Chipotle Mexican Grill will pay $240,000 to employees let go when the company last year closed its Augusta location, vindication for the workers whose jobs were lost when they dared to ask for better working conditions.

It could also be part of something much bigger.

Chipotle workers hug last June after Brandi McNeas, far right, dropped off a letter about starting a union outside the restaurant in the Marketplace at Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

The question is, will the demands for safety, dignity and security in low-wage industries be picked up by more workers, and customers too, or will this wave break under the weight of corporate power and public complacency?

The well-being of millions of workers hangs in the balance, and more than a few realize the moment they’re in. Workers at places like Amazon, Apple, Trader Joe’s and Tesla are organizing into unions in response to low pay, wage theft, unsafe workplaces, and uncertain work schedules.

Management is noticing. In more than a few instances, companies have responded to talk of unionization by intimidating and firing the employees responsible, withholding benefits, or worse, hoping that they can stop the union movement from spreading.

When employees at a Starbucks in Biddeford became the first from that chain to unionize, they were retaliated against by the company, which, employees say, continues to prevent them from posting union information, as they are allowed to by law.


Another Starbucks, in Portland’s Old Port, was closed after employees voted to join a union. The company said the location was closed because of construction, but the track record of Starbucks – guilty of violating labor laws 130 times across six states in less than two years – says otherwise.

Chipotle seems to be following the same playbook. When the Augusta location was closed after employees became the first in the country to file for union recognition, the company instead cited its “remote” location as a deciding factor.

But the National Labor Relations Board found that Chipotle violated labor laws, leading ultimately to the settlement announced this week. Under the agreement, in which Chipotle admits no fault, the money will be split among 24 workers who were on the payroll when the Augusta location closed.

Chipotle must also post a notice in about 40 stores in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts detailing how the company broke labor laws in Augusta, along with a commitment not to interfere with the rights of employees, including the right to unionize.

The money will only partly compensate the workers for what they lost when they suddenly, illegally lost their jobs.

But to the workers, it’s worth it as long as others who are stuck in exploitative workplaces see what they’ve done and know they, too, can stand up for their rights.


That’s really all they’ve ever wanted. They don’t want Chipotle to falter, they just want to be treated fairly as partners in its success.

A lot of others in the same situation feel the same way. They know that many Americans have to make a career out of jobs that are traditionally low-wage and exploitative, so they are crying out for livable wages and safe, stable working conditions – not just at one employer or in one industry, but across several.

As we’ve learned over the last few years, these are workers we cannot live without. They serve our food and ring us up at the store. They take care of our seniors and our kids. They package our goods for next-day delivery and help us buy the latest gadgets.

More than that, of course, they are our neighbors. We shouldn’t stand by while they are treated poorly, nor should we be silent when they are disciplined or fired just for saying so.

Workers need the tools to hold their own in their standoff with powerful corporate interests, including stronger labor laws and more powerful NLRB.

And workers should have our support as they demand to be treated as something more than parts that can be replaced.

The settlement with Chipotle can be something more than a victory for the 24 employees who were let go in Augusta – it can be the start of a better deal for tens of millions of workers around the country.


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