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The restaurant industry union movement is gaining momentum: Here’s what to expect

As 170+ Starbucks stores unionize and now a Chipotle location is organizing, we spoke with attorneys on both sides about the current labor movement and where it is headed

As the number of unionized Starbucks stores grows daily (now past 170 unionized locations), and is now joined by the first Chipotle store that just filed for unionization this month, where is the labor movement headed for the restaurant industry? Right now, the momentum seems unstoppable thanks to a concoction of factors, including a shrinking labor pool, a recession looming on the horizon, and a Democratic president in the White House, experts say. All these factors have given retail and service industry employees the confidence to grab a seat at the table, though that might not last forever.

Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with two labor attorneys on opposite sides of the issue: Camille Bryant, an attorney at McGlinchey Stafford in New Orleans who represents employers and Barry Saltzman, an attorney at Pitta Law in New York who has represented both labor unions and employers.

“For the most part, wages have not kept pace and they’ve been driven down,” Saltzman said. “Now, the big labor shortage is giving workers leverage to negotiate because of course, companies need the workers. And if you have the leverage, you can form a union and the union has to be listened to or else these companies will lose their workers.”

With the national labor shortage rampant in the hospitality industry, employers need employees more than employees need their retail jobs. Currently with a Democratic president in the White House who named a pro-labor movement as head of the National Labor Relations Board, workers have even more confidence in starting a labor movement, Saltzman said.

“Workers are conversing across the nation, especially with digital communications being what they are,” he added. “They’re passing information to one another, so it can take off like wildfire.”

While historically, restaurants have been slow to unionize because the industry attracts such a transient workforce and restaurants themselves very quickly go out of business, now in a post-pandemic world, employees want to stand up for their rights and needs.

“Everyone in the restaurant industry was on the front lines and was dealing with health and safety issues without getting a lot of pay raises and compensation for it,” Camille Bryant said. “Low employee headcount is feeding into this culture of longer hours and job demands, so restaurant employees want more flexibility, better working conditions, more training and more diversity.  […] All of that is feeding into this movement.”

In this time of hyper-inflation when it becomes increasingly difficult for employers to offer competitive wages, tensions between employers and employees grow.

So far, the labor movement in the restaurant industry has mostly been focused on Starbucks, and now the first Chipotle restaurant that filed for unionized in Augusta, Maine. Bryant thinks the reason for this is twofold: first, both Starbucks and Chipotle do not franchise, so it’s easier for employees to band together when their stores are owned and operated under the same corporate umbrella. Contrastingly, you should not expect a mass union movement from McDonald’s workers anytime soon since their stores are mostly franchised, Bryant said.

The second contributing factor is that both Starbucks and Chipotle have reputations as progressive companies with a wider range of employee benefits. Saltzman said that Starbucks union leaders are usually young, college-educated leaders who feel that they should be treated better.

“The [Starbucks and Chipotle] employees are sort of taking the progressive messaging to heart and making the company put their money where their mouth is,” Bryant said. “They’re saying, ‘you say you’re inclusive and offer these great benefits,’ so they’re making them live up to the promises they made. I don’t think Amazon for example, has the same outward-facing messaging that Starbucks or some of these more progressive companies have.”

But as labor movements rise and fall in cycles over the course of American history, employers should not expect this boom in unionization to last forever. If the world economy falls into a recession, then employee power will regress as they will need to hold onto their jobs even with low wages and fewer benefits than they’d like, Bryant said. Plus, there’s looming concern that investment in AI and automation could replace some of the workforce in the future.

However, during the current Democratic administration and while employers are still struggling to hire and keep retail and hospitality industry workers, the labor movement is likely to spread.

“A good employer should be listening to their employees, and if they won’t listen carefully enough, their workers will definitely try to organize, and if they organize, they will have a collective voice, which is stronger than individual complaints,” Saltzman said.

Bryant agreed that unionization is all about employees not feeling heard and that when employers bargain with their employee unions, they need to come back with real solutions to communicate that they’ve been listening actively and not just pushing back against organization.

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

TAGS: Operations
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