It’s the hottest week in Portland history and the boss still won’t fix the AC

What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one worker deemed a “complainer”

An extreme heat wave is sweeping the Northwest right now. Some weather forecasts predict we will see the hottest day in Portland history this weekend with temperatures hitting 110 degrees Fahrenheit. And the climate doomer in all of us is collectively sharing, “hottest day in Portland history, so far.” Yea it fucking sucks. With even more neighbors out on the street, even with a small safety net of the city setting up a few “cooling shelters” for the unhoused, people in all likelihood are going to die.

For those in houses and apartments, most of which without AC, we will deem it too hot to cook, which for restaurant workers it means expect an all day dinner rush baby. Hunched over that pipping hot flat top, AC busted, but thank god the boss was kind enough to plug in a box fan pointed at your feet—or if you’re lucky he’ll let you prop it up on a chair so it’s aimed at your back. Same legal minimum break times being squeezed as short as possible. Hell, maybe your boss is woke and reminded you to drink water. Don’t worry if you’re getting woozy there’s a 33.3% chance you pass out on the sandwich wrapping line instead of the grill or fryer. 

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Again, I’m filled with righteous anger. A little voice in the back of my head that wants to shout to my co-workers, “we don’t have to fucking do this.” And how can we? Then I remember it’s the 23rd and rent is due in a week, and I remember there’s an infinite number of excuses and legitimate fears we place in front of us. And that my righteous anger has worked to dissuade those fears in my co-workers about as well as firing a squirt gun at the sun. 

“I want to share the nuts-and-bolts of how we came together and fought back against the Hooters corporation. But right now I’m hot, agitated, and in no way feeling sentimental. Here I want to share a story about some of the stuff that we tried that didn’t work when things first started heating up.”

When I started working at Little Big Burger in 2017 it was a super hot summer1. A friend of mine got me the job when they were hiring at the start of the summer and I figured getting minimum wage+tips was better than 10 cents above minimum wage operating rides at an amusement park. It was my first restaurant job. Somehow it felt more dangerous working on that narrow line with a clogged grease trap and no slip mats than operating a 40+ year old spinning metal puke machine. It was barely a month in when my friend told me, “hey there’s a union at this other burger joint in town, we flip burgers, why can’t we have that here?” Perhaps not the most “by the books” organizing conversation, as he showed me the Burgerville Workers Union facebook page, but he was my friend. Nuff said for me. Shit needed to change, and we couldn’t do it alone. We reached out to the union and started trying to talk to our co-workers. 

Our union would go on to win a number of amazing changes. Safety concerns, like a non-slip map, a replacement AC system, managers required to go up on the roof to unclog the vent, getting managers to stop calling the cops on homeless people. And, bread and butter policy changes, like schedules that come out two weeks in advance (instead of 1-2 Days in advance) and getting paid sick leave instead of being forced to work sick or fear getting fired. All of this we won by sticking up for each other, building trust over time, co-writing petitions, and regular ass restaurant workers standing together and marching on our corporate bosses. I want to share the nuts-and-bolts of how we came together and fought back against the Hooters corporation2. But right now I’m hot, agitated, and in no way feeling sentimental. Here I want to share a story about some of the stuff that we tried that didn’t work when things first started heating up.

Too Hot To Trot

Freckles worked at Little Big Burger for nearly three years. He started out on the line during Micah Camden’s reign, stayed through the Wage Theft-era in transition to Chanticleer Holdings (got his class-action check), and yet Freckles remained so positive about LBB it scared me. One co-worker told me she felt like any moment Freckles would snap and tell a manager, co-worker, customer, corporate suit, etc “what he really thought of them,” and maybe he’d be holding a kitchen knife. Instead he laughed at complaints, and pivoted to Dr. Who. Freckles was a talker, and he wasn’t afraid to share what he felt was wrong in the world, in fact when you got him talking about his life outside of work he’d talk your ear off: chronic pain, low-income housing with an income quota where he’d have to clock out just in time to make sure he didn’t get 40 hours so he wouldn’t get evicted, and struggling through recovery. Just nothing “about work.”

“Our manager let us bring our water cups on the line instead of in the break area so we could “stay hydrated” and not ever have to leave our stations. My friend in the organizing effort Alan had been working with Freckles there two years, and he was frustrated with Freckles complacency. Alan outwardly expressed, ‘This is bullshit! It’s gotta be 115 degrees on the grill, one of us is going to pass out.’”

During the Portland fire season we came to work with face masks on, it was 95 degrees in the dining area away from the grill, and we were so slammed management “forgot” about breaks. Our manager let us bring our water cups on the line instead of in the break area so we could “stay hydrated” and not ever have to leave our stations. My friend in the organizing effort Alan3 had been working with Freckles there two years, and he was frustrated with Freckles complacency. Alan outwardly expressed, “This is bullshit! It’s gotta be 115 degrees on the grill, one of us is going to pass out.” Freckles side-eyed him and said nothing while our manager chastised Alan for “making customers uncomfortable,” and sent him home early without pay. When privately talking with me the next day Freckles recounted what happened to me, “Why did Alan have to keep bitching about it?”

I asked Freckles if Alan’s concerns were true, and he agreed.

“Yeah, it was really hot. Yeah, we didn’t get breaks. Yeah, the water didn’t really help,” Freckles resolutely concluded. “But what did he think would happen? There’s nothing to do about it.”

About a month later Freckles showed up to work with some scars and loosely worn bandages. He said he got jumped on his way home from work the night before. Freckles’ wounds later got infected because his roommate had two dogs that were never cleaned up after. The next morning when I showed up for my mid-shift my manager was in a near panic attack. She told me “Freckles no call no show’d today, I think that corporate is going to fire him.”

“Have you tried calling him?”

“Of course I have,” she said. “I wouldn’t tell corporate before trying to call him.”

She was still a little frantic, and went in the back to make a phone call. It was only an hour since opening and work was fairly slow for a weekday even down one person. Around an hour later Freckles came in wearing a hospital bracelet and his wounds on his arms and legs wrapped up tightly and professionally. My manager came out from the back while I worked the line to intercept him from going into the break area in the back.

“Where were you this morning?” Freckles asked.

“Let’s talk outside please.”

A co-worker and I saw them through the front window having a spirited argument with Freckles having burst of screaming, then crying, then ending with Freckles storming off and pulling out his phone to call someone. Our manager walked back in embarrassed and seemingly still shook. I asked what happened.

“Freckles is going home for the day,” she declared. “He no call/no showed then decided to try and come two hours late for his shift, that’s unacceptable. Corporate will probably talk to him tomorrow.”

“But he had a hospital bracelet on.”

The manager said nothing and we continued to work in silence. After my shift I texted Freckles to see what was up. He told me how he went to the hospital because of the infection and that since the hospital was only a block away he walked to the store at 10am, when the manager is supposed to start doing opening tasks, to tell her he needed to go to the hospital and wouldn’t make it in. He waited fifteen minutes and the manager wasn’t there yet. He then messaged her on Facebook instead (he even sent me a screenshot), but no response from the manager. Now he thought he was going to get fired the next day, just so the manager could cover up how she was late to work. I asked him what he wanted to do. 

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“Fuck if I know. I’ll just look for another job now. Fuck this place.”

I had never heard Freckles remotely talk like this. He mostly just tried to get everyone to quit drinking.

“We could try and talk to corporate I’d back you up.”

“I already called them and they didn’t listen for shit. Seriously dude fuck this place, you should work someplace else. I worked here three years and it only gets shittier.”

“And in kitchens, Freckles track is not uncommon. Relentless positivity. Even staning for our shitty situations while at work. Siding with managers over fear of retaliation. Getting to learn an important skill. But then being personally betrayed by that same boss we think is on our side. Telling the bosses “Fuck You.” Dip out on your old co-workers, and probably tell your friends, “never eat at this shithole.” Repeat.”

The next day was my day off, but I heard Freckles came in and before clocking on two people from corporate flanked him and told him he was fired. The manager who pushed for it didn’t even leave the line. I never saw Freckles again, but his urge to quit along with him stuck in my head the next few years. Especially on days that were blistering, smoke from wildfires filled the dining room, and I had to empty the grease trap. It wasn’t because what Freckles said was particularly convincing or because what he said was wrong, but I knew there must be some other option other than jumping from one bad situation to the next. In restaurants, every shitty policy is an “industry standard.” A couple coworkers and I had vague talks of unionizing, mostly on the line when the manager wasn’t around, on the bus home, or drunk at Nobby’s. If anything was going to change we had to take this organizing a lot more seriously.

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Freckles saw the dead end. If anything were to change it wouldn’t come by just complaining alone, appealing to our boss’ capacity for sympathy—we needed all our co-workers standing there with us. And in kitchens, Freckles track is not uncommon. Relentless positivity. Even staning for our shitty situations while at work. Siding with managers over fear of retaliation. Getting to learn an important skill. But then being personally betrayed by that same boss we think is on our side. Telling the bosses “Fuck You.” Dip out on your old co-workers, and probably tell your friends, “never eat at this shithole.” Repeat. Repeat and repeat, till we all burn up from the sizzling flat top grills, fires blazing outside, or the earth boils over a few decades from now. Which ever comes first. There needs to be a step outside that chain. I want to believe, I still do.

I know it’s hot out right now. This is in now way me trying to tell you to be less pissed or that trying to agitate and organize is pointless. Restaurant workers are fighting back over all kinds of workplace issues and showing that with solidarity we can win. Workers at the unionized Stardust Diner in New York City fared better on this issue, taking direct action with a work stoppage to address their broken AC unit, it was fixed the next day. Hopefully, this time and every subsequent time we will be a little stronger than the last. Fuck, the world isn’t getting any colder right now. When these bosses feel the heat, they keep up their pressure too. So for us workers, there’s really nothing else to do.

1

 No AC and No Beer make CF go crazy.

2

Then called Chanticleer Holdings; they’ve since broken off from Hooters and are now called Amergent Hospitality Group

3

Not his real name