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Chipotle workers vote to unionize for first time

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Workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Lansing, Mich., voted to unionize on Thursday, establishing the first union at the fast food chain nationwide. The vote, which took place in the restaurant 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 evaded unionization. It also marks a milestone for the low-wage fast food industry, where unions have struggled for decades to gain a foothold because of the sheer number of locations, the franchising model, and high turnover.

“I am so excited we won. Being one of the first fast food restaurants to do this definitely proves a point to the entire country that we can do this,” said Samantha Smith, an 18-year-old crew member who voted Thursday. “This is a gigantic first step toward doing that and improving the lives of future generations.” Smith, who has worked at the 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 upon their workplace experience,” said Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs officer at Chipotle. “We’re disappointed that the employees at our Lansing, MI, restaurant chose to have a third party speak on their behalf because 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 roughly 3,000 restaurants in the United States.

Workers at the Chipotle in Lansing cited wages and under-scheduling as the impetus for their campaign. They said some workers at their store make around $13 an hour and aren’t getting enough hours to afford basic necessities. Before filing for the union election, organizers said some workers had been scheduled at times for one day a week. And during most shifts, some workers have had to take on additional jobs outside their normal responsibilities, such as running the cash register or drive-through while preparing food, they alleged.

“There’s rarely a shift where anybody in the store is working only 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 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 that the company had retaliated against a worker by firing them the day after they asked for a raise.

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

Thursday’s vote was the latest in a string of efforts by workers to organize following the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

The pandemic led to a major convulsion in the labor market, and there has been a dramatic realignment in the relationship between workers and employers in the past two years. The recent labor shortage has given workers tremendous leverage to demand better pay and benefits and also to form unions. Still, while there has been a spike in union election petitions this year, the campaigns have unionized a small fraction of the workforces at these companies. Many face a long road ahead before they could possibly achieve complete unionization.

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

Since filing for a union election, Chipotle brought in managers from around the Midwest and an outside consultant to discuss working conditions and unionization with workers in private conversations.

Last month, Chipotle shuttered a location in Augusta, Maine, that had filed for a union election, hours before the union and management were scheduled for a National Labor Relations Board hearing about logistics for a potential election. The company said the closure was because of “staffing challenges,” but the union claimed that the closure was “union busting” intended to have a chilling effect on organizing at Chipotle.

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

In August, Chipotle also agreed to pay New York City workers $20 million to settle accusations 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 that the company had increased pay across the country last year and introduced 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 an inspiration for their campaign. More than 230 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since last December.

“After seeing the victories at Starbucks, it was like ‘Oh, my God, we can accomplish this,’ ” said Smith. “A lot of young people are in favor of unionizing but thought it would never happen here. That realism is what is keeping a lot of us down right now. Getting this far shows us we do have to try, because we can succeed.”

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

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

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