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After one success, union activists escalate attempts to organize quick service

Photograph: Shutterstock

The quirky union that succeeded last year in organizing several dozen employees of a regional restaurant chain is stepping up its efforts to unionize the quick-service sector, this time convincing crew members of Little Big Burger to opt for collective bargaining.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, is also pushing to organize more units of the first chain where it found recruitment success, the 45-unit Burgerville system. The IWW has won a go-ahead from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to allow the employees of two more stores to vote on whether to be represented by an IWW affiliate, the Burgerville Workers Union, in wage negotiations. The staffs of three Burgerville branches have already opted to have the IWW affiliate negotiate on their behalf.

The Burgerville Workers Union is the only federally recognized quick-service union in the country. 

Little Big Burger, a 23-unit fast-casual chain owned by multiconcept operator Chanticleer Holdings, was informed last week that employees at several stores had formed what they hope will be the second union to be recognized, Little Big Union. A union officially becomes a staff’s representative if employees and management both acclaim its formation, or if a majority of employees vote in an NLRB-sanctioned election to unionize. 

The management of Little Big Burger is opting not to establish the union by proclamation. “LBB and its management support and respect our associates’ rights to join a labor union, as well as their right not to join a union,” the chain said in a statement provided to Restaurant Business. “Above all, we believe that it is important that such a decision not be made by just a few people, or by the company. That is why we support the rights of our team members to cast a ballot in a fair, secret ballot election before choosing whether or not to organize under union representation.

Little Big Union is already demanding a $5-an-hour raise for all employees, as well as scheduling and paid-leave concessions. 

It’s not a coincidence that Burgerville and Little Big Burger are both viewed as being progressive in their personnel and menu strategies, says Franklin Coley, a partner in the Orlando, Fla.-based public affairs and lobbying firm Align Public Strategies. Both have earned a cult following in their core market, the Pacific Northwest, with menus abounding in local ingredients. 

They’re also known for providing benefits and pay above the industry norm. Burgerville, for instance, was one of the first restaurant chains to provide employees with health insurance coverage.

Little Big Burger says it pays an average wage of $17 an hour in Portland, Ore., the focus of the Wobblies’ recruitment effort. Government statistics show the prevailing wage across all restaurants in the market is $13.04, or 40% lower.

“Not only are they small regional chains, but they’re chains recognized as being best in class, not only in labor practices, but also in sourcing and ingredients,” says Coley. “In some ways, that has made them more vulnerable.”  As he explains it, if unions can convince restaurant employees and the public that the industry’s best still needs to be kept in line in their treatment of staff, the challenge of turning opinion against run-of-the-mill operators will be that much easier. 

Nor is it a coincidence that both chains are located in the Pacific Northwest, says Coley. Cities such as Seattle and Portland are known for being bastions of pro-labor and progressive politics. “It’s a very political environment, so it’s an easier sell,” he says.

But operators elsewhere shouldn’t be breathing a sigh of relief that their political environments are less conducive to unionization. “I woldn’t breathe too deeply,” he says. Unions are “testing models that can be exported elsewhere.” 

For one thing, the Wobblies are attempting to organize quick-service workers by recruiting unit by unit. “They could do that anywhere,” Coley says. The Wobblies also now have a detailed model: How they’re attempting to organize employees of Little Big Burger is virtually the same method that worked with Burgerville.

He notes that the Wobblies are succeeding where the much larger and better financed Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has failed to find traction. The SEIU, one of the nation’s largest and richest unions, is the organization behind the Fight For $15 campaign and other pro-labor efforts. Yet it’s failed to match the Wobblies inroads into organizing. 

“The Wobblies are ground-up organizers—they’re ideologues,” says Coley. “I don’t think the SEIU likes that the Wobblies are the ones with proof of concept.”

The Wobblies were formed in 1905 to protect workers, particularly newly arrived immigrants, amid the industrial revolution. The union has largely been a curiosity and lesser player since its heyday in the 1920s.

Still, it shouldn’t be written off by restaurant employers, says Coley. “We’re in uncharted territory in the restaurant industry,” he comments. “That’s what’s so interesting with these two chains.”

“Throughout my entire career in this industry I have always believed that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers and the business itself,” said Fred Glick, the new president of Little Big Burger parent Chanticleer Holdings, in a statement. “I joined Chanticleer Holdings approximately four months ago in large part because its CEO, Mike Pruitt, and his executive team share those values.”

Glick’s statement ends with an invitation to all Little Big Burger employees to discuss any concerns or issues they care to air, “in a mutually respectful setting.”

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