After learning earlier in the day that Chipotle Mexican Grill was closing its Augusta location, workers rally outside the restaurant in the Marketplace at Augusta. Workers had been attempting to unionize and claim the closure is “union busting 101.” Keith Edwards/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant closed permanently Tuesday and workers and state union officials say it was a desperate, union-busting move done in response to workers’ efforts to form a union to give themselves a voice in the workplace.

Last month workers at the Augusta restaurant delivered a letter of intent and petition to Chipotle management, saying they were forming a union. If successful, the workers could have been the first Chipotle to unionize in the country.

However, those workers learned Tuesday, in an email from Lisa Zeppetelli, Chipotle’s “people experience partner” for the Northeast, that the Augusta location, which had already been closed down for training, would permanently close that day.

About 20 Chipotle workers rallied Tuesday evening outside the restaurant to protest the closure and draw attention to the dispute. They chanted “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and “Workers united, can never be divided!” outside the darkened, closed restaurant. They carried signs stating “Chipotle, now firing,” and “Solidarity forever!”

Brandi McNease, a crew member and leader of efforts to unionize her fellow Augusta employees, alleges the company waited until the morning of a hearing — scheduled to determine the process of their union election — to inform workers the location was closing.

“Instead of at least sitting at the table with us, we get an email that says there’s no store anymore, they closed it,” McNease said at the rally. “This is union busting 101 and there is nothing that motivates us to fight harder than this underhanded attempt to shut down the labor movement within their stores. They’re scared because they know how powerful we are and if we catch fire like the unionization effort at Starbucks they won’t be able to stop us.”

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Chipotle officials, both in their email to workers and in a statement in response to questions from the newspaper, said the site is closing due to staffing challenges as the company has been unable to adequately staff the restaurant. They said the restaurant had been closed due to “staffing challenges” since June 17 but they continued to pay employees and brought them in for training, while also deploying two recruiting experts dedicated to adding workers for the Augusta site.

“Despite these efforts, we have been unable to adequately staff this remote restaurant with crew and continue to be plagued with excessive call-outs and lack of availability from existing staff,” Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs officer for Chipotle, said in an email in response to a reporter’s questions. “We have had an even more difficult time finding managers to lead the restaurant. Because of these ongoing staffing challenges, there is no probability of reopening in the foreseeable future, so we’ve made the decision to permanently close the restaurant.”

Arrow Smith, a Chipotle worker, said the company’s claims about not being able to hire enough staff don’t hold up. She said with newly hired employees they were up to 30 workers. McNease said they added three or four more workers just in recent days.

Worker James Forbis said the site is in a prime location, hardly “remote” and could be a money-maker if run properly.

Sarah Bigney McCabe, organizing director of the Maine AFL-CIO, left, photographs Chipotle workers after they dropped off a letter about starting a union June 22 outside the Chipotle Mexican Grill in the Marketplace at Augusta. Workers learned Tuesday that the restaurant was closed for good. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Chipotle officials declined to address questions about claims the closure was related to union-busting or related to the effort by employees there to unionize.

Schalow said the Augusta employees would receive severance pay and “outplacement assistance.”

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McNease said since workers announced their intent to unionize, which came after employees staged a walkout of the restaurant due to concerns about unsafe working conditions due to understaffing, Chipotle officials have tried to “bully, harass and intimidate our crew to prevent them from exercising their right to have a collective voice on the job. But we remain united, our solidarity is strong and we won’t bend. We are sticking together and our customers have our backs. We are fighting this decision and we are building a movement to transform the fast food industry and ensure the workers who create all the wealth for these corporations are respected and no longer have to struggle to support their families.”

Smith said the store’s new managers, who replaced managers that workers liked who were fired or left due to the stress of the job, “got more and more aggressive, it got worse every day,” in harassing workers who sought to unionize.

McNease said their goal is to fight back and have the store reopen, with adequate training and staffing so it can be operated safely for employees and customers. She said they have filed National Labor Relations Board charges against Chipotle and hope to go to court as soon as possible.

None of the 20-plus workers at Tuesday’s rally said they regretted speaking out or trying to form a union.

McNease said workers at other Chipotles across the country have contacted Augusta’s workers, who planned to form an independent union, Chipotle United.

Elsewhere in Maine, Starbucks employees in Biddeford have notified the company they intend to unionize, joining a trend of food service workers unionizing across the country.

Earlier this month, according to a news release from Andy O’Brien, communications director for Maine AFL-CIO, which is a federation of labor unions, Chipotle workers in Michigan also filed to form a union. The AFL-CIO release said Chipotle’s plan to close the Augusta restaurant was “an egregious act of blatant union busting.”

 

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