Workers rely on themselves alone to form union

Voodoo Workers Union activist Apollo Fernweh

WORKERS DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO FORM A UNION. That’s what the workers at Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon believe and they’re sticking to it.

The workers call their approach “solidarity organizing”—an idea as old as unions themselves. It’s based on the idea that direct action by workers themselves is the best way for workers to get exactly what they want and need.

This does not eliminate the possibility of following the procedures leading to formal union certification and legal recognition of a designated union as a bargaining agent. But it does claim the right of workers to ignore those procedures and simply declare themselves to be a union—their own union. This is what the Voodoo donut workers did on March 20.

IWW support key

The Voodoo doughnut chain employs more than 325 workers at nine locations in five states. Workers at the “Old Town” location in Portland have been organizing since June 2019 with support from the local chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Voodoo doughnuts is a popular tourist attraction, known as a “hip and friendly place.” Working there is another thing says the Voodoo Workers Union (VWU)

Samantha Bryce, a worker at the Voodoo downtown location and a VWU representative, says that the union and employer had been in talks since June 2019, but that the crisis with COVID-19 and the multiple lay offs it brought prompted the workers to go public with their decision to form their own union.

The union demands include payment of severance and wages from accrued paid time off (PTO) for employees laid-off due to the coronavirus, as well as increased protection for workers at the downtown store.

Workers demand voluntary recognition

At the moment, the VWU is looking for recognition at the downtown shop only. The union has not held a vote among the workers yet, but the majority of the employees have signed authorization cards.

Since the VWU announcement, the union has not received a response from management or the corporate office about the union or its demands.

“We have a right to stand up for ourselves,” says Bryce “and demand that our dignity as good working-class people be respected.”

Bryce says the solidarity model of organizing depends a lot on creating a real community feeling among the workers at the workplace and within the community where the workers work. So, the workers all went as one group to pick up their final paycheques and held a public celebration in the neighbourhood to announce the formation of their own union.

Bryce says the VWU will look for more ways to connect with the community to reinforce their stand with their employer.

Other worker self-organization efforts in Portland have led to the creation of the Burgerville Workers Union and the Crush Bar Workers Collective.

Looking for a worker-led recovery

The major objective now is to “get our jobs back” says Bryce. Employers are not required to hire former workers back—even if they took public money as part of the covid recovery package.

“All workers have to demand a recovery that includes them,” says Bryce. “Unorganized workers need to make space for ourselves at the table to determine how re-opening happens. If we don’t have a seat at that table, workers will bear the brunt of damage from the pandemic.”

“I hope that our actions inspire other working-class folks to organize and support their fellow workers, as well as their surrounding communities,” Bryce added.

VWU members have received support and expressions of solidarity from the Burgerville Workers Union, the Crush Workers Collective, Virginia IWW, Portland Solidarity Network, IWW Italia, Northwest Labor Press, New Seasons Workers United, Communications Workers (CWA) Local 7901 and Portland Jobs With Justice.

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