A Burgerville unit unionized—what does that mean for the rest of the restaurant industry?

Is the organizing of a single QSR unit the start of a trend, or a one-off curiosity with little industry bearing?

A quirky union from the age of train barons and trustbusters wins the right to represent two-dozen workers in one restaurant of a 42-unit chain virtually unknown outside its two-state territory. Is it the start of a revolution—an end to restaurant chains’ union-free run—or just a hiccup soon to be forgotten by all but a few history nerds and a lone storefront?

The unionization of Burgerville Unit #41 on April 23 has become a Rorschach test for an industry already struggling to offset market-driven spikes in labor costs.

Some see it as a worst fear realized, the beginning of wide-scale organizing by employees. They note that a petition has already been presented to federal regulators for a vote on unionizing a second Burgerville store, and discussions within the staff are underway at four other of the chain’s outlets. 

Others underscore the uniqueness of the situation. The organizing body was the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies, a labor group formed in 1905 with the mission of protecting factory workers from Gilded Age fat cats. “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth,” the group declares in the preamble to its constitution.

Other rhetoric similarly paints it as anachronistic as pocket-watch chains and rumble seats. And it hasn’t lost the early industrial fanaticism that nearly killed it in the 1920s.

Despite some successes, the IWW lacks the financial clout and organizational might of a Service Employees International Union or a Unite Here, the two big service-workers unions, notes Franklin Coley, labor issues specialist for government affairs advisory firm Align Public Strategies.

“They’re just more ragtag,” he says. “It wouldn’t make enough in dues from a few stores to finance servicing the contracts they negotiate.”

Others note that Burgerville isn’t exactly a McDonald’s or Burger King in terms of its notoriety, or even its opposition to being unionized.

After employees of Unit #41 voted to organize, the chain ran ads celebrating the victory, hailing it as another first for a brand that boasts of being a progressive industry force. The concept has been ahead of most competitors in offering health insurance, using eggs from cage-free hens and sourcing antibiotic-free meats. “Now we once again find ourselves out in front of the pack,” the full-page spot proudly states.

“Burgerville is committed to its employees having a voice in the creation of a union,” a spokesperson said in a statement provided to Restaurant Business.

It’s also unclear what sparked the IWW’s interest in organizing the Burgerville store. The Wobblies may not have declared war on fast food, but rather on the practices or attitude of one brand, if not an individual or two within that brand.

“A lot of times what sets these things in motion are not wages and benefits but more of a personality clash between management and the workers,” says Coley.

“Is this truly an industry campaign, or a campaign against one employer?” rhetorically asks Jeff Bosley, partner in charge and restaurant specialist for the San Francisco law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. “This is so targeted at Burgerville right now, it’s really a wait and see situation.”

Yet that hasn’t kept fears from climbing. Burgerville asserts the SEIU is providing support and otherwise collaborating with the IWW to organize fast-food restaurants. “If organized units become formally affiliated with the SEIU, then I’m really worried,” said Coley.

The IWW says it is several years into efforts to organize at least one unit of Jimmy John’s and Starbucks, and that an affiliated group, Food and Retail Workers United, is targeting a Pizza Hut.

Coley notes that the IWW came within one vote of unionizing a Jimmy John’s in the Minneapolis area about four years ago. Burgerville noted an unsuccessful attempt to win a vote in a New York City Starbucks.

The union’s prospects could hinge on what happens next at Unit #41, which is in the liberal stronghold of Portland, Ore. “Now they have to sit down and negotiate a contract,” notes Bosley of Davis Wright Tremaine. “If Burgerville is already providing benefits and paying higher wages, that’s going to make the bargaining very difficult.”

The chain has indeed made concessions for the sake of peace since employees started pushing to be recognized as a union in 2016. Now the Burgerville Workers Union, the relevant chapter of the IWW, is demanding a $5-an-hour raise, free childcare and affordable health insurance.

“If they win a $2 or $3 increase in wages, everyone around the country is going to say, ‘See, we told you they could afford it,’” says Coley. “If a Burgerville unit should close because of the contract, that’s going to be an example, too.”

If there is some organizing momentum from the IWW’s victory in Portland, the industry may feel it sooner rather than later, suggests Coley. The Trump administration is expected to rewrite the rules for so-called ambush elections, where a union can call for a vote on organizing with just a few weeks of advance notice. The rewrite will probably favor the monthslong process that was previously the norm.

In any case, says Align Managing Partner Joe Kefauver, operators should keep an intense gaze on the Burgerville situation. “They shouldn’t be quaking in their boots,” says the veteran government affairs specialist, “but they should be watching.”

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