Photo: Workers at the Augusta Chipotle | Courtesy Maine AFL-CIO
Originally published in the Beacon on July 19, 2022
Workers at a Maine-based Chipotle argue the corporate fast-food chain is engaging in union-busting after the company announced Tuesday it is closing the Augusta restaurant where employees filed to form a collective bargaining unit.
On Tuesday, Lisa Zeppetelli of the Chipotle northeast region corporate office informed workers that the Augusta restaurant at 1 Stephen Drive would be permanently closing, effective that day. In the message, Zeppetelli claimed that while the company had spent considerable time and resources on the store, “we don’t have management necessary to reopen.” The store originally closed temporarily in June after employees expressed concerns about staffing levels.
Workers rallied Tuesday afternoon in protest of the decision to permanently close the restaurant, urging Chipotle to reverse the decision. In a news release announcing that protest, employees at the restaurant said the timing of the closure is revealing. Last month, a majority of workers at the Augusta restaurant filed to form a union — a first among Chipotle workers nationwide — called Chipotle United. That came after employees protested working conditions at the restaurant by walking off the job earlier in June, arguing that persistent understaffing and a lack of training was creating an unsafe environment.
“This is union busting 101 and there is nothing that motivates us to fight harder than this underhanded attempt to shut down the labor movement within their stores,” Chipotle United member Brandi McNease said of the company’s decision to close the Augusta restaurant. “They’re scared because they know how powerful we are, and if we catch fire like the unionization effort at Starbucks they won’t be able to stop us.”
McNease added that the company waited until the morning of a hearing to determine the next steps for the union election to announce that the store would be shut down.
“Since we announced our intent to unionize, they’ve tried to bully, harass and intimidate our crew to prevent them from exercising their right to have a collective voice on the job,” she said. “But we remain united, our solidarity is strong and we won’t bend. We are sticking together and our customers have our backs. We are fighting this decision and we are building a movement to transform the fast food industry and ensure the workers who create all the wealth for these corporations are respected and no longer have to struggle to support their families.”
McNease pointed out that Chipotle gave its CEO a massive bonus in 2020, arguing that the claim the company couldn’t bring in enough workers to keep the Augusta restaurant open doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. She said Chipotle has the money to “attract workers and pay them living wages” if the company wanted to.
In her email to workers on Tuesday, Zeppetelli said workers will be paid for any scheduled shifts through July 24 and will receive four weeks severance based on hours they worked over the past two weeks. Chipotle benefits will continue through July 30 and workers can keep getting benefits through the COBRA program for a period of time, she said. The company also pledged to assist workers in finding another job.
In a statement to Beacon, Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs officer at Chipotle, reiterated the arguments made by Zeppetelli in her email, writing that the company went to “extraordinary lengths to try to staff the restaurant, including deploying two recruiting experts dedicated to this one restaurant.” However, she said those efforts were unsuccessful and that the staffing issues meant reopening the restaurant wouldn’t be profitable. Schalow did not address a question about whether Chipotle was attempting to bust the workers’ union.
The announcement that the Augusta store will be shut down comes as the effort to unionize Chipotle workers has spread. The organizing committee for the Augusta restaurant union said it has received communications from employees at other Chipotles in Maine and around the country asking for advice on forming a collective bargaining unit. And earlier this month, workers at a Chipotle in Michigan also filed to form a union.
Such efforts are part of a labor movement that has shown renewed strength in Maine and across the country. Organizers have recently won union elections at an Amazon warehouse and myriad Starbucks locations as workers seek to force companies to treat employees better, pay them a higher wage and put in place additional protections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org