Chipotle Workers on How They Won the First Chipotle Union in the United States
Last month, Chipotle workers in Lansing, Michigan, became the first workers at the corporation to unionize. We spoke to three of the Chipotle workers and union activists about how they did it.
- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
On August 25, workers in Lansing, Michigan, won the first successful unionization vote at any Chipotle store in the United States — a victory that could inspire an organizing surge similar to that currently sweeping Starbucks. To discuss their story and its do-it-yourself lessons, Jacobin’s Eric Blanc sat down with three of the worker leaders responsible for the win: eighteen-year-old Sam Smith, nineteen-year-old Harper McNamara, and twenty-three-year-old Atulya Dora-Laskey.
We were pretty anxious, especially Atulya. We had made voting plans with our coworkers ahead of time, to make sure they had rides and knew when the voting was taking place. But a few people changed their voting plans at the last second, so Atulya freaked out and started going through the list of nightmare scenarios we had mapped out where we wouldn’t get enough votes. So that added to our anxiety. I’ve got a picture of us at that moment waiting in the Target parking lot, with Atulya looking like he’s reconsidering his purpose in life.
What did it feel like that evening after they counted all the ballots and announced you had won?
It was pretty magical. A lot of people from the union were out in front of the store next to the voting tent, standing in the rain. It felt amazing, like a great sense of accomplishment. At that moment, I was just really, really happy, and I gave Atulya an epic hug.
All of us started cheering. And the managers there — there were a bunch of them — got pretty quiet, fast. Honestly, I was so excited; it felt like all that work had finally paid off.
I thanked everyone and then ran into the store and announced, “Welcome to the first-ever Chipotle union!” Beforehand, we knew it was kind of a big deal — being the first Chipotle to unionize — but we weren’t actually expecting this to be as big a deal as it’s become. A few hours after we won, I got my break at work, and so I could finally check my phone. It was blowing up. Grace Norris from Starbucks Workers United had sent me a link to a Bernie Sanders tweet about us — I think that’s when it really hit home.
Congratulations to Chipotle workers in Lansing, Michigan on overwhelmingly voting to unionize with @Teamsters! With this historic victory, the grassroots trade union movement continues to spread like wildfire. https://t.co/zQKMYjRqtU
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 25, 2022
How did you all end up working at Chipotle in the first place?
Back in June 2020, I was sixteen and had applied to Starbucks, but they never got back to me. So I figured I might as well apply to Chipotle. It was my first job, and I ended up getting stuck doing dishes, four to six hours by myself every night.
I got hired the same week as Sam; I was also still in high school. Part of the reason I’ve stayed is that Chipotle has a tuition reimbursement program — if I work there long enough, they cover a lot of my community college tuition.
After graduating from Alma College, I moved back in with my parents. But I didn’t want to live with them anymore, so a year ago I started working at Chipotle. I actually just needed a job.
Did any of you have prior union or political activist experience?
No, I had basically zero background in organizing. I had seen TikTok videos of people getting unfairly laid off at work, I had seen Black Lives Matter, and then recently with the push to overturn Roe v. Wade, I got really angry. I also had seen what my parents went through during the pandemic — and I knew that I and everybody I grew up with were probably going to get stuck in dead-end jobs for the rest of our lives. So even before getting involved, I knew I wanted to make some kind of difference in the world.
I had some organizing experience but not with unions. Back when Bernie ran in 2016, I thought a lot of what he said was sort of common sense. It really stuck with me that he would talk about things like Medicare for All, a policy that a majority of Americans backed, but that all those in power still refused to support it. The lack of democracy in this country became pretty glaring.
So then at my college I started a YDSA [Young Democratic Socialists of America] chapter, and I learned a lot from that, about how to bring people together.
The closest I ever got to organizing before this was when I was in high school during the second Bernie run. I went to a big campaign barnstorm, but I didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t get around or actually do anything. But the Bernie campaign definitely played a role in widening my political perspective.
What are the main reasons you decided to unionize?
At the top of the list are pay, working conditions, and especially underscheduling. It’s not just at our store: Chipotle tends to not put enough workers on its shifts, and that forces anybody working that day to do too many things at once.
It sometimes gets to the point where it’s unsanitary, because nobody has time to clean up. Especially at peak times, it gets really hard to do the job right.
There’s a broader thing too, which is that workplaces today are basically authoritarian regimes. We’re supposed to live in a democracy, but in the place where we spend most of our waking lives we have to give up any right to a say. I think unions are a step toward challenging that basic lack of democracy in our society.
Plus, we know how to make the store run best. Chipotle a while ago sent in a corporate guy who completely rearranged the work setup in the dumbest possible way, making everything way slower and less efficient.
How did you start organizing?
Keep in mind that none of us knew each other before Chipotle. Back in October, I was on my break at work, reading a Mark Fisher book, Ghosts of My Life. Harper comes up to me and says, “Oh, I know zero books.” I was like, “You must be super humble or something; I’m sure you’ve read some books.” And he says, “No, I know Zero Books, the publishing company” — the publisher of Ghosts of My Life.
That was as close as you can get to a leftist dog whistle, so we started talking from that point on. We both had this idea of starting a union, so we just decided to go for it.
Since neither of you had any experience with workplace organizing, how did you figure out what to do?
That’s where our local DSA chapter was really key. Greater Lansing DSA has a lot of rank-and-file union members, like Angelo Moreno who had started a union at his public library through the United Auto Workers. The chapter also had Rikki Reynolds, a member of the Michigan Education Association, and Grace Norris, who is a rank-and-file worker with Starbucks Workers United. We talked to them a lot, they were super helpful, and they pointed us to a couple of resources, the most helpful of which ended up being the Labor Notes book Secrets of a Successful Organizer. It is very helpful. Our whole organizing committee read it together.
Later on, once we started doing in-person union meetings, our DSA chapter also offered to cover the childcare costs of those workers who had kids, so that they could attend. Also, it was useful to read Alex Press’s articles about Chipotle in Jacobin — that’s really how we got a better sense that the issues at our store were part of a more systematic problem with the way the company operates.
Can you remember any specific organizing takeaways you got from the Labor Notes book?
For starters, we followed its advice to make a chart of our workplace shaped like a target, in which the inner circle are the most pro-union people and the outer layers are the least supportive. Then we plotted out everybody at work in the diagram, and we drew arrows to see who would be able to get who, to bring them closer to the core.
The thing we ended up using most was the book’s guide to having one-on-one conversations. That was super helpful, because it taught us that you really have to be listening way more than you’re talking — you talk 30 percent of the time, you listen 70 percent of the time.
To be honest, that was a struggle for me, because I never shut up. But we learned that you have to communicate through questions: it’s through asking people about their concerns that you can help them see that their issues at work are only going to get resolved by collectively negotiating through a union.
Sam, how did you get involved?
One night last winter after we had clocked out, I was sitting in the lobby, and I just started going on a tirade about how the minimum wage needs to be higher. Pretty soon after that, Atulya sat down with me and floated this idea of a union. I said something like, “Sounds interesting — I don’t know if we’ll actually be able to do it, but I’d like to be a part of it.”
The idea of a union hadn’t crossed my mind at all until Atulya mentioned it, but what made me passionate about it was seeing how politics has been going consistently downhill over the past few years. If there’s a way to improve things and make a change, we might as well go for it, because if this doesn’t work out, I’m just going to end up at a crappy job anyway.
What were other useful organizing steps you all took?
We did a lot of the classic stuff, like one-on-ones with coworkers and keeping track of our numerical assessments of where they were at. We did a good job of inoculating our coworkers about what to expect from management.
Building strong bonds and creating friendships between our coworkers turned out to be really important. Those bonds helped make everything else possible. Also, taking notes from discussions helped a lot too, so we could remember our coworkers’ specific concerns — and so we could keep track of the decisions we made about our next steps and then reflect on them afterward.
Another thing we did was add all our coworkers who were pro-union to a Snapchat group chat. It became a very important space where we could talk, and vent, and talk shit, and send photos and organize outside of the surveillance of the company.
But for the most part, we just followed the instructions that we’d read about how to unionize — and it worked. Unionizing has turned out, so far at least, to be easier than we expected: it just takes some time, some commitment, and the ability to follow through on your plans.
How did you relate to established unions in this process?
We started organizing last November, and by May we had over 50 percent of our coworkers on board. So in our internal meetings, we started discussing which union to affiliate with. We gave some thought to going independent, but we ended up voting to go with a national union, to get their expertise and extra legal help.
We reached out to about a dozen different unions, and the sad thing is that a lot of them literally never even called us back. Others said they weren’t interested in taking us on. I guess they thought we were too risky an investment and that we were up against too big a corporation.
To be honest, it was really discouraging to get rejected so many times. Unions should be better about saying yes to workers when they’re organizing.
Fortunately, I stopped by the Teamsters hall on a whim after my roommate, another DSAer, told me the Teamsters were “a fighting union.” We ended up voting by 92 percent to go with them, and they’ve been incredibly helpful ever since. They immediately assigned a local Teamsters organizer to us, T. J. Kitchen, and from day one he’s been super helpful and super accommodating at the same time.
It’s pretty remarkable how far you got without any coaching from a union or any previous workplace organizing experience.
We were actually surprised to find out later on that this wasn’t the norm. We assumed this was just sort of how unionization was always done.
We got lots of compliments from the Teamsters when they realized how organized we were. They told us we had already done most of their work for them.
How did management respond?
It hired an outside union-busting consultant from Boston, and she started doing closed meetings with everybody at the store for one to two hours. She claimed to just be providing information about unions and labor law, but it was super selective, and she painted everything in the most anti-union light possible. We had expected her to come out more directly against the union, but this was even more dishonest in a way.
By the end she just started straight-up lying, saying things like if you pay union dues today, that means you’ll be stuck paying these for life, even if you’re no longer in the union. Once we got closer to the vote, the company started distributing a bunch of anti-union literature too. The union buster particularly targeted this type of stuff to our coworkers whose first language isn’t English. It got pretty scary there for a bit.
On the day of the vote itself, management all of sudden surprised us by pushing everyone to take a test on food safety.
— which “coincidentally” just happened to be during the voting time slots.
Another thing they did the day of voting was that all the extra managers — who they’d brought in over the previous few weeks to overstaff the store — all of a sudden just disappeared, leaving just one crew member on the cashier line at peak. So she was stranded there, and because she didn’t want to let her coworkers down, she worked through the whole voting time slot, since she was the only one there.
Luckily, what they weren’t planning on is that she was committed enough to come back later that day to vote in the afternoon time slot. And we ended up winning the union vote overwhelmingly.
Looking back, how has work changed since you started organizing last year?
None of the three of us knew each other before we started working at Chipotle, but we bonded pretty quickly — and that bond spread. People at work, and especially through the group chat, found out they had all sorts of mutual interests. I don’t want to brag, but I think this organizing has created a lot of new friendships between people who wouldn’t necessarily have known each other or have hung out before.
When we all came together collectively, we got to see different sides of people that we never would have seen otherwise. We saw just how smart people were, how loyal, how creative, how artistic. We wouldn’t have had a chance to see any of that from our coworkers if we hadn’t been unionizing. It’s helped us bond in a lovely way.
Why do you think young people are at the fore of the current unionization surge?
For a lot of us who are Zoomers, it really feels like the world is coming to an end — basically everything is going to shit. So what do we have to lose?
People our age are looking around at climate change, at the way politics are going, and a lot of us feel like we’re in the back seat of a car about to head off a cliff, and the driver is completely asleep at the wheel — or they’re just checking their phone and don’t care.
Do you feel more hopeful now?
I don’t wanna overdo our egos, but I feel like what we did at Chipotle might be a tipping point. Starbucks really set it off, but if we can unionize at another huge chain, I think it’s really going to prove to people — especially of our generation — that if they’re feeling like something in their workplace is wrong, if they’re being mistreated, that there is hope in fixing it by coming together and fighting back. If we could do it, anybody can do it.
Exactly, I feel like one of the most exciting parts of what we did is that we’re not that exceptional.
Those of us who started this at Chipotle are just a few random people who happened to work at the same place. It’s exciting because I think this means that anyone’s workplace is up for grabs. If you want more of a say at where you work, all you have to do is talk to your co-workers and follow some classic unionizing instructions.
Can you describe the day you won the union vote?