More than a year after a Lawrence Chipotle employee alleged that management destroyed a union petition and engaged in other union-busting activities, the parties have reached a settlement that will require Chipotle to reaffirm labor rights and walk back punishments.
The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that protects workers’ rights, found merit in many of the charges outlined by former downtown Chipotle employee Quinlan Muller, whose attempts to form a union were stifled by Chipotle.
The board found merit in employees’ claims that the restaurant had disproportionately targeted punishments toward those involved with the unionization efforts and had attempted to discourage union activity.
Chipotle has now been forced to post a notice that outlines the charges and reaffirms workers’ rights to form a union. The company will also have to remove many of the disciplinary actions it took that the NLRB found to be targeted toward the employees who signed the union petition.
“I was still really happy when I saw all of the terms that they had to agree to, because I know it’s really hard holding large organizations accountable like that,” Muller said.
Muller in October 2022 filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge claiming the restaurant had violated the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that protects workers’ rights. The allegations mostly centered on Section 8, which says that “It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” in their right to form a union.
Months later, multiple Chipotle employees alleged that the activity had continued and that Chipotle had disproportionately enforced policies and accelerated termination for employees who had signed the original petition.
Employees also said the store threatened them with a loss of benefits, coerced them to reject forming a union and stopped employees from discussing a union at the store.
Chipotle’s corporate media relations did not respond to emails seeking comment.
‘Chipotle is not going to feel it the same as we did’
Although the board found merit in most of the charges against the restaurant, Muller said the story shows the challenges of trying to face off against a major corporation like Chipotle.
Muller outlined how, despite winning many of the charges, the emotional strain placed on her and her coworkers will never be felt at the same level by Chipotle.
“All of their actions and retaliation towards employees when we were trying to organize, we felt that,” Muller said. “Like, I got fired from my job. I didn’t have a source of income anymore. My friends were getting disciplined and were getting fired. There was a lot of interpersonal conflict at work, like going to work was stressful.”
For Muller, their journey through the legal process showed the power imbalance between employees and employers.
“Chipotle isn’t suffering the same consequences as we did and Chipotle is not going to feel it the same as we did,” they said.
One of the most frustrating parts for Muller was that Chipotle was able to squash union momentum despite the ruling in her favor.
A current employee at the downtown Chipotle location, 911 Massachusetts St., said that talks of another attempt to unionize the store have been chilled by Chipotle’s actions. The employee asked not to have their name used to protect their job.
“There has been talk about another union attempt, but I think everyone is too scared and Chipotle would not hesitate to break laws again. I doubt it will happen,” the employee said.
The employee corroborated many of Muller’s claims. They said the store was very disorganized and poorly run, prompting workers to attempt to form a union. This eventually led to the slew of firings and other actions by Chipotle.
“They found any excuse to get a completely new staff,” the current employee said.
But since the NLRB found merit in Muller’s charge and the restaurant settled, conditions have improved, if only marginally. Workers are now more readily informed of benefits, paid more and properly trained, according to the current employee.
“Overall working environment has improved drastically,” the current employee said. “I do think that is thanks to Quinlan’s hard work. I’m not saying the store is perfect, there is still a lot that needs changed, but overall it’s a lot more put together.”
‘Employees have power when they band together’
In May, Muller traveled to Lansing, Michigan, home of the first successfully unionized Chipotle, where workers told them that despite already forming a union, they still dealt with similar actions from management.
Lansing Chipotle employee Atulya Dora-Laskey said in an interview that she thought Chipotle targeted Muller even more because of the threat that their efforts posed to the “Chipotle status quo of exploitation.”
Muller and Dora-Laskey first met when Muller, after her petition got taken, contacted the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a project of the Democratic Socialists of America that aims to help workers organize and form labor unions.
They met in person for the first time when Muller traveled to Lansing to hear about their unionization efforts. Dora-Laskey said that Muller struck her as a natural organizer, and they talked at length about their experiences with union busting.
“It was clear that the only path Chipotle had to stop their store from unionizing was a scorched earth policy of either firing everyone there or making conditions so bad they would quit,” Dora-Laskey said.
The board did not find merit in some charges, including that employees including Muller had been unfairly terminated for attempting to start a union. The employees will not get their jobs back as a part of the settlement. Muller said that there were many things that they felt deserved justice, but they didn’t have enough legal support.
“They really did just get a slap on the wrist,” Muller said. “And it feels really unfair, because Chipotle is a company that has so much money and relies on our labor to make a profit.”
Muller felt especially bad for some of her coworkers, for whom they had hoped to gain more closure and possibly some remittances via backpay.
“I was at least hoping for a little bit more for the employees to feel at least a bit of the impact of the whole resolution with my case, more than I think they’re going to,” they said.
Muller said one of the biggest challenges of their struggle with Chipotle was watching their coworkers deal with the punishments and union busting that descended on the store after management discovered the union petition.
As they watched their coworkers get punished or fired, Muller said it was hard not to blame herself. But they said it was important to remember that it wasn’t their fault, but rather Chipotle’s actions that violated their coworkers’ rights.
“Chipotle could have respected the law and just done nothing. They didn’t have to do anything that they did. So, I think that’s important to remember.”
Despite the challenges and frustrations, Muller was happy to see their efforts result in real wins for their former coworkers.
In the future, Muller said that this process has helped them feel more comfortable with the legal process and with their rights to unionize. They thanked the NLRB for their help, which was free of charge.
“I’m really proud of what I tried to do,” they said. “Unions and labor organizing and activism have gotten us so much that benefits people … I think it is important to continue that for the benefit of everyone.”
Muller hopes that their journey working to hold Chipotle accountable will encourage other workers to do the same.
“Employees have power when they band together,” they said. “Unionizing can be really difficult, and it can be stressful, and you’ll feel burnt out sometimes. But is it a really effective way to change the working conditions at your workplace and is one of the only actual ways to have any sort of say, or power, in your working conditions.”
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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.
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