Federal labor officials filed a complaint Thursday alleging that Chipotle illegally closed a store in Augusta, Maine, in response to an organizing effort by workers.
The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board recommended in the filing that Chipotle be ordered to reopen the store and bargain with the union, according to a board spokesperson.
Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer, said in a statement that the closure “had nothing to do with union activity” and that the company plans to “vigorously defend ourselves.”
“Our operational management reviewed this situation as it would any other restaurant with these unique staffing challenges,” Schalow said. “We respect our employees’ rights to organize under the National Labor Relations Act and are committed to ensuring a fair, just, and humane work environment that provides opportunities to all.”
The burrito chain, which has 3,000 rentals in North America, shuttered the Augusta store in July, not long after workers there filed for an election. Workers must round up union cards from at least 30% of a workplace in order for the labor board to schedule a vote.
The company said at the time that the closure was due to inadequate staffing. But a lawyer for the workers told The New York Times in July that the move amounted to “Union Busting 101.”
The general counsel’s decision to issue the complaint means investigators looked into the workers’ allegations and found merit in them. If Chipotle and the general counsel can’t reach a settlement, the matter will be litigated before an administrative law judge and, eventually, perhaps the five-member board in Washington.
It’s illegal for an employer to close an individual location expressly to snuff out union organizing (although it is legal to shut down an entire business for that reason). The complaint against Chipotle is one of many aggressive moves made under the purview of the NLRB’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, whom President Joe Biden appointed.
Abruzzo’s office filed a separate complaint earlier this week accusing Starbucks of retaliating against workers by closing a store in Ithaca, New York. That complaint also recommended that Starbucks be compelled to reopen the location.
As a practical matter, it is difficult for labor board officials to force a company to reopen a worksite. The complaint typically takes years to litigate, with several opportunities for appeal, and the workers affected often move on with their lives.
In addition to reopening the store, the general counsel says Chipotle should have to reinstate the workers who lost their jobs and offer them back pay covering any wages they lost.