Few things move people quite like music—both figuratively and literally. Such was exemplified on Jan. 26 at the Firkin Tavern, as musicians and political activists alike joined together in support of the Burgerville Workers Union in its quest of granting better working conditions and equal workers’ rights to all the company’s employees.
“It’s about respect,” Emmett Schlenz, a member of the union said. “Most low-wage, service industry workers are treated like shit all the time. We’re expected to just deal with it and we’re told—maybe explicitly, maybe implicitly—that’s what we deserve, that we don’t deserve any better.”
The Burgerville Workers Union was born in April 2016 when its members demanded higher wages, safer working conditions, affordable healthcare and more consistent scheduling.
The show’s turnout was indeed worthy of the cause, with enough people crammed into the bar that one could barely move around the space—and that’s meant to be taken in the best way possible. Before the first band played, Schlenz took to the stage to thank everyone for coming. The crowd erupted with applause as Schlenz announced that the Hawthorne Burgerville’s union had successfully gained federal recognition—the first of its kind in the country.
The bands playing in support took to the stage with an energy that was driven and inspiring. The night started with Dress Forms, who played synth-charged punk music with a spirit and passion that matched the movement itself. In stark contrast, Dragging an Ox Through Water took the stage with sounds as haunting and ethereal as they were beautiful. L.O.X. played as the concert’s final act, with a slower, passionate post-punk sound that concluded the night in perhaps the most fitting way possible. Be it a member of a band or the crowd, it was clear everyone in attendance was there for the same reason.
“I’m here because I want to support Burgerville workers,” said Sean, a member of the crowd. “I think it’s really important that working class people begin to organize, and the only way to push against privatization, against the steady declining wages is when people organize. I think what they’re doing is absolutely the thing people should be doing right now.”
It hasn’t been an easy three years for the union or its members, as the company has largely responded by rejecting its demands, taking punitive action on employees who were union members and even firing many. According to the union’s website, Burgerville has a history of treating its employees poorly. The average worker falls under the poverty line and the company even allegedly committed OSHA violations, including denying workers breaks and committing health and safety infractions.
Stevie, a member of L.O.X. worked at Burgerville for a long time. They attest to the company’s supposed unsavory states.
“It fucking sucked,” they said. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done. No tip jar, erratic hours and management were hostile to anything that was nice to employees. People who worked there with me were people providing for families, people who were immigrants. A huge part of the fast food workforce is people sending their kids to school in really precarious situations because of the kind of work that they’re in.”
According to Schlenz, the union went public with three stores, having no formal recognition or having ever gone on strike. Almost three years later, the union has proudly had three successful elections, three successful strikes and is larger, better organized and more militant in what they do.
“We’re trying to negotiate the first fast food contract in the United States,” Schlenz said, “The future looks bright.”
For more information on the cause and the members of the Burgerville Workers Union, go to www.boycottburgerville.com.