The restaurant trade union movement is gaining momentum

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

Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with two opposing labor lawyers: 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 unions and employers.

“Wages for the most part haven’t kept pace and they’ve gone down,” Saltzman said. “Now the great labor shortage gives workers leverage to negotiate because of course companies need workers. And if you have the influence you can form a union and the union must be listened to , otherwise these companies will lose their workers.

With the national labor shortage plaguing the hospitality industry, employers need employees more than employees need their retail jobs. Currently with a Democratic president in the White House who has appointed a pro-worker movement to lead the National Labor Relations Board, workers have even more confidence to start a labor movement, Saltzman said.

“Workers are conversing across the country, especially with digital communications being what it is,” he added. “They pass information to each other, so it can take off like wildfire.”

While historically restaurants have been slow to unionize because the industry attracts such an itinerant workforce and restaurants themselves close very quickly, now in a post-pandemic world employees want to defend their rights and their needs.

“Everyone in the restaurant industry was on the front lines dealing with health and safety issues without getting a lot of pay raises and compensation,” Camille Bryant said. “The low number of employees fuels this culture of longer hours and work demands, so restaurant workers want more flexibility, better working conditions, more training and more diversity. […] All of this fuels this movement.

In this period of hyper-inflation where it becomes more and more difficult for employers to offer competitive wages, tensions between employers and employees are increasing.

So far, the labor movement in the restaurant industry has focused primarily on Starbucks, and now the first Chipotle restaurant to file for unionization in Alberta, Maine. Bryant thinks the reason for this is twofold: First, Starbucks and Chipotle aren’t franchised, so it’s easier for employees to band together when their stores are owned and operated under the same umbrella. By contrast, you shouldn’t expect a mass labor movement from McDonald’s workers anytime soon because their stores are mostly franchised, Bryant said.

The second contributing factor is that Starbucks and Chipotle have a reputation for being progressive companies with a broader range of employee benefits. Saltzman said Starbucks union leaders are typically young, college-educated leaders who feel they should be treated better.

“The [Starbucks and Chipotle] employees are kind of taking the progressive messages to heart and forcing the company to put their money where they say it is,” Bryant said. “They say, ‘you say you’re inclusive and have these great benefits’, so they force them to keep the promises they made. I don’t think Amazon, for example, has the same outward-facing message as Starbucks or some of these more progressive companies.

But as labor movements rise and fall in cycles throughout American history, employers shouldn’t expect this organizing boom to last forever. If the global economy falls into a recession, employee power will regress as they will have to keep their jobs even with low wages and fewer benefits than they would like, Bryant said. Additionally, there are fears that investment in AI and automation will replace some of the workforce in the future.

However, under the current Democratic administration and as employers still struggle to hire and retain workers in the retail and hospitality industry, the labor movement is likely to spread.

“A good employer should listen to his employees, and if he does not listen carefully enough, his workers will certainly try to organize, and if they organize, they will have a collective voice, which is louder than complaints individual,” Saltzman said.

Bryant agreed that organizing is about employees not feeling heard and that when employers negotiate with their employee unions, they need to come back with real solutions to communicate that they actively listened and did not content to push the organization away.

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi



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Cecil N. Messick