Burgerville employees and labor supporters made a surprise visit to the company’s Vancouver headquarters Tuesday afternoon to announce the formation of the new Burgerville Workers’ Union.
“We look forward to negotiations with the company,” said employee Jordan Vaandering when delivering the message to two company officials who met the contingent in the lobby of corporate headquarters at 109 W. 17th St.
Vaandering, 25, works at the chain’s Vancouver Plaza restaurant and was joined by 18-year-old co-worker Eli Fishel in calling for a $5 an hour pay increase for all hourly workers, improved benefits and other workplace improvements.
“I find it unacceptable the company has not acknowledged the struggles the workers are going through,” Fishel said.
The announcement coincided with a rally in Portland calling for a $5 raise for all fast-food workers. More than 100 people joined the march on the Burgerville restaurant on Southeast Powell Boulevard, according to both union and company officials.
The company had read news about a rally, but was caught off-guard about calls for a union and had no immediate response, said Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer and a 40-year employee.
“We certainly told them we would listen to what was concerning them,” Graves said. “How as a company we are going to respond, I don’t think we know.”
Company spokeswoman Sara Perrin said that perhaps six or seven “crew members” at the Powell Boulevard restaurant had “combined forces” with the Portland Industrial Workers of the World union. The union had sent a news release saying that the new Burgerville Workers Union is affiliated with the I.W.W.
Burgerville, founded in 1961 as a single restaurant, now has 41 restaurants in Oregon and Washington with 1,545 workers, including 540 in Washington. The average hourly pay company-wide is $11.36 per hour, and in Oregon the average is $10.89 per hour, Perrin said. Over half of the employees are age 22 or younger, she said.
Company managers have already heard from some employees concerned that pay raises would eliminate their eligibility for health care, food, and housing subsidies, Perrin said.
“Their concern is that their situation will change, and not necessarily for the better,” she said.
About a dozen labor supporters who thought differently stood in solidarity with the employees during the civil exchange.
“We stand up for workers’ dignity and just compensation for their work,” said Rob Sisk with the Service Employees International Union. “It’s kind of ironic the people who give us food struggle to put food on their tables.”
It isn’t yet clear if the company will be negotiating with the union or speaking with individual employees.
“We’ll certainly respond in a manner that makes good business sense,” Graves said. “We are responsible for 1,500 people who are counting on us to be here tomorrow and the next day.”
Columbian Business Editor Gordon Oliver contributed to this story