An Inside Look at Union Organizing in the Fast Food Industry | Civil Eats

An Inside Look at Union Organizing in the Fast Food Industry

A protest at a New York City Chipotle illustrates the challenges and potential of workers fighting for better pay and working conditions.

A worker protesting Chipotle holds a sign while marching outside the store. (Photo by Jake Price)

A worker protesting Chipotle holds a sign while marching outside the store. (Photo by Jake Price)

On a cool, sunny morning in early October, a small group of Chipotle workers gathered in the deeply shadowed entrance to the Queens Center Mall in New York City. They sipped takeout coffee and nervously discussed the day’s strategy with an organizer from 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union representing 175,000 service employees that has been attempting to organize fast-food workers for the last few years.

Their plan was simple: They’d start their protest here around 10 a.m. and, hopefully, more of their colleagues would be on the way after they finished classes or took care of other non-work-related duties. The group planned to protest the wages they lost for the nine days of work they missed in early September when Hurricane Ida flooded the basement level food court where Chipotle shares space with Chick-fil-A, Panda Express, McDonald’s, and other exemplars of 21st-century mall cuisine.

Chipotle “waited a whole week to tell us” the store would remain closed, says Caren Guzman, a veteran crew member and recent community college graduate. “Then they said they wouldn’t pay us [for the days unworked].” The company did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but Guzman says the closure cost her $600 in lost wages—more than half her portion of rent on an apartment that she shares with her mother. The store’s 20 other crew members, most of whom earn New York City’s $15 hourly minimum wage, were similarly strapped.

“There’s no shortage of people who can do [fast food] jobs, it’s that the jobs are terrible.”

Wage theft, unsafe work environments, last-minute shift changes, and firings for no clear reason are just some of the unethical, if not illegal, indignities fast-food workers say they endure in the U.S. The situation has only gotten worse since the COVID epidemic began, and that fact has lead to mass walkouts across the country as well as widespread labor shortages in the foodservice industry.

There’s no “shortage of people who can do the jobs, it’s that the jobs are terrible,” said Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Fast-food workers were being exposed to COVID; “They also realized that they’re not just being left unprotected—that their health didn’t matter to their employers—but that they were getting shit wages for their work.”

The fact that protests are occurring even in New York City—which has enacted hard-won, union-boosted worker protection legislation including Just Cause and Fair Workweek laws—and even at a chain like Chipotle, which promises to serve customers “food with integrity,” underscores the uphill work of union organizers. The strike at the Queens store was just one in a string of actions in the past two years in response to transgressions at New York area Chipotles—and it was part of a larger, longer, more concerted effort from union organizers to force fast-food chains to do better by their workers. This transient and vulnerable labor pool has historically proved tricky to organize; unions such as 32BJ hope they can convince them that better wages and less stressed lives are on the horizon, if only they make their voices heard.

The Roots of Fast-Food Organizing

Attempts to organize fast-food workers date back to the early ‘80s and a little-known union contract that was won by workers at an eatery in Detroit’s Greyhound bus station, says Alex Han, a longtime labor organizer who’s now a Bargaining for the Common Good fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

There have certainly been other efforts since. 32BJ has been active in this arena for the past nine years and is part of a larger national push to organize the sector. To date, however, a union contract recently established at the small West Coast chain Burgerville is a rarity. Current bids owe a lot to a broader, non-union “Fight for $15” campaign that launched in Chicago in 2012 among restaurant and retail workers, Han says. With that campaign following an enormous teachers strike, movement engendered movement as one set of workers inspired others. Solidarity was also forged as lines blurred between various types of low-wage service employment.

“People go from a job at McDonald’s to a job at H&M to driving for Uber,” says Han. This sort of transience highlights one reason that organizing fast-food workers is so tricky. Conventional wisdom holds that these jobs are transitional, not career-centric, for teens and other young people destined for more “professional” futures. But that’s a reality, if not a mindset, that Han says shifted after the 2008 financial crisis; fast food workers now may be supporting families, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and/or taking college classes that require flexible schedules.

Additionally, Han says, “Whenever you have a workforce that is disproportionately female, people of color, immigrants, young people, you’re always going to have a bigger challenge organizing them.” These workers can be hamstrung by fear, a lack of legal knowledge, and disbelief in their power to change their situation, causing many to remain silent about their plight.

Union organizers use a variety of methods to show employees the benefits of coming together to demand better working conditions, with an eye toward helping them take ownership of the process. They might make contact by “salting”: when a trained organizer gets a job at a fast-food restaurant and begins “mapping the workplace” identifying leaders who employees gravitate toward and listen to, according to Luis Feliz Leon, a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.

“The organizer who is salting then builds a committee of worker leaders on the basis of having mapped the workplace to identify how workers organize themselves into social networks or workplace structures,” says Feliz Leon.

“Not many people know what their rights are at work, in part because you have webs of state and federal and local law. . . . But also, every right is only as valid as the strength we have to enforce it.”

Tactics can be more basic, such as giving an organizer’s contact information to employees after closing time and letting them know that “we exist and we’re here for you,” says one Chipotle employee at the Queens Center Mall who requested anonymity. The worker said they began chatting with a 32BJ organizer two years ago.

When a store’s conditions escalate from merely lousy—no air conditioning in summer or heat in winter, no pandemic hazard pay, or a failure to pay legally mandated premiums of $75 for shift schedules changed within 24 hours—to dangerous or fiscally ruinous, now-trusted organizers are on call to offer advice on potential actions and explain basic worker rights.

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“Not many people know what their rights are at work, in part because you have webs of state and federal and local law. . . . But also, every right is only as valid as the strength we have to enforce it. There’s no regulatory body to enforce all the laws we already have on the books,” Han says.

32BJ sees Chipotle as a prime target for organizing because its stores are company-owned—as opposed to franchises like McDonald’s—which makes it directly responsible for the working conditions of its approximately 97,000 employees, says Manny Pastreich, 32BJ’s secretary and treasurer. Chipotle has also allegedly broken New York’s worker protection laws: A 32BJ and National Consumers League report found evidence of sexual harassment, Fair Workweek violations, and retaliation against workers taking paid sick leave.

In 2020, 32BJ helped employees at a Manhattan Chipotle protest being made to work while sick during the pandemic. A few months later, workers at another Manhattan store went on strike because of a rat infestation that led to several crew members being bitten. Another very recent strike protested drastically reduced work hours and understaffing. “Nobody wants to strike,” says Pastreich. “Our goal is to figure out how to make change collectively, where people can continue to do their jobs, provide the service they’re being paid to do, and support their families.”

The protest line outside the Queens Chipotle. (Photo by Jake Price)

The protest line outside the Queens Chipotle. (Photo by Jake Price)

In September, workers at the Queens Center Mall say they received a blanket refusal from Chipotle to compensate them for wages lost due to the flood. Emboldened by reports of the union’s help with the rat situation, they sent a text to a 32BJ organizer who’d already made contact. “I [asked] him: What would he say about the situation we had?” says Guzman. “From there, he gave us a call and told us how it is unfair, and Chipotle shouldn’t be doing that to us. They should be paying us.”

The organizer “took command” and asked for the phone numbers of trusted crew members, says the anonymous employee. “He had us talking and sharing stories, and that empowered us even more. Then he said, ‘Why don’t we have a protest?’”

A Protest and Its Aftermath

By 10 a.m., as planned, nine Chipotle crew members were assembled and had already scored a minor victory: Two workers sent to cover for the striking employees had been convinced to turn around and go home. On the downside, four workers had committed to this morning’s shift, presumably afraid of retaliation. About a dozen organizers from 32BJ began to arrive, wearing purple-colored union garb. Two began handing out fliers to pedestrians explaining the reason for the strike. One brought a megaphone to his face to lead call-and-response chants.

“He was a big morale booster because everyone was scared that day. We had no idea what was going to happen,” says the anonymous crew member. Everyone picked up homemade signs and began circling in front of the mall’s doors.

Part of the point of this kind of protest is to set the workers up to take a leadership role the next time, Han says. “It’s essentially an opportunity to train and educate people on the building blocks” of a strike, he says. “Part of it is people understanding and taking on any role they need to take on—for people to collectively make a plan about how to move through physically and message-wise. A union is a group of workers asserting power; that doesn’t happen in an ad hoc, improvised way.”

By the time of a strike, organizers have also “inoculated” employees by counseling them on how management is likely to respond and trying to blunt the impact to give them the confidence to move forward with their protest. “At the end of the day, people have to take risks and they’re really, really meaningful,” Han says. “Even getting your hours cut is a really scary situation.”

“Nothing can take the place of having an organized workforce, so people can have a say in how things are done on a day to day basis in your workplace.”

The advantage of being under the wing of a “big union bureaucracy” like 32BJ is that it has legal resources and the political clout to pull in elected officials and regulatory bodies. “I remember one of the first fast-food worker strikes at a Wendy’s in Brooklyn [in 2012] and getting texted photos of [then-NYC councilmember] Jumaane Williams sitting in until there was a resolution,” Han says. “Being part of a big organization can bring that to bear.”

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“There’s a fight in the restaurant community to increase wages, and that’s really, really important,” says Adely of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “But added to that is the fact that—no matter if you’re working in a restaurant, or in meat processing, or fast food—nothing can take the place of having an organized workforce, so people can have a say in how things are done on a day to day basis in your workplace, and being able to collectively bargain with your employer.”

A Chipotle worker holds a sign detailing their complaints about treatment after Hurricane Ida during a union organized strike outside the store. Photo by Jake Price

Photo by Jake Price

The Chipotle crew at the Queens Center Mall wound up striking all day. After that, they say the corporate response was swift. Each crew member was spoken to individually, but no offer of wage compensation was forthcoming. The store’s much-respected general manager was allegedly blamed by the company for the strike by not adequately explaining store policy to his workers; crew members feared he’d be fired because of their actions.

“That tactic of ‘Don’t do this again or the baby dies,’ is a really smart way to handle it if you’re an employer,” says Han.

Nevertheless, crew members haven’t given up hope of a bigger, better resolution. “I don’t know everyone else’s goals or agenda but my hope and dream is to have a union for fast-food workers,” said the anonymous crew member—a dream likely shared by Starbucks workers striking this fall in Buffalo and McDonald’s workers in 10 cities, who went on strike October 26—not to mention organizers at 32BJ. “I’ve seen all the ugliness, and if things don’t challenge it, it keeps going. I would like for little voices to be able to speak up and defend themselves instead of being rolled over. With a union that’s possible.”

Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food policy and agriculture, sustainability, and science for outlets such as The Guardian, The Counter, City Monitor, JSTOR Daily, Sierra, and Ensia in addition to Civil Eats. She’s also the author of science books for kids. Find her at lelanargi.com and @LelaNargi. Read more >

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