First Chipotle Workers Union Forms in Michigan
September 9, 2022
The momentum of labor union organizing shows no signs of slowing, as Chipotle is added to the list of major companies with new unionization. A Lansing, Michigan location of the large burrito chain saw rumblings of collective action leading up to the filing in early July, followed by a successful vote in late August. A similar outcome was expected at a different location in Augusta, Maine, but the company has permanently closed that location.
Chipotle’s Lansing vote represents a popular trend. Collective bargaining is gaining traction in various industries where wages, hours, and employee benefits have typically lagged behind economic realities.
Organizations such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which backed the Chipotle union vote, have existed for many decades. Labor unions have seen membership and bargaining power decline since the mid-1980’s, but pro-labor activism has surged in the last couple of years. Labor unions are seizing the opportunity to achieve what they perceive as a more favorable balance in corporate priorities. The fast food industry is ripe for restructuring, and a fast food workers labor union may bring about more equitable conditions.
Lansing Chipotle workers’ vote to unionize sends the message that employee well-being must be as important as shareholder profits. The backing of major labor groups and a workforce primarily composed of young, social-media-empowered employees signals that traditional fast food businesses may be in for a reckoning. Low wages, lack of autonomy, and lack of stable benefits are typical in this industry, but these conditions may not be acceptable to its new generation of workers. Unionization helps open the door for companies such as Chipotle and other national brands to beneficially address the needs of their workforces.
Fast food workers are not in this on their own, however. As the Teamsters’ involvement indicates, these employees are just a segment of a larger contingent of workers seeking more leverage. Diverse professions from lawyers to mechanics to teachers are coming together in national (and international) organizations to work for commensurate wages and benefits. Systemic change requires broad action on multiple fronts that achieves an acceptable balance between business and regulatory environments and employee needs.
Large companies take a risk when they employ anti-labor tactics. Closing stores to avert union votes or firing employees who seek unionization may reflect negatively on a brand’s positioning. These actions are often amplified and scrutinized on social media, and may negatively affect companies that have previously had positive public support.
Time will tell how Chipotle and other corporate giants embrace or resist the trend toward unionization. Rewards might be in store for the chains that manage to retain talent through better working conditions.