A Chipotle sign hangs outside the chain restaurant in Pittsburgh on Feb. 8, 2016. In June 2022, employees of the Augusta, Maine, Chipotle filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking to hold a union election at the store. In July, Chipotle announced it was permanently closing the store. Credit: Keith Srakocic / AP

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Brandi McNease is a 20-year food service employee and member of Chipotle United. She lives in Sidney.

As a food service worker-turned-union organizer, this Labor Day is especially important to me. It will mark the end of a whirlwind summer that showed me the power of collective action, and how many good people are suffering because they are told they deserve it. This Labor Day marks the turning of the tide.

In June, crew at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Augusta filed to form the first union in the company. Chipotle has since shut the store down, laid everyone off and blacklisted us from working at other Chipotle locations. 

When it closed our store the day we were set to schedule our union election, it claimed it was “unable to adequately staff this remote restaurant.” This “remote” restaurant happens to be in one of the largest shopping centers in the state. And despite its claims that it couldn’t hire enough staff to keep it open, Chipotle was  able to hire an additional 15 people to fill our roster before it shut down the restaurant. Something didn’t add up.

Across the country, corporations like Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Amy’s Kitchen are silencing their workers as well. Companies have fired union organizers, closed stores, and threatened workers — well-worn union-busting tactics meant to serve as a warning to other workers looking to organize. This is why Congress must pass legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO Act) that will give workers a fighting chance to collectively bargain without fear of retaliation. 

I’ve been in food service for 20 years from crew to management and I know the skills required to be successful at these jobs. Workers must be organized, have good time management skills, and be able to shift gears at a moment’s notice. Hourly workers often use their customer service skills to stay calm and collected while they face the wrath of dissatisfied customers. They know how to use creative problem solving to adjust for short staffing.

Food service requires physical stamina and a “sense of urgency” because the expectation is that you will hustle your entire shift. Running around is required when you are short-staffed, so injuries such as cuts and burns as well as physical wear and tear are common. I’ve torn my meniscus, developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and I’ve burned myself badly enough to need medical attention more than once. Restaurant work can be dangerous, especially when we don’t have time to slow down and be careful.

Restaurant workers in general are sometimes forced to use broken and dangerous equipment, which can cause serious injuries or fires, because the cost of replacement labor is so high. Workers safety becomes a numbers game and we are often powerless to keep ourselves safe. 

To add insult to injury, restaurant work is among the five lowest-paid professions in the U.S., paying an average of just $26,000 a year. The restaurant industry employs 10 percent of working Americans and one study found that nearly half of their families receive public assistance. Low wages are a major reason why workers are leaving the industry in record numbers. Chipotle reported a record 194 percent staff turnover last year. At the same time, the company also raked in $653 million in profits in 2021 and spent nearly $100 million on stock buybacks in the third quarter. It’s clear the company can afford to improve conditions for workers at its restaurants.

They called us essential and it’s time we are treated as such. No more Americans should be working poor and breaking our bodies down while corporations post record profits. We will organize, unionize, and make our voices heard. We pledge to keep fighting until every worker is respected, treated well, and compensated fairly. Happy Labor Day, friends. Our work has just begun.