. Workers taking action together are no longer passive recipients of corporate policy, but agents making work more democratic and able to address everybody’s needs.
After I was fired from Little Big Burger during a unionization effort in July of 2018, I filed an Unfair Labor Practice case with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union-employer relations. Though they found merit with my claim that I was illegally fired for union activity, I won’t see my day in court until late April 2020. Nearly a year after the incident, it’s still unclear if I’ll get my job back, let alone the pay I lost after I was unfairly fired. However, for a multinational corporation, two months’ pay is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spend to quash our union action and delay justice through the legal system. As a single worker who could never afford a lawyer, navigating the web of bureaucracy and corporate attorneys defending my boss, I realize that seeking justice is a farce.
The culture of Portland is built on the work of restaurant and hospitality workers. And the food-service industry is booming. One in seven workers in the United States work in some sector of food production, and that number is growing. More and more people like me are moving into this industry not as a stop-over job, but as what we rely on to make a living for ourselves and our families. Workers need organizations that will fight for us — employers and legislation be damned.
In a recent memoir, factory floor organizer Dave Ranney remembers a bitter loss he and his coworkers suffered in a legal battle with his then-employer, Chicago Shortening. One of his coworkers concluded, “There ain’t no justice, there’s just us.”
Down the line, we as employees decided to officially organize as a union, and were pushed into a National Labor Relations Board election for federal recognition before we had organized in other stores. When left up to the labor relations board, circumstances, like being forced to run an election in stores the worker’s union didn’t intend to represent, are stacked against workers. Despite Little Big Union’s loss in that election, it was union action that forced Little Big Burger to follow through on its promises and follow the recently passed workers’ rights laws, not the laws themselves. Worker organization and collective action are the most efficient, low-cost, and effective methods of enacting change at work, regardless of NLRB certification.
The power of food-service workers — the people who serve every customer, cook every dish, wash every plate — will never be in a courtroom. When our jobs can’t provide for us, it’s workers who pick up the slack by feeding each other and fighting for more. Day in and day out, we’re the ones who make the food; now it’s time that we eat too.