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 restaurants, but they’ve 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.
Union Approval and Membership in Restaurants
As of 2021, a Gallup Poll identified that 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, which is the highest the approval rating has been since 1965. However, according to The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), union membership remains relatively low as of 2021 at 10.3 percent. Union membership is even lower in the food service industry–only 1.2 percent. That said, certain high-profile cases of unionization in the food service industry may be changing future expectations for workers and businesses alike.
What is the incentive for workers in the food service industry to form a union? According to the BLS, union membership in a restaurants is correlated with higher wages. In 2020, nonunion restaurant workers earned a median weekly income of $580, while those in a union earned more at $690 per week. Additionally, labor unions typically seek health insurance, pensions, paid leave and other benefits commonly afforded other types of workers for their members.
Unionizing Workers 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 franchise 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.
On July 22, workers at a local Chipotle Mexican Grill filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, becoming the first Chipotle in the U.S. to seek labor unionization. Since Chipotle owns its restaurants, workers there can join together across stores and state borders to build power and force the company to negotiate with the them,” Maine AFL-CIO spokesman Andy O’Brien said. In response to the union formation move of these Chipotle workers, Chipotle Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Laurie Schalow said, “we respect our employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act and are committed to ensuring a fair, just, and humane work environment that provides opportunities for all.” If other restaurants follow the lead of this potential union restaurant, it could be a significant development not just for Chipotle, but other national chains and restaurants in the fast-food industry. Although, workers at some restaurants – like McDonald’s – would have more trouble forming a union as parent corporations of franchised restaurants are less likely to be considered joint employers due to a 2017 National Labor Relations Board ruling.
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.
In early December, while voting was still in progress for the Buffalo stores, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson came out with a message that said to employees “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 employees at 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 workers at 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.