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Chipotle in Michigan first to unionize for the fast-food chain nationwide

The Chipotle restaurant is located on 5805 W. Saginaw Highway in Lansing.
Courtesy / Atulya Dora-Laskey
The Chipotle restaurant is located on 5805 W. Saginaw Highway in Lansing.

Employees at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Lansing became the first restaurant for the fast-food chain nationwide to form a union.

This week, 11 employees voted in favor of organizing with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. 3 were against.

The win for the workers comes several months after two Greater Lansing Starbucks storesvoted to form unions.

Atulya Dora-Laskey is 23 years old and has worked at the Chipotle for nearly a year. He says he and his coworkers started organizing eight months ago after management failed to address their concerns with working conditions.

“We are just a bunch of high schoolers and early twenty-somethings... how can we pull this off? And then the Starbucks stuff made it seem a lot more possible," he said. "Then there was definitely the question of like, 'I think we do just have to do this to survive.'"

The win for the workers at the Chipotle is part of a growing wave of young people across the country who are organizing to secure better working conditions from employers like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks. Dora Laskey says this is partly due to the organizing efforts of Gen Z-ers who find themselves entering a workforce with few protections.

"We, as young people, really do have to organize to survive because no one else is going to save us," he added.

For Dora-Laskey, getting to work at Chipotle was a sort of homecoming. He says he first decided to get a job there to be able to save enough money to move out of his parents' house.

"I always remember really enjoying Chipotle as a kid. It was a big special event to get Chipotle as a family. So, I think Chipotle made sense," he said.

When Dora-Laskey was hired, he was really excited about the benefits they offered like health insurance and college tuition reimbursement, but he says he soon realized how difficult it was to even access some of these benefits.

"It is very hard to get information about how to use [health insurance] anywhere. And then in addition to that, a lot of people who have found out how to use it have found that it is too expensive to be actually workable," he said.

Dora-Laskey says when they first began to organize, the team took a very democratic approach.

“It allowed us to kind of accumulate everyone's insights, everyone's experience and everyone's perspectives into calculating the best decision to make at any given time," he said.

This approach was how the team ended up selecting Teamsters as the union they would join.

"We ended up voting to go with Teamsters, by like, 92% amongst us, as a union," he added.

The Teamsters Union represents 1.2 million workers across the country, General President Sean M. O'Brien said in a press release from the organization.

"All of us are fighting for our brothers and sisters at Chipotle to get the rights and workplace protections they deserve,” he said.

Dora-Laskey says there were hurdles to organizing. He adds that includes Chipotle utilizing different tactics for months to convince employees that joining a union wasn't in their best interest.

"One piece of union-busting propaganda flyer Chipotle gave us that we had predicted that they would give us beforehand, was [that] union membership rates [were] in decline over the past few decades," Dora-Laskey said.

He says they were able to use that messaging to their advantage by explaining to employees how the sky-rocketing income inequality is related to decline in union memberships.

"Once we thought about it like that... if workers aren't united, then the rich people can exploit them much easier," he said. "And all of the money that those workers make can be taken away very easily."

Dora-Laskey and the rest of the organizing team at the Chipotle spent several weeks getting acquainted with the country's history of unionization. He says learning about that history allowed them to understand how forming a union could be to their advantage.

"Looking through history, the only way workers ever achieved substantial gains in the past was by unionizing and coming together to make demands," he explained. "And so, that is when we decided to start organizing a union."

Dora-Laskey says he hopes to ask for higher wages, more paid time off and a compensated break time for all employees.

The Lansing Chipotle workers will be a part of Local 243, which represents more than 4,000 workers across Michigan with union halls in Lansing and Plymouth Township.

The win for the Michigan employees comes on the heels of the permanent closure of a Chipotle in Maine after workers filed for union recognition.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.