Workers have power, no matter the job. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Why else would Chipotle Mexican Grill, a multinational corporation with over 3,000 locations and revenue of more than $2 billion in last quarter alone, be so scared of a couple dozen employees in Augusta, Maine?

Chipotle permanently closed its Augusta location Tuesday in what the company says was a response to staffing shortages.

But it’s no coincidence that workers in Augusta had just become the first at a Chipotle to begin forming a union.

The employees at the Augusta Chipotle had complained of poor and unsafe working conditions for a while before walking off the job in protest last month. Soon after, a majority of the workers signed union cards, expressing their intent to organize.

Chipotle Mexican Grill workers hug June 22 after Brandi McNease, far right, dropped off a letter about starting a union at the restaurant in the Marketplace at Augusta. They were the first at a Chipotle to begin organizing. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

The news was delivered to management June 20. On Tuesday morning, just before a hearing scheduled to determine the process of union election, a statement from a corporate official said instead the store would be closed for good.


The statement attributed the closing to problems finding workers and on-site managers for what the officials called a “remote restaurant,” even though it’s in the biggest and busiest shopping center in the region and has never been short of customers.

But what they’re really worried about is workers at other locations hearing about what’s happening in Augusta and getting ideas of their own.

Companies that thrive on the backs of low-wage workers count on holding on to the power in the employer-employee relationship. That way, they can exploit employees through low pay, unreasonable work demands and volatile schedules, then replace them with new hires once they burn out or demand more money.

It’s been called the “low-wage carousel,” and it promises a steady source of workers who have no choice but to take one of the jobs.

It also keeps most workers from advancing in any meaningful way, and makes it difficult for them to gain security for themselves and their families.

The companies that benefit from this exploitation were not happy to see the power balance shift toward workers during the pandemic. As COVID shrunk the workforce, it became harder to recruit workers in a whole host of low-wage industries, giving people more choice and causing wages to rise.


But that shift is unlikely to be permanent, and when corporations are no longer forced by a tight labor market to treat workers better, they’ll simply stop. It’ll be the workers at the bottom who see their power and benefits disappear the fastest.

The only way for workers to hold on to power, and to ensure that their hard work will be rewarded with safe, stable working conditions and livable wages, is to organize.

And the only way for Chipotle to keep the upper hand is to prevent workers from realizing that it is possible for them to exercise their rights in that way.

Just look at Starbucks, which tried everything in its power to stop locations from unionizing over poor scheduling and low pay, but now must contend with a movement fighting for employee rights, including at a location in Biddeford.

Chipotle’s corporate management looked at the employees at its Augusta location and saw a threat.

They know that workers coming together in solidarity can force them to make changes – and they hope that the rest of their employees never find that out.

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