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Fast food workers are unionizing, but some of the biggest chains in the country are fighting to stop them

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Starbucks workers participate in November's Red Cup Rebellion, a nationwide strike demanding the company fully staff union stores and bargain in good faith.Starbucks workers participate in November’s Red Cup Rebellion, a nationwide strike demanding the company bargain in good faith.

Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

  • Fast food workers around the country — from Starbucks to Chipotle — are unionizing.
  • CEOs and fast food chains have often pushed back against those efforts, closing stores and even surveilling employees, some workers allege. 
  • Organizing among food workers has grown in recent years, as employees across the country work to form unions. 

Fast food and service workers across the country have joined the likes of Amazon warehouse employees and formed a wave of unionization across the US.

Employees at chains like Starbucks and Chipotle have started organizing in an effort to secure better pay and benefits. But many food and retail chains are pushing back against their workers, as CEOs bash pro-worker legislation and staffers accuse their companies of union busting. 

Here’s a roundup of the service industry workers taking collective action, and efforts among company leaders trying to stop them. 

Starbucks workers began their union fight in 2021, and now have nearly 300 unionized stores around the country.Starbucks workers strike outside a store in Mesa, ArizonaStarbucks employees strike outside their store in November 2022, in Mesa, Arizona.

Matt York/AP

The Starbucks union effort began in Buffalo, New York, where a store filed a petition to unionize in 2021. Since then, nearly 300 stores across the country have followed suit, beginning a movement within the company. 

The Starbucks workers’ movement has resurfaced in national headlines this year, after Starbucks Workers United announced that seven stores took steps to unionize during the company’s annual shareholder meeting last month. 

Additionally, workers pushed back aganst CEO Laxman Narasimhan’s plan to work behind the counter pouring coffee every month. 

“I’d really prefer it if he stayed out of our way and instead spent 40hrs learning about worker’s rights and how NOT to commit thousands of unfair labor practice violations in a year,” Starbucks union organizer Michelle Eisen tweeted.


Meanwhile, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was brought before Congress for union busting.Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testifies about the company's compliance with labor law on Capitol Hill in Washington


Union organizers at Starbucks have continuously called out the cafe chain for attempting to stop unionization at its stores.

The coffee giant has come under legal scrutiny for its handling of unions in Buffalo, where a New York judge ruled that the company illegally monitored and fired employees.

The back and forth between Starbucks and its workers came to a head last month, when former CEO Howard Schultz was called to testify before Congress under threat of subpoena over his conduct regarding unionization at Starbucks.

Through around two hours of questioning, Schultz was steadfast in his claims that Starbucks never violated the law.

“We put our people. First, we make decisions based on our people, and we have the track record to prove it,” Schultz said. “Starbucks is probably one of the best, if not the best, first job in America.”

But workers who testified later in the hearing took a different tone.

“Union busting ramped up even more after we won our election,” Jaysin Saxton, a former Starbucks Barista who lost his job last year, said in the hearing. “We were constantly being watched, and managers listened in to our conversations on our headsets.”

Chipotle workers began organizing last year in Maine, and plan to expand the effort.A Chipotle cook cutting limes.A Chipotle cook cutting limes.


A unionization effort at a Chipotle location in Augusta, Maine, last year was the first in the company’s history. Even after that location was shut down, a unionization effort has been kept alive on social media. 

The Twitter account @1ChipotleUnited has taken to posting pro-union memes and calling out Chipotle for its treatment of unionization and workers. 

“I’ve recently discovered that @ChipotleTweets is all up in the Maine stores again asking crew people what they’ve heard about union activity and holding meetings to prepare them for our return,” the account tweeted. “They totally respect our right to organize, though.”

—Chipotle United (@1ChipotleUnited) April 1, 2023




But Chipotle leaders have pushed back, even incurring $240,000 in fines for illegally closing the Maine store.Chipotle location in Philadelphia's Center City areaI visited a Chipotle location in Philadelphia’s Center City area.

Gabi Stevenson/Insider

Chipotle later faced legal penalties for its handling of unionization, leading the fast-casual burrito joint to pay $240,000 in fines.

The company illegally closed the previously mentioned store in Augusta, Maine, according to the National Labor Relations Board, after workers at the store filed a petition to form a union.

Chipotle agreed to pay the fine, which was set to be split among affected employees, Insider reported this week.

Payments will be split among the former location’s employees, who will receive $5,800 and $21,000 apiece, according to the Kennebec Journal.

In a statement to Insider’s Alex Bitter, Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer Laurie Schalow said the chain agreed to pay the fine “not because we did anything wrong, but because the time, energy, and cost to litigate would have far outweighed the settlement agreement.”

McDonald’s president Joe Erlinger, who made $7.4 million last year, bashed a union-backed law that would raise wages for workers.mcdonald's

@shaulturner on Twitter

McDonald’s president Joe Erlinger slammed a California fast food law that would increase wages for workers up to $22 an hour in January. In 2022, Erlinger made $7.4 million, Insider reported.

Erlinger’s letter harped on the effects higher wages would have on prices in California, and on the impact the law could have on small businesses.

“Whether you’re a lawmaker, a business owner or leader, or an everyday voter, one thing is clear: California has become a dramatic case study of putting bad politics over good policy,” Erlinger wrote.

Dubbed the FAST Act, the union-backed bill was signed into law last year — but McDonald’s and other chains like Chipotle lobbied for a referendum on the bill. That referendum vote will take place in 2024, and the law cannot go into effect until after the vote.

In his open letter, Erlinger bashed unionization in the service industry, writing that organizing has failed to grow organically in sectors like retail and fast food.

“Simply put, organized labor hasn’t been successful going through the front door — giving everyday workers the ability to choose whether they want a union,” Erlinger wrote. “So it asked for a backdoor — pushing Sacramento lawmakers to introduce, pass and sign a bad policy that hurts small businesses, workers, and consumers.”

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