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QSR chain counters union pressure by calling for a vote

Little Big Burger wants employees of all its Oregon stores to decide right away if they want union representation, and labor forces aren’t happy about it.
Photograph: Shutterstock

In a touch of corporate jiujitsu, the Little Big Burger quick-service chain is pushing for an employee vote on whether all 13 of its restaurants in Oregon should unionize, a move ironically opposed by labor organizers because of fears they’ll lose. 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is expected to issue a ruling Friday on whether the vote can proceed.

The union that would officially be recognized by a majority of yea votes, the Little Big Union (LBU), has focused its organization efforts on just a few units of the Chanticleer Holdings-run chain. By expanding the balloting to the employees of every store in the state, Little Big Burger is betting the pro-union votes of LBU sympathizers will be more than offset by the ballots of employees who haven’t been pitched on organizing.  

“We just want the highest possible voter turnout,” said Adrian Oca, Little Big Burger’s VP of operations for the Oregon market. “We’ve taken the approach that we want our employees to do their homework, to research both sides.”  

Unionization of selected Little Big Burger restaurants is being pushed by representatives of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a group popularly known as the Wobblies. They would prefer that a vote to be represented by LBU be put to employees on a unit-by-unit basis, starting with stores where the union has been focusing its pressure. 

That strategy helped the Wobblies establish collective bargaining at another quick-service chain in the Pacific Northwest, Burgerville. The staffs of five Burgerville units have voted to unionize, store by store, out of a base of 45 restaurants. The Burgerville Union is currently the only federally recognized union of quick-service employees in the nation. 

The LBU—currently a group that exists only by acclamation, not federal recognition—would become an affiliate of the IWW and a sister organization to the Burgerville group if it should win the Little Big Burger  vote.  

IWW representatives have shown considerable concern they’ll lose the vote, and any shot at unionizing 23-unit Little Big Burger, if the NLRB doesn’t halt the proposed elections, which could be held in as soon as two weeks. They’ve countered the move by asking for a mail vote, which would buy them time to reach out to employees who haven’t yet heard the union’s pitch. 

Little Big Burger sought to expedite the vote through an option used far more often by labor than by management, the so-called ambush or quickie election. Organizers sometimes push for the quick vote in hopes of denying management the time needed to present their arguments for keeping a business union-free. In this case, the chain is using that tactic against the organizers.

The LBU itself noted how rare it is for an employer to call for a union vote—and how unusual it is for the union to win in those instances. Of the 50 times an employer petitioned the NLRB for a vote last year, employees voted to organize in just four instances, the organizers say.

The LBU said Little Big Burger also tried to game the system by proposing the voting take place between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. for three consecutive days. Those hours are among the busiest of the day for a Little Big Burger staff, and many employees will be too bogged down at their jobs to take time to vote, the labor officials contend.

But the chain says it is willing to make concessions. “We even offered to close the restaurants during the voting period, so there’d be no managers on the premises at the time,” said Oca. 

An irony noted by many observers is Little Big Burger’s reputation as an exemplary employer. “We’re an employer of choice,” said Oca. “Our employees make upwards of $5 to $7 an hour just in tips. Employees at our Portland stores are making $17 an hour.

“Why us?” he asks. “I don’t have an answer for that.”

The chain also has units in Texas, North Carolina and the state of Washington.

Chanticleer’s other holdings include BGR, American Burger Co., Just Fresh, and a portion of the Hooters casual-dining chain.

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