Efforts to organize workers at two Maine retail stores in recent months could mark the start of more such activity in the state’s retail sector, at a time when workers of a handful of chains across the country began to organize a sector that had previously seen little union activity.
Workers at a Starbucks coffee shop in Biddeford this spring became the first in Maine to organize with Workers United, with workers citing staff shortages and inadequate training. Workers at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in Augusta quickly followed suit, becoming the first Chipotle in the United States to run in a union election under the name of Chipotle United, an independent union.
So far, these are the only two locations in the Maine retail chain to see employees organize, but the state’s small size, relatively high rate of union representation, and tradition of union representation in established and legacy industries could bode well for future organizing efforts, said Marc Cryer, director of the University of Maine’s Bureau of Labor Education.
“I’m surprised we haven’t seen more recruiting activity,” Cryer said. “I guess that will continue.”
Maine unions have traditionally exercised some influence over state policy, with politicians often seeking support from unions that represent Bath Iron Works employees and law enforcement personnel. State paper mill unions also ensured that their members could share employer benefits when the state was the world center of papermaking.
Today, 14.7% of Maine’s workforce is represented by a union. That’s the 13th highest rate in the nation and more than 4 percentage points higher than the rate for the entire U.S. workforce, according to federal labor data.
Starbucks workers in hundreds of stores across the United States organized in the blink of an eye, but only a few entered negotiations to negotiate contracts that legally establish benefits, terms and wages. So far, only the Biddeford Starbucks has moved to organize in Maine, of the 32 stores and outlets the coffee conglomerate operates in the state, according to National Labor Relations Board records.
A Starbucks Workers United organizer in Maine declined to comment last week on whether other store workers were planning labor drives in Maine.
Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment.
“There’s absolutely no reason the momentum should stop here other than the fact that we’re at the end of the nation,” Cryer said. “Actually, because the state is smaller, I think there is an advantage [for] organizers because it’s so much easier to reach people than if you were in Chicago or a big city where it might be difficult. There are a lot more ties to the community.
The Maine AFL-CIO’s availability as support to its smaller affiliates also helped, he said.
Maine’s AFL-CIO has four labor councils, which oversee unions in southern, western, central and eastern Maine, fewer than other states like California, where the federation Labor oversees 23 labor councils statewide and whose leaders may be harder for rank-and-file members to reach, Cryer said.
Union density – the proportion of workers represented by a union – is also important when it comes to supporting a new organization, as established unions can provide support, such as getting members to show up to march on the streets. picket lines or boycott businesses, Cryer said.
Chipotle permanently closed its Augusta store the same day the National Labor Relations Board was scheduled to hold a hearing to determine whether the workers were eligible for a union election. The Mexican food chain said lack of staff forced it to close the store “far away” from Maine’s capital. Workers said it was a union busting tactic and that those involved in the organization were blacklisted from applying for jobs at another Chipotle restaurant in Auburn.
Chipotle United workers and supporters held a rally outside the Augusta store, and politicians including Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Rep. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash , denounced Chipotle’s actions, in a show of support from some in the state. high-ranking elected officials. US Representative Chellie Pingree has asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate whether the chain retaliated against the Augusta union.
Another union, SEIU 32BJ, which organizes Chipotle workers in New York, is circulating a petition on behalf of Augusta Chipotle workers.