Chipotle has reached a settlement with workers from its former Augusta location over its illegal union busting.
Workers with Chipotle Workers United stand outside the chain's Augusta location in June. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine AFL-CIO

Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay out $240,000 as part of a settlement for illegally closing its Augusta location to quash a fledgling union.

That settlement comes after the National Labor Relations Board found Chipotle violated the National Labor Relations Act when it closed the Augusta location after workers went public with their union campaign and subsequently blacklisted them.

Under the settlement, the workers will get between $5,800 and $21,000, based on their average hours worked, pay rate and their length of employment at the Augusta Chipotle, according to the Maine AFL-CIO.

“This isn’t just a victory for Chipotle United. It’s a win for food service workers across the country. It sends a message to corporations that shutting down a store and blackballing workers didn’t work for Chipotle and it won’t work for them either,” Brandi McNease, a former Augusta Chipotle worker and lead Chipotle United organizer, said in a Monday morning statement announcing the settlement.

“Now that we’ve won this battle, we will keep fighting. Every service employee deserves the right to safe working conditions and fair wages to support our families and this movement won’t stop until we get them. We are going to put an end to the old way of doing business,” McNease said.

Chipotle workers at the location on Stephen King Drive in Augusta voted to form a union in late June 2022. That came just a week after the Chipotle workers staged a two-day walkout in protest of what they called unsafe working conditions and low staffing.

It was the first Chipotle store in the nation to file for union recognition. It came amid an upsurge in union activity across the country, particularly in sectors that aren’t traditionally unionized, such as food service.

But Chipotle closed the location effective July 19, 2022, the same day as the National Labor Relations Board was set to hold a hearing to determine the union election process. The location’s workers were informed of the closure in an email that morning.

Laurie Schalow, the chief corporate affairs officer for Chipotle, told the Bangor Daily News at the time that the closure was prompted by staffing challenges, saying the chain went to “extraordinary lengths” to recruit new workers at the location.

But the location’s workers said the move was in retaliation for the union drive, calling it “union busting 101” and challenging the closure at the National Labor Relations Board.

The closure received strong condemnation from Maine political leaders, including the top Democrats in the Senate and House, as well as U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District. Pingree called on the federal labor board to investigate the closure, saying the timing “raises serious concerns of illegal union-busting.”

The Augusta Chipotle workers then found they were blacklisted at other locations in the state. McNease, who was widely quoted about the first-ever union campaign at a Chipotle location in local and national press, attempted to apply for an opening at the Chipotle in Auburn, but found her email address on file with the chain was blocked. After using an alternate email address and getting an interview, she was later told she wasn’t eligible for hire there.

As part of the settlement, Chipotle will give the former Augusta workers preferential hiring at other locations in Maine for a year, as well as post notices at 40 stores in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts stating it will not close stores or discriminate against workers based on their support for unionization.

Chipotle maintains it didn’t do “anything wrong” surrounding the closure of the Augusta location, saying in a statement that it settled because “the time, energy and cost to litigate would have far outweighed the settlement agreement.”

“We respect our employees’ rights to organize under the National Labor Relations Act and are committed to ensuring a fair and just work environment that provides opportunities to all,” the company said.

Jeffrey Neil Young, an attorney with Solidarity Law in Cumberland who represents the Chipotle workers, said the settlement won “substantial gains” for the workers even though it fell short of forcing Chipotle to reopen the location.

“Not all of the workers have secured work elsewhere and offering them preferential rehiring rights as well as substantial back pay helps remedy Chipotle’s blatant union-busting. The labor laws need to be changed to impose greater penalties to more effectively deter companies like Chipotle and Starbucks from closing stores and blackballing workers in the face of union organizing efforts,” Young said Monday.