As workers push to unionize, food companies shut down their worksites

Last month, workers at a Chipotle in Augusta, Maine, announced that they intended to form a union — the first of the chain’s roughly 3,000 locations to do so. This week, Chipotle said it will close the store permanently. 

The move came the same week that Amy’s Kitchen, the vegetarian frozen-food company that has reportedly been fighting attempts by its workers to unionize, announced that it’s closing the San Jose, California, factory where workers complained ofunrelenting managers, poor working conditions, and demanding production mandates.”

And earlier this month, Starbucks announced that it will shutter 16 stores, two that have unionized and one that was preparing for a union vote. 

In each case, the companies said the decisions had nothing to do with the unionization efforts.

In a statement, Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer, cited “ongoing staffing challenges” at the Augusta location and said the company respects employees’ right to organize. 

Fred Scarpulla, acting CEO and chief culinary officer of Amy’s Kitchen, blamed the “very sad” decision on rising costs caused by inflation, along with supply chain disruptions, staff turnover, and labor shortages. And a Starbucks spokesperson told the Associated Press that its decision was based on safety issues — like people doing drugs on the premises — that put employees at risk and was “rooted in [maintaining] welcoming stores.”

Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, isn’t buying it. “This is union busting,” she said. 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is investigating the Chipotle incident to see if any laws were broken, an agency spokesperson said. It is also prosecuting a complaint before an administrative law judge alleging that Starbucks had unlawfully fired workers who were attempting to unionize. And Amy’s Kitchen is currently under investigation for unfair labor practices in response to a complaint filed this month, before the plant closure was announced.

“It’s important as an anti-union strategy for these employers to make workers feel scared about what happens if they organize,” Givan said. “And there’s no bigger fear than the whole workplace closing down.”

The moves come as Chipotle workers in Michigan and New York City are organizing unions and during a resurgence of union activity, much of it in new territory, with ongoing or successful unionization drives at companies including Amazon, Apple, Lululemon, Trader Joe’s, and America’s Test Kitchen, along with independent bookstores and restaurants. 

Closing workplaces in retaliation for unionization efforts is illegal, and the Maine workers have filed a complaint with the NLRB, asking it to seek an injunction that would force the company to reopen the store. But it’s extremely difficult to prove that companies close locations based on union activity rather than other factors — particularly since companies nationwide are experiencing legitimate challenges with staffing, supply chains, and costs.

“It doesn’t pass the smell test, but that’s not a legal standard,” Givan said. “So they’re trying desperately to maintain plausible deniability, even though the workers see right through it.”

A Chipotle spokesperson said the company has closed 13 locations in the past 18 months for a range of reasons — including staffing issues, lease agreements, and performance — but it did not specify how many stores had been closed specifically due to staffing shortages. The company also said that the Augusta store had been closed since mid-June because it was having trouble finding employees and managers, despite having enlisted two recruiting experts.

Chains like Chipotle and Starbucks may be better positioned to close stores as an anti-union strategy than other companies, Givan said, since they often have other locations nearby that can absorb some of the business or they can reopen relatively easily in another spot.

Manufacturers like Amy’s Kitchen may also decide it’s worthwhile to close a plant, then reopen fairly nearby — keeping their suppliers but hiring a new pool of workers.

Situations like these, Givan said, expose the holes in U.S. labor law, a result of years of chipping away at workers’ rights and the outsized influence of business in politics.

But hardline tactics like shutting stores can backfire, she said, especially for companies like Starbucks, Chipotle, and Amy’s Kitchen, whose brands matter to their customers and that have intentionally crafted a progressive image. “If they continue to do things like this, they’re really risking backlash from consumers.”

Meanwhile, Brandi McNease, a Chipotle employee and organizer in Augusta, said the company’s decision to close the store won’t keep workers from unionizing. On the contrary, she’s spoken with workers at several other Chipotle locations and said this has only galvanized them. “I think they meant to dump water on the fire,” she said. “They got gasoline instead.”