What Restaurants Need to Be Aware of Regarding Unionization in 2022

Jan 31, 2022

Since their inception, unions have been somewhat controversial, and laws surrounding them vary from state to state. In certain industries, unionization has become commonplace–in educational and protective service occupations, roughly a third of workers are unionized.


Unions have not been as common in the restaurant industry, but they’ve actually been around since 1891, when the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Alliance was founded (now called Unite Here.) This historic union’s total number of food service employees is still relatively small, with around 100,000 current members. However, recent developments have paved the way for more unions in the restaurant industry. Here’s what employers need to know about restaurant unionization in 2022.


Current Union Membership and Approval

As of 2021, a Gallup Poll identified that 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, which is the highest the approval rating has been since 1965. However, according to The US Bureau of Labor, union membership remains relatively low as of 2021 at 10.3 percent. Union membership is even lower in the foodservice industry–only 1.2 percent. That said, certain high-profile cases of unionization in the foodservice industry may be changing future expectations for workers and businesses alike.


A Precedent in the Fast-Food Industry

This past December, the Burgerville chain out of Portland, Oregon, became the first fast-food workers’ union in the US. The chain employs 800 people in Oregon and Washington. Their new labor contract called for financial changes such as 75 cents more an hour and allowing workers to receive tips. Beyond that, it provides paid vacation and parental leave, a three-month set schedule, and a lengthier justification process for firing an employee. This is the first fast-food chain in America to cover its employees with collective bargaining.


Starbucks Unions Gaining Traction

Around the same time as Burgerville, certain Starbucks locations have seen some movement towards unionization. Two stores in the Buffalo area became unionized at the end of last year. (A third attempted but failed to do so.) In its hometown of Seattle, two more stores are in the process of trying to unionize.

unionization of Starbucks


In early December, while voting was still in progress for the Buffalo stores, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson came out with a message to employees that “There is only one Starbucks,” pushing back against the inconsistencies that unionization could create for the brand. Despite this, over 30 Starbucks locations are trying to unionize at the moment.


Future Implications of Unions in the Restaurant Industry

At the moment, unionization is still pretty small. That said, other employees could look to Starbucks or Burgerville as examples. While Burgerville has seen some substantial policy changes, the changes at Starbucks are still taking shape. Since unionizing, one Buffalo store has already exercised its right to strike, demanding more advanced COVID-19 protections.


If more Starbucks locations and other national chains successfully unionize, restaurant owners may need to consider a future with unions in it. In the meantime, it might be helpful to know if you are in a right-to-work state, which gives less power to unions. If you aren’t, you may also want to familiarize yourself with the extent of collective bargaining laws.


The industry landscape may be changing, but if restaurant owners approach these changes with a level head and legal knowledge in mind, they should be prepared for whatever the future brings.


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