Last fall, Atulya Dora-Laskey took a break from his shift at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Lansing, Michigan, and began thumbing through his copy of Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life. When his co-worker Harper McNamara came along and spotted the book, he “pointed to it and asked, ‘Do you also know Hasan Piker? Do you know Noam Chomsky?’ ” Dora-Laskey told me. “It was the closest you could get to a leftist dog whistle.”
The two burrito slingers quickly bonded over politics. Dora-Laskey, 23, had co-founded the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Alma College in 2019, while McNamara, a 19-year-old guitarist who started at the Chipotle after graduating from nearby Grand Ledge High School last spring, had been managing editor of his school paper. (Representative article: “Interview With a Marxist.”) By October, thanks to a mutual frustration with their workplace, McNamara and Dora-Laskey were talking casually about forming a union. They soon began connecting with union organizers and fellow Chipotle workers from across the country.
As they talked to their co-workers at the Lansing store, they found out many of them were just as fed up with the pay, the unstable and erratic scheduling arrangements, and what they saw as minimal staffing during busy times. McNamara was surprised to learn some had been asking for salary bumps for years. At one point, workers discussed a stunt in which each of them would formally request a raise over the course of a single day, but the idea fizzled. “The issue was never convincing people what Chipotle did was wrong,” Dora-Laskey said. “It was whether we would even be able to make a union happen here.”
By early July, they got enough co-workers on board to file with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a unionization vote. On Aug. 25, the effort paid off: The Lansing workers voted 11–3 in favor of forming a union with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Local 243 chapter, in the hopes of bargaining with the burrito chain to improve wages and working conditions. It’s the first official union at a Chipotle, anywhere, in the restaurant’s history.
The union drive was far from the neatest thing to roll off Chipotle’s famous burrito assembly line. At one point, workers accidentally tipped off a store manager, who tried to appease the organizers with free laser tag. Later, when corporate management learned of the union, it dispatched out-of-town managers as well as a labor consultant, and papered the location with anti-union flyers. “There was, like, a 2-to-1 manager-to-worker ratio at some point,” Dora-Laskey told me. But in the end, the $46 billion chain couldn’t stop young organizers who bonded over being mad-online socialists. (The company did not respond to questions for this article.)
You could see why Chipotle would want to quash any union activity: While fast-food and fast-casual unions are rare, there have been more than 100 union drives at Starbucks locations over the past year, and the momentum isn’t slowing down. Many of the key organizers involved in these drives are left-leaning, young, college-educated workers, like Dora-Laskey, who were inspired by movements like Occupy Wall Street. Having grown up hobbled by student debt and lacking many of the routes to prosperity once offered to previous generations, these workers view corporations less favorably than past generations did—and like what the labor movement has to offer.
What happens when organized labor comes to fast food? The Coffee Contagion is showing signs of wider spread. Could the next union hotspot really be Big Burrito?
If you were going to get involved in a union, Michigan was once the place to do it. The first railroad workers’ union in the U.S. was formed there. Detroit, recognized as the birthplace of the modern labor movement, produced the first craft-trade unions as well as the United Auto Workers. Though it was hit hard by the late-century cratering of manufacturing jobs, Michigan remained one of the country’s most unionized states well into the 2000s—until a controversial right-to-work law passed in 2012. Laborers in both the public and private sector no longer had to pay dues as a condition of union membership, undercutting a major source of union funding and, thus, influence. Ten years later, Michigan isn’t even among the top 10 of the most unionized states.
But as unions have made new strides in certain industries over the past few years (including media, like the Slate union of which I am a part), Michigan has also seen a resurgence of organizing. Just months after the first successful Starbucks union vote in Buffalo, New York, on Dec. 9, outposts of the coffee chain in Ann Arbor and Flint followed suit; baristas in other Mitten cities are now organizing, too. Budtenders in the state’s burgeoning legal-weed industry are organizing dispensaries across the state. Hundreds of museum and library workers in the University of Michigan system formed a new union last month.
Fast food in particular has a mixed record with Michigan unions. As Eric Schlosser chronicled in Fast Food Nation, McDonald’s workers across the country who led organizing drives from the late 1960s onward faced heavy obstacles from their corporate bosses. Anytime there were rumblings of a union, the golden arches would dispatch a “flying squad” of executives and managers to the relevant branch, force workers to take lie-detector tests, and threaten to fire them if they didn’t divulge union-related details. One early-’70s effort at a Lansing McDonald’s ended with the crew members fired and the restaurant shuttered—only for a new Mickey D’s to open in the same area, sans any of the workers who’d supported organizing. Just one McDonald’s in the U.S. ever successfully unionized, in Mason City, Iowa, and that collective only lasted from 1971 to 1975. In Detroit, Burger King staffers working in the city’s Greyhound station won the fast-food chain’s first union election in 1980, inspiring a subsequent organizing wave throughout the city’s other burger joints—all of which were crushed. The Greyhound BK negotiated a contract in 1983, but the location was shuttered a few years later.
Fast food is a tough industry to organize even before any corporate backlash happens. As Eater noted in 2015, “Most of these workers view their jobs as temporary” and thus are “unwilling to pay union dues, as they plan to be long gone by the time a union is actually elected.” Many employees are of high-school age and don’t plan to stick around long. And companies will play hardball even if there’s talk of improving working conditions somewhat: Last year, Motherboard reported that McDonald’s spied on workers with an interest in the Fight for $15 movement, surveilling social media activity to determine their level of involvement.
It’s perhaps for this reason that fast-food laborers are more likely to take it to the streets than to the union hall. Spirited rallies for higher wages, walkouts for better conditions, full-on strikes—these are the actions laborers in this space are most apt to take for themselves, generally without the formal step of unionization. Throughout the 21st century, the fast-food workforce has nearly doubled, but wages have fallen by about 4 percent; restaurant staffers are still fighting for $15, and their frustration has been mounting. One labor reporter cataloged that from March 2020 through October 2021, there were a total of 1,600 fast-food-employee walkouts across the U.S.
Now, something seems to be changing. More than 100 stores have joined the Starbucks union groundswell that kicked off last year in Buffalo. In December, Oregon’s Burgerville negotiated a contract with workers from five of its outposts, who are now represented by the International Workers of the World. Notably, these actions seem to have as much to do with conditions in these stores as with the broader political ideals the workers wish to realize.
In June, workers at a Chipotle in Augusta, Maine, became the first employees of the chain to file for a union election. They didn’t get to actually vote, though, because the company shut the location down soon after.
To get to the Lansing Chipotle, you have to drive to the western side of the city, far past the Capitol. The restaurant sits across the street from the infamously desolate Lansing Mall and near Jersey Giant, McDonald’s, Popeyes, Wendy’s, KFC, Panda Express, Chick-fil-A, and Qdoba. You could unionize the entire fast-food business if you started on this strip.
Having grown up in the area, I’d been to this Chipotle before, but it had been a while since my last burrito run. On a recent late afternoon, maybe 10 customers—some of them kids whose parents were grabbing after-school treats—trickled in and out. Somehow, it still seemed hectic. For one thing, I only counted four staffers. Two of them managed the drive-thru window, which had a pretty steady stream of cars. One person was hauling boxes and keys, and one person was arranging ingredients in the back, which meant no one was manning the main burrito line. Eventually, the staffer at the back did grab my order, and my veggie bowl came together pretty smoothly, although the box hauler had to step in as cashier. Both the burrito-maker and cashier apologized for the wait.
I met with McNamara and Dora-Laskey shortly after my meal, in a local library, and from what they told me, this wasn’t unusual. When he started working at the Lansing location, McNamara quickly became miffed about the working conditions. Too few people were assigned to the rush-hour food-prep shift, he said; a good operation needs at least six or seven workers at a time, but they couldn’t even get that much. Staffers were simultaneously handling drive-thru duty and the cash register. Any requests for raises or increased hours were rebuffed by management. To McNamara, it seemed unfixable. “There was a ton of turnover,” he said. “When I started working there, it was just accepted that this is the way it is. One person called it ‘the Chipotle lifestyle.’ ”
Characterizations of “the Chipotle lifestyle” range dramatically, and get ugly. Three years ago, New York City sued the chain for allegedly “abusing” workers at several Brooklyn locations by forcing them to work exhausting “clopening” shifts (in which you close a branch and then reopen it a few hours later), arbitrarily cutting their hours and pay, and coercing them into signing paperwork signaling that the laborers themselves had requested the schedule and pay changes. The company had to compensate city Chipotle workers $20 million last month after losing the suit. In January 2020, Chipotle was fined $1.3 billion by Massachusetts for violating state child labor laws by forcing employees under 18 to work over nine hours a day and 48 hours a week on several thousand occasions. The next month, the National Consumers League and Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ released a joint report laying out a series of complaints from New York City Chipotle workers: consistent understaffing during busy hours, on-the-job injuries, sexual harassment, and pressure to work while ill or to forgo sick days.
Dora-Laskey and McNamara paid keen attention to these cases, reading articles by Jacobin writer Alex Press in which Chipotle staffers in other locations described being exposed to biting rats and working with insufficient COVID and food-safety protections. When it came to their own location, the biggest issues were underscheduling (not being given enough hours), pay (specifically, a lack of opportunity for raises), paltry benefits (the first job perk typically advertised is “Free Chipotle,” along with “Flexible Scheduling”), and harried working conditions. McNamara made slightly above Michigan’s minimum salary when he started out, and he and his colleagues only saw wage increases when Chipotle boosted its own national minimum pay to $11, following protests in New York. (The currently advertised minimum at the Lansing Chipotle is $13.)
But often, crew members said, they weren’t scheduled for enough hours to make a reasonable living, even after those pay bumps; as a local Starbucks barista told me, “Lansing is not cheap.” Lansing worker Matthias Overley, a 16-year-old Waverly High School student who started working at Chipotle eight months ago, told me he’d also “noticed pretty soon after I started there that they would be constantly underscheduled, especially during night shifts,” which Overley had to take on because of school. (University of California–Hastings College of the Law professor Veena Dubal told me that the poor shift-scheduling practices at the location could run afoul of Michigan’s Employee Fair Scheduling Act, which requires that schedules be planned two weeks in advance and workers be notified of changes at least four days—or 96 hours—beforehand.)
It’s a hefty list of issues. Still, much of the reason Dora-Laskey and McNamara decided to go the organizing route, as opposed to quitting Chipotle or arranging a Fight for $15–style protest, is because they realized many other fast-food jobs—as well as occupations in general—had the same problems. “Our generation can’t just keep hopping from job to job, hoping the next one will be better,” said Dora-Laskey. “All these jobs suck for the same reason, which is that workers don’t have power.”
When the two spoke with co-workers to gauge tentative interest, they found out about troubles they’d never been aware of, like cashiers being instructed to handle money in ways that made them uncomfortable. As they pressed on, the duo found they had a surprising number of factors in their favor. For one thing, there was no need to worry about the complications that come with franchises, since all Chipotle stores are company-owned. They also learned there was more ideological solidarity among their crew than they’d expected. “We found some workers were socialists already, many who were Bernie Sanders fans,” Dora-Laskey said. “But there were other workers who were into this because their family members were in labor, like UAW or nurses’ unions.” Some colleagues were amenable because they didn’t feel attached to either Chipotle or their particular job; the tight labor market suggested that they could find another workplace if need be. (The “great resignation” of the past few months was also a disadvantage, however, in that some frustrated workers just up and left, contributing to higher-than-usual turnover during this period.)
Some of the Lansing Chipotle workers worried about their job status, that a union would interfere with their position and duties, or that managers and the corporation itself would retaliate against them. There were other struggles along the way. Dora-Laskey and McNamara told me that one worker they’d initially spoken with, who was under the mistaken impression that branch managers would be included in the unit, asked their supervisor if they were aware of the effort. After this happened, Dora-Laskey said he was summoned into an hourlong meeting in the building’s back office, during which managers discouraged the effort and raised the prospect of a team laser-tag outing on the company’s dime, up to $150. To get out of the meeting, Dora-Laskey said, he pretended not to be interested in organizing anymore; the laser-tag trip was never mentioned again.
Dora-Laskey and McNamara also reached out to the Greater Lansing Democratic Socialists of America chapter—Dora-Laskey is a member—which pointed them toward resources for basic organizing knowhow, like the website Labor Notes. By February, a friend from the organization had connected them with 21-year-old Grace Norris, a Michigan State University student and local Starbucks barista who at the time was leading her store through a union drive. “We had a long conversation. I told Atulya things that I thought were helpful in my process of unionizing, and I think their efforts really kicked off after that conversation,” Norris told me. “I informed him what Starbucks’ response had been like—the campaign from corporate was pretty intense—and how they might face a pretty uphill battle.” She also joined the Chipotle team’s meeting where they decided which national union to align with. The workers eventually settled on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the famed blue-collar union. “There’s something about Teamsters that’s just so cool,” Norris said.
The Chipotle group formalized their ties with the Teamsters in March, becoming the first food business to work with Local 243. Members held regular union meetings at Dora-Laskey’s house—often twice on a given day in order to accommodate everyone’s work schedule—and organized a Snapchat group text for communication.
By June, Norris’ Starbucks had successfully unionized, and the Chipotle in Maine had filed for an election with the NLRB. The burrito slingers in Lansing officially filed for election with the NLRB on July 5, and Teamsters arrived in person to the Lansing outpost. “I served the petition,” Local 243 vice president T.J. Kitchen told me. “We dropped off the paperwork and stated that we had a majority of the workers ready to vote to be represented by our unit.”
Then came the counter-response. McNamara said the company notified them it was hiring a consultant who was an “an expert on the National Labor Relations Act.” The consultant did not present herself as an anti-union campaigner, but it became apparent this was her role. She interviewed every crew member one on one, in the back office or even out front in the restaurant lobby, and presented a range of talking points that often drifted into the fantastic. Dora-Laskey and McNamara heard from co-workers that she warned they would have to pay union dues for life if they signed a card—even if the union itself did not come to be. According to Local 243 president Scott Quenneville, she also told workers that the Teamsters “would be fining them for every day they reported late to work.” As voting day neared, company opposition ramped up. A bulletin board that would normally post workplace notes or other day-to-day items was at one point “covered” in anti-union flyers set up by the regional hiring managers, Overley said.
Veena Dubal told me that all of these company tactics are common. “There’s a whole industry where companies spend millions of dollars a year making sure their workplaces are not unionized,” she said. “Oftentimes the NLRB will find that these tactics are unlawful under the NLRA, but there’s not much in the way of enforcement to deter anti-union activity—there’s very little reparation a company has to make in turn.”
On July 19, the same day its workers were supposed to hold their election with the NLRB, the Augusta Chipotle was shuttered, effectively extinguishing the union effort in a move organizers perceived as retaliation. “There were a few people on the fence who then became hard-line union supporters after the Maine store shutdown,” Dora-Laskey said. “One focus became avenging them, like, Chipotle should know workers will not be intimidated.” (Workers from the Augusta branch have since accused the company of blacklisting them from employment at other Chipotle locations.) At least the Michigan location doesn’t have that specific worry: After local alt-weekly City Pulse recently asked, the corporation said there’s no plan to shut down the Lansing store.
Chipotle also brought in general managers and managers-in-training from other branches in Michigan and even Ohio. But “those guys didn’t know why they were there until they looked on the internet,” said Overley. “What they were told is that they were going there to help out the store and be trainers there, and then they noticed stuff about the union.” The managers soon proceeded to monitor the premises, to break up people who were “congregating,” and to ask about whether the workers met outside of their shifts. “The GM from the Okemos branch told me, on her second day there, that people wouldn’t be able to support their families if we had a union because of dues,” Overley said. (All of this is lawful, Dubal said. Such tactics only become illegal “if there were any coercion” used.)
But community support ramped up as well. UPS workers reached out to express solidarity and said they “loved” the Teamsters, with whom they were also organized. Lansing DSA secretary Ian Hyslop wrote to me over email that his organization “encouraged our members and followers on social media to order [from the store] online under the name ‘Union Strong,’ and then to say some words of support during pickup.” Further, “we asked members to interrupt any captive audience meetings [at the branch] and challenge any anti-union rhetoric they heard from managers.” The DSA support culminated with Michigan State University union members entering the store, singing the union standard “Solidarity Forever,” and accompanying the song with an accordion.
Finally, Aug. 25 arrived, with the NLRB vote taking place in a large pop-up tent in the Chipotle parking lot, as Local 243 executives recalled. Dora-Laskey and co. had sat down and talked with other members, informing them how and where and when to vote, making sure they had rides, and double-checking how their shifts synced up with voting times. There were some day-of scares: last-minute schedule changes, a rush of customers, managers ordering that workers take their quarterly food-safety tests during the scheduled voting period. (The tests were taken on the building’s iPad and typically took about 20 minutes.) Still, 14 staffers managed to cast their ballots. When the landslide tally came in, “the corporate officers there seemed pretty shocked,” McNamara recalled with a smile. “It was a hard-fought battle, and it felt good to win,” Quenneville said.
Chipotle is required to respond to the election results and move forward on bargaining; According to Quenneville, the Teamsters have a letter ready to send next week asking about times when company representatives can come to the bargaining table.
For the time being, Dora-Laskey, McNamara, and the Teamsters are focused on setting priorities for the union and bringing Chipotle to the table, as well as helping out any other Chipotle workers who want to organize. (They’ll also be busy serving food to local fans.) Crew members at other Chipotle branches have reached out to the Lansing union for advice, to the point where it’s set up a special email address as a sort of tip line.
Dora-Laskey and McNamara, who don’t plan on leaving the Lansing store or its union anytime soon, told me they have one overarching piece of advice for future Chipotle organizers: “In any situation where union busters come in, you should treat them like mushrooms: Feed them shit and keep them in the dark.”