Chipotle workers vote for union for first time


Workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Lansing, Mich., voted to organize Thursday, establishing the first union at the fast-food chain nationwide. The vote, which took place in the restaurant’s parking lot, was 11-3 with two contested ballots.

The election follows a string of first-time union victories led by Gen Z and millennial workers at high-profile companies such as Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Apple that have long avoided unionization. It also marks a milestone for the low-wage fast-food industry, where unions have struggled for decades to gain a foothold due to the large number of locations, franchise model and high turnover.

– I am so happy that we won. “Being one of the first fast food restaurants to do this definitely proves a point to the whole country that we can do this,” said Samantha Smith, an 18-year crew member who voted Thursday. “This is a giant first step towards doing that and improving the lives of future generations.” Smith, who has worked at Chipotle in Lansing for two years, makes $13.33 an hour.

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“At Chipotle, our employees are our greatest asset, and we are committed to listening to their needs and continuing to improve their workplace experience,” said Laurie Schalow, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Chipotle. “We are disappointed that the employees of our Lansing, MI restaurant chose to have a third party speak on their behalf, as we continue to believe that working directly together is best for our employees.”

Schalow also noted that Chipotle offers its employees industry-leading benefits such as competitive wages, debt-free degrees, tuition reimbursement up to $5,250 per year, health benefits and quarterly bonuses for all employees. Last year, the company paid out $37 million in bonuses to its nearly 100,000 workers, it said. The company has approximately 3,000 restaurants in the United States.

Workers at Chipotle in Lansing cited wages and underscheduling as the impetus for their campaign. They said some workers in their store make about $13 an hour and don’t get enough hours to afford basic necessities. Before signing up for the union election, organizers said some workers had at times been scheduled for one day a week. And during most shifts, some workers have had to take on additional jobs outside of their normal responsibilities, such as running the cash register or driving through while preparing food, they claimed.

“It’s rarely a shift where someone in the shop works just one position,” said Harper McNamara, a 19-year-old crew member and union organizer who makes $13.60 an hour. “I’ve had to do the cash register and prepare both hot and cold food at the same time.”

Pro-union workers also said they want a voice in their working conditions, claiming the company had retaliated against one worker by firing them the day after they asked for wages.

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“It would be nice if you could raise workplace issues and they were raised, but they’re not,” said Atulya Dora-Laskey, a 23-year-old crew member and union organizer at Chipotle in Lansing. “They say ‘Ask us things directly,’ but if you ask someone directly, they ignore you. That made it crystal clear that an individual relationship with the employer is not feasible.”

Thursday’s vote was the latest in a string of workers to organize since the start of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic led to a major convulsion on the labor market, and there has been a dramatic change in the relationship between workers and employers over the past two years. The recent labor shortage has given workers tremendous leverage to demand better wages and benefits and also to form unions. Yet, although there has been an increase in union election petitions this year, the campaigns have organized a small fraction of the workforce at these companies. Many face a long road before they can possibly achieve full unionization.

For years, unions have waged expensive lobbying campaigns, such as SEIU’s Fight for $15, to unionize fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, and to pressure management to sit down at the bargaining table with workers. But these efforts have not resulted in electoral victories. Most of the gains unions have claimed have been in the form of minimum wage increases in several cities and states.

Since running for a union election, Chipotle brought in executives from across the Midwest and an outside consultant to discuss labor relations and unionization with workers in private conversations.

Last month, Chipotle closed a location in Augusta, Maine, that had filed for a union election, hours before the union and management were to hold a National Labor Relations Board hearing on the logistics of a potential election. The company said the shutdown was due to “staffing challenges,” but the union claimed the shutdown was “union-breaking” meant to have a chilling effect on organizing at Chipotle.

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“The victory at Chipotle today provides more evidence that the victories at Starbucks and Amazon have lit a fuse among low-wage service workers across the country,” said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University. “It also shows that this generation of workers is not easily intimidated by store closings and other anti-union tactics. We may be on the way to a new labor movement.”

In August, Chipotle also agreed to pay workers in New York City $20 million to settle allegations that the company violated scheduling and sick leave laws for more than four years, affecting 13,000 employees. In response to the settlement, Chipotle’s chief restaurant officer, Scott Boatwright, said the company had raised wages across the country last year and instituted new policies.

The workers, who have been organizing since late 2021, cited a wave of union victories at Starbucks, in Michigan and around the United States, as inspiration for their campaign. More than 230 Starbucks locations have voted to organize since last December.

“After seeing the wins at Starbucks, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we can pull this off,'” Smith said. “Many young people are in favor of a union, but thought it would never happen here. That realism is what is holding many of us down right now. Getting this far shows that we have to try, because we can succeed.”

Workers voted to join Teamsters Local 243, after speaking with several national unions, saying the Teamsters had the most resources to help them.

“The Teamsters Union is home to 1.2 million workers, and we are all fighting for our brothers and sisters at Chipotle to get the union they deserve,” International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Sean M. O’Brien said in response to the news that Chipotle workers had voted to join the Teamsters on Thursday. “Now is the time for working people in this country to take back what is theirs.”

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