Unionization efforts by workers at a pair of Maine retail stores in recent months could mark the start of more such activity in the state’s retail sector, at a time when workers at a handful of chains across the country have started to organize a sector that had previously seen little union activity.
Employees at a Starbucks coffee shop in Biddeford this spring became the first in Maine to organize with Workers United, with workers citing staff shortages and inadequate training. Workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in Augusta soon followed suit, becoming the first Chipotle in the U.S. to file for a union election as Chipotle United, an independent union.
So far, they’re the only two retail chain establishments in Maine to see employees organize, but the state’s small size, relatively high rate of union representation and tradition of union representation in established, legacy industries could bode well for future unionization efforts, said Marc Cryer, the director of the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine.
“I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more organizing activity,” Cryer said. “I’m assuming that will continue.”
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Maine unions have traditionally held some sway in the state’s politics, with politicians often seeking the support of unions that represent employees of Bath Iron Works and members of law enforcement. Paper mill unions around the state also ensured that their members were able to share in employers’ benefits when the state was the global center of papermaking.
Today, 14.7 percent of Maine’s workforce is represented by a union. That’s the 13th highest rate in the nation and more than 4 percentage points higher than the rate for the overall U.S. workforce, according to federal labor data.
Starbucks workers at hundreds of stores around the U.S. have organized at a rapid clip, but only a handful have begun negotiations to bargain for contracts that legally establish benefits, conditions and wages. So far, only the Biddeford Starbucks has moved to organize in Maine, out of the 32 stores and outlets that the coffee conglomerate operates in the state, according to National Labor Relations Board records.
An organizer with Starbucks Workers United in Maine declined to comment last week about whether any other store workers were planning union drives in Maine.
Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment.
“There’s absolutely no reason that the momentum should stop here, other than that we’re at the end of the nation,” Cryer said. “In fact, because the state is smaller, I think there’s an advantage [for] organizers because it’s just so much easier to reach out to people than if you were in Chicago or a major city where it might be difficult. There’s a lot more connection with the community.”
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Workers at a Starbucks store in Biddeford announced their intent to unionize on Friday, becoming the first Maine store to do so as employees at dozens of Starbucks stores across the country have sought to unionize.
The Maine AFL-CIO’s availability as a support to its smaller affiliates has also helped, he said.
The Maine AFL-CIO has four labor councils, which oversee unions in southern, western, central and eastern Maine, a smaller number than in other states like California, where the labor federation oversees 23 labor councils around the state and whose leaders may be harder for rank-and-file members to reach, Cryer said.
Union density — the portion of workers represented by a union — also matters when it comes to supporting new organizing, as established unions can lend their support, like having members show up to walk picket lines or boycott businesses, Cryer said.
Chipotle permanently closed its Augusta store the same day the National Labor Relations Board was to hold a hearing to determine whether the workers were eligible for a union election. The Mexican food chain claimed that staffing shortages forced it to close the “remote” store in Maine’s capital city. Workers said it was a union-busting tactic and that those involved in organizing were blacklisted from applying for jobs at another Chipotle restaurant in Auburn.
Chipotle United workers and supporters held a rally outside the Augusta store, and politicians including Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, denounced Chipotle’s actions, in a show of support from some of the state’s top-ranking elected officials. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate whether the chain retaliated against the Augusta union.
Correction: A previous version of this article had an incorrect title for Maine Senate President Troy Jackson.