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“You’re Not Gonna Use This as a Way to Fuck Us Over”: A Discussion with Luis Brennan from Burgerville Workers Union
HC Editor — March 26, 2020 Leave a Comment
HC: Tell us what you do for work.
I’m a fast food worker. I work mostly the grill at a fast food place at the Portland Airport–a company called Burgerville. I also do a shit ton of labor organizing, so I’ve been a part of Burgerville Workers Union for a while. We’ve won a lot of union elections, gone on strike a bunch, and have done lots of workplace actions, pickets and other fun stuff.
HC: What’s been going in the last couple of weeks at your Burgerville?
Up until the last few days, things have been surprisingly normal at my shop. It’s been slow and continually slowing down, but operational. But on Saturday [March 21st], they furloughed everyone at the airport. . The reason they gave was workers’ safety, which is legitimate, but it’s also about the money – with so few people flying right now it just doesn’t make sense. And company-wide they are doing dramatic cuts.
HC: What does it mean to be furloughed?
It means laid off but I don’t lose my status with the company. People who get benefits with the company keep their benefits, but it’s a way to file for unemployment.
HC: How did your crew respond?
It’s funny, we had been planning to start taking action on the job anyway, figuring we were going to stay open but knowing there needed to be some conditions on that. We’re at the airport, so we’d need hazard pay or something like that. We got a phone call together to coordinate a response. It’s tricky – this is a complicated moment, when workers have a lot on the line, and are fired up but, at least immediately, have limited leverage. Usually what we do is stop working and cost the company money. Well, if everyone’s getting furloughed, you’re not going to cost the company any more money than they’re already costing themselves!
HC: So what’s your leverage?
I think the leverage is a couple things. A little bit of spectacle shame, getting a petition signed, stuff like that. There’s also leverage with people who are still working – not us but other Burgerville workers. The union is not just just one shop; it’s the whole company. So there’s people organizing on the shop floor in other places that could put pressure on the company. In fact people went on strike yesterday [March 22nd] in response to the plan Burgerville released for how they were going to staff a different restaurant. The other leverage is what’s going to happen when we come back. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure to come back with our tail between our legs and be very thankful to have our jobs back. That is the moment when we can exert a lot of leverage, in terms of saying: “You’re not gonna use this as a way to fuck us over.”
HC: What other sectors are you seeing take action right now?
There’s a lot of stuff in logistics, like warehouse workers, delivery drivers. There’s a lot in grocery stores. There’s action in food service too. In the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) we’ve been supporting a lot of organizing in food service. There was an organizing project in this bar, doing shop floor actions around safety, benefits, that kind of thing. The bar closed down around the pandemic. The workers marched in to get their final checks with sleeping bags in tow, and said we can’t afford our rents so we’re going to stay here until you give us such and such. The cops came and there was a whole thing, and they launched themselves as a union because of that action. The bar was already in the process of being sold and, because of the media pressure produced by the action, the new owner promised to meet their demands.
HC: We’re hearing doomsday predictions of 20% to 30% unemployment when this shakes out. We know high unemployment can be bad news for workplace organizers. How can organizers prepare?
This is an extraordinary situation! I feel like those doomsday predictions are too conservative. The increasing levels of quarantine mean fewer and fewer industries are up and running. This isn’t just an economic crash when people are freely mobile but there’s fewer jobs. It’s a society lockdown. I think between the increasing amount of social pressure to stay inside, and whatever stimulus comes to soften the blow, people are going to be opting to stay inside. The leverage for the few workers still working is going to skyrocket, that’s my prediction. Companies are already working with these skeleton operations. Are they going to be running through a hiring process right now? Are they going to be doing mass hirings and then mass firings? I don’t think so. I think they’re going to try to make it through as best as possible with the crew they have right now, because hiring and firing is a whole complicated operation they’re not well set up to do right now.
HC: How can folks who have been laid off get involved?
A crucial piece of it is preparing for when we come back. Getting ready for action, whether it’s pickets or strikes, to make sure the bosses don’t force us into a worse position than when we left. Another thing is taking action in the community, around rent and utilities, and just not paying those things. There’s a fundamental incongruity between the way capitalism understands social processes and the way we as normal ass human beings understand social processes. Capitalism understands social processes as flows of money and flows of capital invested to get returns. We understand social processes as activity moving around or not moving around. For us, what has to happen right now is all very clear: everyone stay home, don’t go anywhere, and just be on pause. Now, if you were actually thinking about it that way, why would you be paying rent, taxes, utilities, or anything beyond your basic necessities? Everybody’s gotta just lie low for a little while. Now, capitalism can’t figure out how to just have peoples’ material needs met…
HC: Because capital can’t stand still!
Exactly! Capital cannot stand still. Money cannot stand still. One of the slogans I’ve been pushing is: “Money is fake. Coronavirus is real, don’t pay your rent.”
HC: What does it mean to do this kind of organizing at a time when we have to stay six feet apart from each other?
It’s wild! I have been on the phone or video chat more total hours these past few weeks than I was at in-person meetings in the two weeks before that, and I usually spend a lot of time in in-person meetings. There’s absolutely a difference between in-person communication and communication on the phone. But overall, there’s a massive increase in the amount of communication we are having with each other, to the point where I can’t be on the phone more. I just want to sit with my cat at home!
HC: And it’s going to take a year or two to read all the think pieces coming out right now.
I know! I’ve been very surprised by the degree to which at-a-distance communication has been functional and decision-making has been possible. In terms of the IWW in Portland, I think there’s a real chance that this moment could push us through some of the obstacles we’d been having as an organization. We’ve had all these projects, but not enough coalescing into a single organization. But now we’ve been setting up coordinating structures between the different campaigns that were difficult to set up before. I think the difference is, to an extent, people are ready to throw what exists out the window. But also there’s the increasing necessity of crosstalk between the different campaigns. Interestingly, this organizing context is new to me but I don’t think it’s new to workers. One thing that strikes me as interesting is the degree to which big sections of the working class have already been living these at-a-distance lives…
HC: Some of our lives haven’t changed much at all!
Right. I’m thinking about my co-workers who are gamers, who are in Internet subcultures, who have family in other countries… These people have already developed a social vernacular of talking on the phone, being on video chat, streaming movies with each other.
HC: What do you have to say to someone reading this who is home, maybe depressed, playing too much Animal Crossing, and wants to plug into this new wave of working class organizing you think is about to kick off?
It’s hilarious, but I think being local at this moment actually makes more sense, because the density of those networks will make things clearer. Connect with people locally who are doing organizing work that feels interesting. Offer help. Prepare yourself for what’s gonna happen as soon as the quarantines lift. You think people are losing their minds now? They’re going to be out of their gourds three months from now. And like every crisis, capital is going to try to figure out how to make us pay not once, but twice, saying: “You’re coming back, shouldn’t you be glad to have a job, shouldn’t you be glad to have this over? You’re going to take a 20% wage cut, we’ve been hurting, we can’t afford to pay.” We gotta say: fuck that!
It’s unprecedented to have a three-month pause to prep your troops to go into the class war, and that’s what we get. We’re gonna get strong, make plans, make connections, and the moment the “go button” hits we’re gonna fucking go, whether that means flying squads that picket employers who try to fuck over employees, celebration parties for grocery workers thanking them for what they’re doing right now, taking whatever organizational networks you built up and translating them into face-to-face organizations that can take action, on strike or ready to go on strike, pushing political literature, building infrastructure for community events and solidarity.
The message to me is: let’s get daydreaming! Let’s have a vision of what’s gonna happen when this shit lets up, and then just run the plan. The main problem working class organizers face is we’re behind the ball. We don’t have the power, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the time, and the boss has all that so we just respond. Finally, we get a pause.
Over the next days and weeks we hope to continue publishing stories about daily life amid the Coronavirus. We are looking for testimonials from everyday people about workplace safety, unemployment and housing issues, struggles with paying bills and taking care of their loved ones as well as any acts of solidarity and collective action in these very difficult times. We want to hear from you! If you have a story that you want to share with us, please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.