Coronavirus fight: Some US worker unions become more aggressive

Some US workers are breaking from generally accepted union procedures to respond to coronavirus-related risks.

Shane Burley Worker Unions
Workers from the Voodoo Doughnut Workers Union deliver demands of hazard pay and safety provisions amid the coronavirus pandemic [Credit: Alex Wittwer]

Portland, Oregon – While Voodoo Doughnut is known for its kitschy pastry designs and lines of hungry tourists, as the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting down businesses in the state, the doughnut chain’s staff started drawing attention. On March 20, employees from the newly formed Voodoo Doughnut Workers Union (VWU) delivered a letter to management announcing the formation of a union and demanding higher wages, safety improvements and severance packages for employees laid off because of the coronavirus and Oregon’s ongoing “shelter-in-place” order.

What they did is significant because it breaks from generally accepted union procedures in the United States and may serve as a blueprint for how employees will respond to virus-related risks in the workplace. Instead of first going through the arduous process of a union election and contract negotiations, these workers used pressure tactics to push their bosses to meet their demands directly.

“We want a security guard stationed at the Old Town location. We want severance pay and access to our [paid time off] when we’re laid off. We want hazard pay, and we want a living wage,” Katherine Nadj told Al Jazeera. She loves her job but says working conditions are difficult. She’s been decorating doughnuts at the takeout shop for two and a half years. Voodoo Doughnut’s busy downtown location continues to operate despite Oregon’s stay-at-home orders because it provides what safety officials consider an “essential” service, though many of its workers, including Katherine, face layoffs.

She wants Voodoo management to negotiate directly with her and her coworkers and is prepared to get aggressive if the bosses do not agree.

“We truly hope it doesn’t have to come down to this, but refusing to bargain in good faith with [our union] the VWU could lead to escalation,” Nadj said.

As unemployment in the US soars because of measures designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, many workers worry the shrinking number of jobs makes them vulnerable to workplace abuses. Some, like Katherine, believe so-called “pressure campaigns” are the best way to ensure safe working conditions.

Shane Burley Worker Unions
On March 20, employees from the newly formed Voodoo Doughnut Workers Union (VWU) delivered a letter to management announcing the formation of a union and demanding higher wages [Credit: Alex Wittwer] 

The Voodoo Doughnut employees’ union is an affiliate of a labour union, known for its use of rank-and-file organising as opposed to union staff. The larger organisation is called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It is not just another labour union, where workers campaign to win recognition and negotiate a contract. The IWW is a vehicle for a worker-led organising effort where workplace action is prioritised.

Conventional unions operate under tight federal regulations. Before they can address many workplace issues, most unions in the US have to hold elections and work through established mechanisms. That procedure can take years, and unions are at a legal disadvantage. By not following the established rules, VWU members are forgoing traditional barriers: in effect, they are taking action without asking for permission.

Solidarity unionism

Robert Ovetz, a labour researcher and lecturer at San Jose State University, believes the IWW and the doughnut store workers are making the most of a difficult situation. “They have been really effective organising around a shared grievance,” said Ovetz. He says their ability “to take immediate action to disrupt the workplace” and “extract some sort of concession” appeals to low-wage service workers in Portland and across the US.

This model is called “solidarity unionism,” where workers gain bargaining strength by taking action on the job, such as confrontational demand deliveries on their bosses or holding rallies, rather than following only federally sanctioned union elections or strikes.

Because many of the workplaces employing solidarity unionism are small, the benefits of union contracts may be years away. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that governs unions, is filled with conservative appointees from the Trump administration who have imposed difficult restrictions on unions. And that was before the coronavirus made low-wage service workers “essential”. These are just some of the factors increasing the popularity of solidarity unionism.

Service workers taking action

In Portland, the IWW has been organising workplaces that are often ignored by larger unions because of low wages, high turnover and small size. This is how the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) formed four years ago; employees at the popular local chain were frustrated with low wages and demanding schedules. They rallied the entire city behind a campaign centred on strikes and public actions, including a multi-year boycott, all tactics that would usually accompany an immediate union election and contract fight. They believe they largely won their tug of war with their employer because they started pressure tactics from the beginning. Now that they are in contract negotiations, they are continuing this direct action approach.

Union employees at one Burgerville location walked off the job on March 22, alleging understaffing and increased workloads as the health crisis escalates.

“Burgerville workers went on strike because of the utter despair workers had that day about their immediate safety,” says Mark Medina, a Burgerville employee and union member.

The union demanded two weeks’ severance pay for those laid off, an additional $2 per hour of hazard pay, two weeks of sick time for those working and the ability to cash out accrued paid time off (PTO).

“This crisis is making very clear how bosses act; shifting responsibility, not working with employees, having us pay for the crisis. Time and time again, workers are pushed to the forefront to risk it all. We are the ones told to suck it up. The CEOs will not be hungry and houseless at the end of this crisis, we will if we let them decide for us,” says Medina.

Burgerville says that it has implemented new safety protocols that align with the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) standards, including an expanded leave policy, wellness checks for staff before shifts and frequent sanitation of facilities.


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“Burgerville respects every employee’s right to organise and every union member’s right to walk out or strike,” said Hillary Barbour, the director of Strategic Initiatives at Burgerville.

Shane Burley Worker Unions
Workers from Voodoo Doughnut are operating under a model called ‘solidarity unionism’, where workers gain bargaining strength by taking action on the job, such as confrontational demand deliveries [Credit: Alex Wittwer] 

The company initially furloughed 68 percent of its workforce due to the pandemic, yet kept open 38 locations with limited staffing. On April 23, Burgerville announced it would lay off 42 percent of its employees, or 612 people, most of whom had been on “temporary furlough” already. They are now working with their union to manage the impact of these layoffs.

The BVWU is trying to set an example for the rest of the service economy in the city, encouraging other employees to take action at their jobs rather than waiting for a professional union apparatus to intervene on their behalf. Employees at the local Crush Bar, a popular LGBT friendly club, followed the BVWU’s lead as they began organising around issues with management, so they were prepared when the bar suddenly closed.

“The bar went public with that announcement before they even notified their entire staff,” says Hannah Gioia, who worked at Crush for eight months. When management summarily dismissed everyone without notice and was allegedly denying the use of accrued sick time, the employees were prepared to take action.

“We walked in; we collected our final cheques from the general manager. Once we received those cheques, we sat down in unison and asked to speak to the owner,” said Gioia, who, along with 12 of her coworkers, staged a sit-in demanding to cash out PTO and rehire guarantees. Instead of discussing it, management called the police. According to a statement posted by Crush management on social media, the workers were given their accrued PTO two days after the sit-in occurred. These employees have yet to find out if they will be welcomed back to their jobs when Crush reopens.

Oregon is slowly reopening its economy and promising to coordinate with neighbouring states California and Washington to prevent a resurgence of infections. However, in the face of an uncertain future and with job losses mounting, people who are members of these unions are sending a message to employers: service workers can take power in their workplaces.

“Don’t be grateful. You deserve a living wage and adequate healthcare. You deserve your hours, you deserve sick leave, and you deserve to be treated with respect,” says Nadj, who is continuing to push Voodoo Doughnut management to the table even though she was temporarily laid off. “We’re all in this together!”

Al Jazeera requested responses from both Crush and Voodoo Doughnut, but had not received them by publication.

Source: Al Jazeera