The union campaign at Burgerville: a quixotic quest


Local news is replete with stories about the failure of contract negotiations between Burgerville and the Burgerville Workers Union ands the threat of a worker strike, but most are failing to point out a critical fact — only 111 Burgerville employees at a total of five of the company’s 47 locations have even voted to form a union.

Furthermore, of the 142 employees who were working in those five locations during their respective votes, only 94 of them were still employed at Burgerville as of mid-2019 and the lead organizers of the unionizing effort at three of the five restaurants no longer worked at the company

It’s also likely that most of  the employees now threatening an “imminent” strike will not be at Burgerville long-term because the fast-food industry is grappling with record employee turnover.

According to MIT Technology Review, the turnover rate in the fast-food industry is 150%. In other words, the typical fast food restaurant is seeing its entire workforce, plus half of its new hires, replaced in 12 months.

Burgerville is doing better, perhaps because of its expansive benefits, including health insurance, vacation pay and financial wellness training. Still, the annual turnover rate across all its restaurants in 2018 was 83% (up from 71% in 2017), according to the company.

The union has reportedly asked for a $5 hourly increase for all unionized workers; Burgerville has offered a $1 an hour increase for all workers, which would put them 6 months ahead of a state-mandated minimum-wage increase.

The union says Burgerville’s proposed pay raise is “miserly.” Is it?

According to Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees anonymously review companies and anonymously submit and view salaries, average base pay for hourly crew members is currently $12.  When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a crew member at Burgerville can expect to make an average annual salary of $25,298.

For comparison, the typical McDonald’s crew member makes $9 per hour, according to Glassdoor. When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a crew member at McDonald’s can expect to make an average annual salary of $19,242.

The typical Wendy’s Crew Member makes $9 per hour., Glassdoor says.  When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a Crew Member at Wendy’s can expect to make an average annual salary of $18,738.

In other words, the average hourly pay of Burgerville crew members is already higher than at key competitors.

Could Burgerville afford to pay its employees more? It’s a private company owned by The Holland Inc., so it doesn’t make its financials public. The economy is strong, however, and the fast-food, or quick service restaurant (QSR), industry in the United States, has been doing well, particularly in 2018 and 2019. Workers have reason to believe Burgerville has benefited.

I understand workers’ desire to share in America’s prosperity, but any increase in wages crunches the bottom line and in a highly competitive marketplace only some of additional labor costs can be passed on to price sensitive consumers. The preferred solution for many fast-food businesses is reducing, not increasing, labor costs, largely by leveraging technology to employ fewer people.

Then, of course, there’s the question of whether the union’s demand for “a living wage” at Burgerville is even realistic.

According to a Living Wage Calculator developed by MIT, A living wage is the hourly rate that an individual in a household must earn to support his or herself and their family. The assumption is that the sole provider is working full-time (2080 hours per year).

The Calculator says a living wage for two adults, with one working, and one child in Multnomah County is $26.06 an hour or $54,205 a year. It is delusional to think Burgerville will pay that much to an easily replaceable crew member with limited skills and an expected short tenure.

The fact is, rather than pushing for unattainable wages at Burgerville, current crew members would be better off enhancing their job skills and/or education to qualify for higher paying employment elsewhere.

The fatuous fight for $15


Hold the burgers, hold the fries! MAKE OUR WAGES SUPER SIZE!!! ‪#fightfor15


New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this month that he would set a $15 minimum wage for all state workers on his own and without legislative action.

Cuomo’s move will give raises to about 10,000 state workers, adding $20.3 million annually to state spending by the time the increase is fully phased in.

What the heck. No skin off his nose. The state doesn’t have to make a profit. Take it out of taxpayers’ pockets.

That seems to be the attitude of a lot of folks these days. Wages have been stagnant for years for most people and inequality is the topic de jour. Let’s give a whole bunch of people a raise.

But whatever people say to pollsters about their support for higher minimum wages, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness to pay the higher prices for goods and services that often result.

Furthermore, a sweeping across-the-board $15 an hour mandate that might be bearable for a business in Portland also might be devastating for a small business in Astoria, Echo or Pendleton.

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning policy organization with ties to the organized labor movement, says, “All workers deserve a wage sufficient to support themselves and their family.”

The problem is that the minimum wage was never intended to be enough to support a family and that even a $15 minimum wage would still be a long way from achieving that goal.

In Oregon, for example, a family of four needs to earn about $64,000 for a reasonably comfortable living. A $15 an hour wage in a full-time 40-hr week would translate into an annual income of just $31,200.

It’s not even clear that raising the minimum hourly wage to $15 would be a clear victory for all the poor. It would certainly raise the wages of many workers, but it would also likely lead to the elimination of many jobs traditionally open to unskilled minimum-wage earners. In addition, most of the benefits of an increase to $15 an hour would not go to people actually living in poverty.

In fact, about 50 percent of current minimum-wage workers are under 25, and about 25 percent are teenagers. The unemployment rates of both groups are already higher than the 5 percent national unemployment rate.

People without a job are much more likely to be living in poverty than those who are employed. Furthermore, many of those earning less than $15 an hour today are not the primary breadwinners in families. That being the case, a better way to address poverty would be to work harder to position the unemployed for the workforce and to target income supplements on low-income families through such programs as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

When I see a plaintive story about Suzie, a fast food worker who protests that she’s been working at the counter for 4 years and hasn’t seen any substantial raises, my first thought isn’t, “Well, double Suzie’s pay, youInstead, I think, “How can you justify a big jump in pay to someone who has been performing the same low-skill job for 4 years, with no increase in her expertise and no increase in her productivity that enhances the company’s bottom line?” That may sound brutal, but it’s how things work at every single successful company. It can’t be otherwise.

Supporters of the $15 an hour minimum wage also err when they say it won’t cost much. A $15 an hour minimum wage would not happen in isolation. There would be a cascading effect on other workers, thus a greater cost impact on the employer.

If you raise the hourly pay of the McDonald’s crew from $9.25 to $15 an hour, a 62 percent increase, can you leave the shift manager’s pay at $10.20 an hour, and so on up the ladder?

At some point a franchise owner will say, “enough!” McDonalds has tested automated self-service kiosks that have been shown to reduce customer wait times and generate higher sales than ordering from workers at the counter asking, “Do you want fries with that?” That may be the future if we go down the $15 road?