Fast Food Workers Win a Union…through Zoolidarity

Fast food workers at the Oregon Zoo defied the odds and voted in a union, but they started acting like a union well before the vote, with "zoolidarity" actions. Photo: Laborers Local 483.

Union members have watched in awe as fast food workers struck over the last year, calling for “$15 and a union.” Despite the slogan, however, the prevailing wisdom has been that union recognition isn’t really the goal; that’s too hard against giant employers insulated by a layer of franchises, with a part-time and transient workforce.

Last month 142 mostly part-time food service workers, public employees at the Oregon Zoo, showed it could be done, winning a landslide election to join Laborers Local 483 in Portland. They join 137 already-union admissions and custodial employees at the zoo—about half of these are temps—doubling the size and power of the bargaining unit just in time for contract negotiations.

Like the rest of Fast Food Nation, these food service workers reflect a changing economy and a changing workforce. When I worked at the Oregon Zoo as a teenager making burgers and fries, the workforce was overwhelmingly high school- and college-aged. No more. Because of the ongoing jobs crisis, many zoo food workers have college degrees or are long-term employees. Because of the low wages and the zoo’s strategy of using temporary employees, many are forced to take multiple jobs.

The zoo uses the word “temporary” to refer to classifications under a cap of 1,040 hours per year. Some work 40 hours a week for up to six months. The food workforce swells in the summer, with food carts and cafés sprinkled across the zoo. Others work year-round, but part-time, some as little as one or two days a month. Many are “on call.”

“Did you know that during your whole last visit to the Zoo you probably encountered only us temporary workers?” said zoo worker Ellen Ino, testifying last year at a Portland Jobs with Justice event that highlighted the abuse of temporary and seasonal job classifications by local public employers.

Ino said zoo members are often “amazed that the person who sold them the membership in July, handled their membership questions throughout the high season, tore their tickets in October, ran around the campus in November and December during Zoolights… that those workers are not considered permanent employees with benefits.”

Strong Committee

Several ingredients made the nine-month campaign successful. Organizers from Local 483 were inspired by the techniques taught by Jason Mann, a Canadian organizer, educator, and founder of Strategic Organizing, which offers advice to unions about strategies and using technology and social media.

Mann’s organizing techniques were based on surveying unions that had carried out successful organizing drives, discovering their key strategies and tactics—such as a strong internal organizing committee, direct action at the workplace, a community campaign, and use of social media. (See A Troublemaker’s Handbook for similar advice.)

One of the tactics Mann suggests is using workplace surveys to agitate about working conditions. When a Local 483 organizer was surveying existing members at the zoo, a food service worker found the flyer on a bulletin board and filled out the survey, leading to contact with several other “foodies.”



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The most important aspect of the campaign was, of course, a strong, 27-member worker-led organizing committee that worked hard to recruit and train others. “Their energy infected the rest of the workplace,” said Local 483 organizer Tobias Green—producing a cohesive workplace that began to think and act more united. Workers called their workplace culture “zoolidarity” throughout the campaign.

The campaign also made use of social media, opening up a “secret” Facebook page before the drive went public. This tactic is risky since published information can find its way back to management, but the zoo workers invited people they trusted into the Facebook group. Soon the page was used as an auxiliary tool to share information, support each other, and complain about work—i.e., to build solidarity.

“The Facebook page allowed us to answer questions about unions, address gossip at the zoo, announce organizing meetings, and later to respond to anti-union rumors that crept into the workplace,” member-organizer Matt Ellison said. Some of the scare tactics included the old favorites: “You’re all going to be laid off and will have to reapply,” “the 483 contract has a lower hours cap,” “they just want your dues,” “you are hurting the zoo.”

‘Quick Hits’

One characteristic of winning drives is that workers start acting like a union before the election. Zoo workers did “quick hits”—direct action to make popular worksite demands that immediately improved working conditions. These were demands that management would look either foolish or heartless to reject.

For example, zoo workers marched on the boss mid-campaign to deliver a petition that demanded cooler conditions for food workers, both those stationed outside during hot days and those inside the hot, stuffy restaurants. Management conceded and swapped out higher-wattage light bulbs for cooler ones, supplied bottles of water, and fixed a fan that had been broken for months. This victory strengthened the campaign at a critical juncture.

Workers now want to use their new union power to make the zoo a better place to work and to visit. They begin bargaining this month, joining (and significantly strengthening) an existing Local 483 bargaining unit that is entering negotiations. Temps will be the majority covered under the contract.

Priorities include higher wages, full-time jobs, and paid sick days, said worker-organizer Anne McDonnell.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker and an officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at shamuscooke[at]gmail[dot]com.