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News / Business / Clark County Business

Burgerville workers picket company HQ in Vancouver

Thursday evening event one of several protests this week

By Anthony Macuk, Columbian business reporter
Published: October 25, 2019, 12:46pm
7 Photos
Emmett Schlenz, left, and Abby, who declined to giver her last name, sing pro-union songs at a rally outside the Burgerville corporate offices in Vancouver on Thursday night. The union represents workers at five Portland Burgerville locations, and has been engaged in a strike since Wednesday.
Emmett Schlenz, left, and Abby, who declined to giver her last name, sing pro-union songs at a rally outside the Burgerville corporate offices in Vancouver on Thursday night. The union represents workers at five Portland Burgerville locations, and has been engaged in a strike since Wednesday. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Members of the Burgerville Workers Union gathered outside the company’s Vancouver headquarters for a strike event Thursday evening, the latest in a series of pickets and protests that the union has held this week.

The company and union have been engaged in collective bargaining for more than a year. The union announced last week that its representatives had walked out of negotiations, and workers at four of the five unionized Portland Burgerville locations walked off the job on Wednesday.

Burgerville said in a statement last week that negotiations had been progressing well but stalled largely over the issue of wages. A union representative at Thursday’s event offered a similar characterization.

“I think we were coming along on a lot of issues,” said Mark Medina, a bargaining team member who works at Burgerville’s 3504 S.E. 92nd Ave. location. He said the decision to walk out was due to the company’s unwillingness to entertain the union’s wage proposals.

Before negotiations broke down, Burgerville announced that it would raise the base pay rates for employees at all of its locations in December. The company said that would amount to a $1 per hour raise for all workers. The union dismissed that raise as insufficient, arguing that Washington and Oregon’s rising minimum wages would quickly catch up to the new pay rates.

Burgerville’s statement said that the union had initially sought a $5 per hour raise for the unionized locations, which would have resulted in a base pay rate of $17 per hour. Speaking to the Columbian on Friday, Medina said that characterization was accurate, but stressed that the initial proposal was made in August 2018 and said the union’s subsequent and current proposals feature lower rates that are more “in the ballpark” of what Burgerville is proposing.

The five unionized Burgerville restaurants are all in the Portland metro area. The chain operates 41 locations in total in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

On the first night of the strike, the union staged a Halloween-themed picket at Burgerville’s convention center location. Thursday’s protest at the corporate headquarters was described by the union as a “vigil to mourn the death of Burgerville’s conscience.”

Union representatives had previously announced that some of the union members would camp out all night outside of the Burgerville office and remain there when the office opened on Friday.

“Our intention is to make them uncomfortable coming to work,” Medina said.

A group of workers began to gather across the street from the closed headquarters office at about 5:30 p.m., but as more people began to arrive, the group moved to a corner down the street, a short distance west of the main entrance.

The group of about 17 workers sang a series of what organizers characterized as “funeral hymns” while standing next to a pair of mock tombstone Halloween decorations, tying back to the theme of the event.

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The initial round of songs were all versions of well-known tunes, such as “Amazing Grace,” with new lyrics that criticized the Burgerville corporate entity and its CEO, Jill Taylor.

As the evening progressed, some of the songs reverted to their original lyrics, such as an unaltered rendition of Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”

Several workers also took turns speaking to the group on a megaphone, offering their perspectives on the contract dispute.

Others appear

A separate group of about three people, one of whom identified himself by the pseudonym Vinnicuz and claimed he was a member of a far-right group called Portland’s Liberation, arrived before the start of the event and positioned themselves about half a block away from the union group. Vinnicuz had a microphone and speaker and spent most of the event offering a running rebuttal or commentary on the proceedings, often making comments to the effect of “get a real job.”

Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson also appeared partway through the proceedings and briefly approached the union group to speak with some of the members, accompanied by a few people who appeared to be either members of Patriot Prayer or Portland’s Liberation.

The exchange did not appear to be particularly heated or confrontational, and the majority of union members continued to sing throughout, although at one point they switched to a song with lyrics decrying fascism.

Gibson left after about 20 minutes, but Vinnicuz remained on the scene.

At about 8:20 p.m., the union put out a tweet stating that the group would not camp out overnight and had opted instead to visit still-open Burgerville locations and distribute fliers.

In later tweets and a press release sent out Friday morning, the union attributed the cancellation to the presence of Patriot Prayer, which it characterized as harassment.

“Given Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer’s history of provoking violent confrontations, and concerned for the safety of participants, the BVWU ended the vigil early,” the union wrote.

Burgerville released a statement of its own on Friday morning.

“Burgerville is following due process to investigate any incidences of harassment at its home office in Vancouver,” the company wrote in an email. “Burgerville strongly condemns all forms of discrimination, harassment and violence. We support the union’s right to lawfully strike.”

The union’s press release stated that the overall strike effort will continue. The union previously announced additional planned pickets at the Montavilla Burgerville location on Friday and the Hawthorne location today.

Medina stated on Thursday that the union had agreed to an additional round of bargaining with Burgerville, scheduled for Friday. Reached late Friday morning, Medina said the bargaining session was still ongoing and would likely continue for the rest of the day. No additional sessions had been scheduled, he said, although he didn’t rule out the possibility.

Columbian business reporter