Big companies are notorious for union busting—just look at Starbucks’ anti-union website that tries to convince us that, uh, unions are bad for workers, actually. And sometimes the union busting goes as far as punishing workers who attempt to organize, a punitive response that might not be legal, depending on how the company approaches it.
We’re seeing an increase in such stories this year. Back in February, a group of Starbucks employees now known as the Memphis Seven were fired for allegedly violating store security rules, but that group also happened to be seven of the most vocal organizers of the union. (That store finally voted to approve a union in June.) More recently, Starbucks closed a location in Ithaca, New York, where workers were in the process of organizing. Now it’s Chipotle that is seemingly thwarting organizing efforts, recently shuttering a location in Maine where workers attempted to unionize last month.
Why Chipotle is closing stores
CNN reports that Chipotle denies the closure has anything to do with union activity, instead citing lack of availability from staff.
“Because of these ongoing staffing challenges, there is no probability of reopening in the foreseeable future, so we’ve made the decision to permanently close the restaurant,” Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer Laurie Schalow said in a statement.
Still, it’s setting off alarm bells to organizers at other stores that are currently working toward the same goal—groups in Lansing, Michigan, and Flushing, Queens, are currently filing to vote to unionize. If either of those locations are shut down next, it will send a strong message from corporate. But it would also signal that Chipotle is engaging in acts of union interference, which violates the National Labor Relations Act.
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What businesses cannot do in retaliation of unions
The Augusta workers filed an unfair labor injunction with the National Labor Relations Board, and if that is accepted it will prevent the Chipotle from closing and allow the unionization vote to go forward. While it can be hard to prove the exact reasoning behind a firing or store closing if the company releases a statement saying otherwise, there are some pretty hard and fast rules on what violates the NLRA.
If workers are attempting to unionize, employers can not:
- Threaten employees with loss of benefits, workplace closure, or worsening working conditions if they support a union or engage in union activity.
- Promise benefits to employees who reject the union.
- Keep employees from wearing union insignia, like T-shirts or buttons.
- Spy on union activity.
- Prohibit employees from talking about the union during working time, if you permit them to talk about other non-work-related subjects.
- Ask employees to appear in campaign videos.
- Convey the message that unionizing would be futile.
If you work for a store that’s attempting to unionize and notice management doing any of these things, you have a case on your hands. And once a workplace is unionized, there are even more protections in place. It’s much harder to fire employees, for example. If you’re a customer wondering whether or not stopping by your local Chipotle is crossing a picket line, be sure to keep an eye on social media to stay up to date with any union activity. (We also have a handy list of how to support fast food unions.)
The most important thing when it comes to unionizing is to never stop fighting. If groups like the NLRB didn’t push back on store closures then nothing would stop Chipotle from retaliating against every organizer out there. And remember, the union is about uniting! Organizing groups across all industries are stronger together than apart. Solidarity!