Thursday, 26 May 2016

Bernie Backs a Wobblie Whopper: The Burgerville Workers Union

Burgerville workers marching on April 26. (WNV / Shane Burley), from Waging Non Violence.

An interesting thing has happened across the pond, an American Presidential candidate has supported an organising campaign by the Industrial Workers of the World. Something that hasn't happened since the 1910's and the days of Eugene Debs when the Socialist Party split from the American section of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Burgerville Workers Union:
Portland, OR – In a historic move, workers at Portland-area fast food chain Burgerville announced at a rally in the Clinton Street Theater on April 26th that they were forming a union, the Burgerville Workers Union, in affiliation with the Portland branch of the IWW. They marched from the theater to the Burgerville location at Southeast 26th and Clinton to present their demands:
  • an immediate $5 an hour raise
  • affordable, quality healthcare
  • a safe and healthy workplace
  • fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice
  • a supportive, sustainable workplace including paid maternity/paternity leave
  • free childcare and transportation stipends
A typical Burgerville worker makes only $9.60 an hour, and is typically scheduled just 26 hours a week, just under the 30 hours a week which would make them eligible to receive benefits. That equals out to about $990 a month before taxes. To put that into perspective, the average apartment rent in Portland is $1,275 a month for a one bedroom apartment, and most apartment complexes require prospective tenants income to exceed 3 times the amount of the rent.
“Most people can’t even afford to have an apartment. In Portland, everyone knows that the cost of living is insane. It basically took me a second job to be able to have a place of my own. I couldn’t afford it with what Burgerville pays me,” said Greg, Burgerville worker and union member.
Other workers cited problems with management’s uncaring attitude toward their employees: “I need to be able to take a sick day without fear of retaliation,” stated Robert, a Burgerville worker at the Powell location.
The workers forming the Burgerville Workers Union represent a cross-section of the community – young people, seniors, mothers, fathers, students, and grandparents. They put passion into their work, and want to improve their workplaces for themselves, their co-workers, and the community.
“We’re trying to make Burgerville a better place – I just want to be able to do my job and be paid a living wage. This is going to make Burgerville better, by having happy employees that work hard and are proud of their jobs” said Debbie, Burgerville Worker Union member.
The Burgerville Workers Union is supported by the Portland IWW and endorsed by a coalition of local unions and community groups, including ILWU Local 5, IATSE Local 28, SEIU Local 49, Portland Association of Teachers, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Portland Solidarity Network (PDXSol), Portland Jobs with Justice, Blue Heron Collective (Reed College), Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, Alberta Cooperative Grocery Collective Management, Hella 503 Collective, Marilyn Buck Abolitionist Collective and People’s Food Co-op.
Here's some more information about the Union.

And here's a short video put out by some of the Union members about work conditions and the need for the campaign.

As previously stated this campaign has been singled out by one of the candidates in this seemingly never ending race to the Oval Office.

The candidate is of course Bernie Sanders, here's what the next Commander in Chief (maybe, possibly, well there's a chance at least) has to say on the matter:

FRANKFORT, Ky. – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday released the following statement praising the union organizing efforts of the workers at Burgerville, a restaurant chain in Oregon and southern Washington.

“I applaud the workers of Burgerville in Oregon for forming a union. What these workers are calling for is not radical. In the richest country in the history of the world, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty. $9.60 an hour is a starvation wage. The workers at Burgerville deserve a living wage of $15 an hour. They have a right to flexible work schedules, affordable health care, and healthier working conditions. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

“Over the last thirty years, we’ve seen unprecedented growth in income inequality in this country. We have a rigged economy held in place by a corrupt system of campaign finance. That’s why workers, like those at Burgerville, must be able to form a union and collectively bargain for higher wages and stronger benefits.
“The Burgerville Workers Union is a perfect example of the type of political revolution that we need: people coming together and demanding real change to improve the lives of working people. As I’ve said on this campaign, this election is not about me, it’s about people from all walks of life coming together. And I am confident that when this happens, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

In addition the Young Turks who've become an unofficial arm of the Sanders Campaign also talked to the Burgerville Workers and gave them a kinda endorsement.

I think the Sanders statement and the Young Turks video are interesting as they seem to have not quite understood what the Burgerville Workers were talking about in the way they were meant. They certainly don't know anything of the IWW. Both the statement and the video talk about campaign finance and political corruption. Whereas in Union video above and the brief interview segment the Workers were talking about the economic relationships of workers and the company within a community. The two don't really gel.

To elaborate, the Burgerville Workers aren't actually fighting for a new law increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. They're just pushing for a wage increase of $15 per hour, this struggle is between the workers of Burgerville and the owners of Burgerville, politicians corrupt or otherwise don't really factor into this dispute. But what about the bigger picture? Well the Union is saying something very different on that as well.

In many ways it’s not the fault of Burgerville or its owners. They operate within a low wage economy that accepts paying workers near minimum wage as the norm to squeeze everyone for maximum profit. This is an economy where over the last 40 years productivity has increased over 70% while wages have increased by under 10%, and where following the Great Recession the strongest job growth has been low wage work. The reason for this is clear: This is capitalism, a structure that prioritizes growth and profit over human need and development. We, Burgerville workers, are not merely facing Burgerville, we’re facing a whole structure that’s bent on pushing us to the edge of what we can bare.
We understand this larger structure. But we also realize that it is produced by people, no matter how large or unchangeable it seems. Burgerville produces it by choosing to go along with the rest of their peers and paying us meager wages; even workers produce it ourselves when we accept the boss’ authority over our work and accept wages far lower than the value of what we produce. We all produce this structure and we all face a choice: Do we allow it to continue or do we fight to end it?
They talk about minimum wage but aside from a comment about it currently being the lowest accepted point the context is completely different to what Bernie Sanders and Cenk Uygur use. The Union is talking about the role of wage labour in capitalism, the lower the wage paid the greater the economic exploitation. And the solution put forward by the Union isn't campaign financing reforms or political leadership its workers coming together the fight the system as a whole.

More and more workers are choosing to fight. We are inspired by garment workers in Cambodia, factory workers in China, and our fellow fast food workers across the United States. Workers across the world are standing up and demanding better lives and winning respect.
I think the workers in the Young Turks video were doing a pretty good job of stirring their interview in this direction. Its a shame that it was cut short so the trio in the studio could plug their own  pressure group the Wolf PAC. What's happened here is that American Liberals have seen an intiative by American workers and read their own narrative into it. And by offering their support they've ended up trying to usurp the original meaning of the campaign. I'm sure its unintentional but its still a problem. I believe the Young Turks videos main effect is to show the gulf between Liberal reformers and Revolutionary Workers.

And of course I should stress that a wage increase is only one of the demands of the Burgerville Unions current campaign.
  • affordable, quality healthcare
  • a safe and healthy workplace
  • fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice
  • a supportive, sustainable workplace including paid maternity/paternity leave
  • free childcare and transportation stipends
I think its important to keep these other issues in mind here and in all similar cases as I've noticed a tendency for the monetary issues to dominate the discussions around strikes and labour campaigns. Usually feeding into a warped narrative about greedy workers getting ideas above their station. I think that narrative is bunk, though rather telling about the position of the working class in this society.

So here's my full and unconditional statement of support for the workers at Burgerville. I make this statement in the full knowledge of what the Burgerville Union is, and what it is aiming to achieve. IF you feel the same way then head over to their support page.

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