Fern Thurston, left, gives a thumbs up to a co-worker while working in the kitchen as Charlie Brassard plates a dish at Cong Tu Bot in Portland on Friday. The workers at the restaurant voted to join UNITE HERE, a union that represents 300,000 workers in the hotel, food service, gaming, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation and airport industries. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Employees at Portland’s Cong Tu Bot restaurant voted to unionize this week, making it the state’s first independent unionized restaurant in more than 40 years.

Workers and union officials hope others will follow suit.

Cong Tu Bot’s 21 employees voted unanimously to join UNITE HERE, a union that represents 300,000 workers in the hotel, food service, gaming, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation and airport industries.

Owners Vien Dobui and Jessica Sheahan have voluntarily recognized the union, which is now the only standalone union restaurant in Maine, according to UNITE HERE.

Meade Aronson, a bartender, said the workers at Cong Tu Bot wanted to send a message to others in the industry.

At the beginning of the pandemic, restaurant workers were being exploited, considered both “essential” and “disposable,” he said.


The relationship between workers and owners at the Vietnamese restaurant has been largely positive, and the owners have demonstrated that they support workers and workers’ movements, Aronson said, but that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

“We still saw unionizing as important for ourselves, but we also saw it as an opportunity to be precedent-setting for our city,” he said. “We wanted to show others where management might not be as friendly that they can do this too.”

Fern Thurston, a line cook, said the vote feels “surreal.”

Workers at Cong Tu Bot work in the kitchen as customers sit a the counter on Friday. Workers at Cong Tu Bot have unionized. The restaurant owners not only recognized the union, but also encouraged it. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Thurston said the workers at Cong Tu Bot hope to show the rest of the industry that unionizing is possible.

“We live in a democracy, but when we’re at work, we’re at the whim of whoever management is,” Thurston said. “We’re really lucky (here), but that’s not the case for everyone.”

The restaurant owners not only recognized the union, but they also encouraged it.


“I think labor organizing is important,” Dobui said. “The quality of the job we create here at the restaurant has been very important to me.”

Dobui said he’s been aware of some level of labor organizing for about two years.

The restaurant, which was a James Beard award finalist in 2020 and was included in the New York Times’ favorite restaurant list in 2021, was closed to indoor dining for much of the pandemic. When management started making plans to reopen, they wanted to make sure the employees had a say.

Dobui encouraged staff to form some sort of collective bargaining unit around the issue, which was already top of mind for several employees.

Since then, the staff’s more informal union, “CTB Rockers United” made strides in improving conditions for workers. They instituted a tip pooling system for all hourly workers, their wages have gone up 15%-20% and they worked better, more consistent hours.

Moving forward, Thurston hopes the workers get health care coverage, which is traditionally hard to come by in restaurants and small businesses.


“In an industry that’s so physical, that’s very important to us,” Thurston said.

Dobui wasn’t surprised when the CTB Rockers United took the steps to join a full-fledged union.

“I am incredibly proud of our staff and the organization that they could put the work in to get to this point,” he said.

Bartender Meade Aronson pours drinks behind the bar at Cong Tu Bot on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

While Cong Tu Bot’s unionization has been amicable, others have had a harder time.

In June, workers at Augusta’s Chipotle Mexican Grill became the first in the country to file for union recognition, but the restaurant was closed just a few weeks later, prompting an investigation from the National Labor Relations Board.



In a settlement announced Monday, the Mexican fast food chain will pay workers $240,000 for violating labor laws for closing the Augusta location and blacklisting a worker who sought employment at one of the company’s other locations.

Also last summer, employees at Starbucks in Biddeford and Portland voted to unionize. But workers at the Biddeford location said that following the vote, the company began retaliating against employees and cutting store hours. They went on strike in September to protest unfair labor practices.

Organizing hasn’t been left entirely to chains.

Employees at Little Dog by the Met coffee shop in Brunswick voted in November to join Workers United, a union that represents workers in the food service industry. Workers said they were prompted to organize over concerns about food safety, a lack of transparency and respect from ownership, and unlivable wages.

Little Dog employees filed a complaint with the NLRB that same month, alleging that the owner engaged in unfair labor practices by firing two employees who supported organizing. Co-owner Larry Flaherty said the workers were terminated for other reasons.

Thurston credited the workers at Little Dog, Chipotle and Starbucks with motivating the efforts at Cong Tu Bot.


“I don’t think this would have happened without that,” Thurston said. “Seeing service workers in a similar industry doing the same thing is really inspiring.”

This is the most union organizing the state has seen in decades, said Andy O’Brien, spokesperson for the Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of unions.

O’Brien said the last independent restaurant to unionize was the Roundhouse Motor Inn in Auburn. In the 1980s it was the sole unionized restaurant in the state.

Workers and management celebrate together at Cong Tu Bot yesterday after forming a union. Contributed photo

“For so long, everybody has been so squeezed and feeling very powerless,” he said.

The restaurant industry has struggled, especially in the last few years following the pandemic. Pay is low, the work is stressful, and in cities like Portland, the cost of living is high.

“I think that some things need to change,” O’Brien said.

But Cong Tu Bot’s news is a step in the right direction.

“I think this bodes well and let’s hope it’s a trend,” he said.

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