That’s all, 2022. From the good (most popular recipes!) to the bad (least favorite food trends!), we’re spending December looking back. Head here for all the stories in BA’s year in review.
Starbucks employees have successfully unionized over 250 branches of the international coffee chain. They’ve inspired workers at competitor Peet’s Coffee to organize, too. The first Chipotle union has won its National Labor Relations Board vote in Lansing, Michigan. Trader Joe’s workers in Hadley, Massachusetts, have organized their store, becoming the quirky grocery chain’s first unionized employees. A string of Blank Street Coffee locations in New York City could be next.
Whether at McDonalds, Taco Bell, or the San Francisco airport, hospitality workers turned to collective action in an unprecedented way this year—disrupting the status quo in fast food and beyond.
It’s a welcome point of optimism for labor advocates. Union membership is still at a historic low, and only about 3 percent of food service workers are union members—one of the lowest rates in any industry. Even still, food workers have a long history of labor organizing—the United Farm Workers agricultural union is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year—and 2022 has been a high point for food unions and the movement they represent.
Why are so many workers in the restaurant industry unionizing? The rising gap between executive pay and employees’ wages is a good place to start, particularly in one of the few industries where subminimum wages are allowed. The public perception of unions also may have something to do with the recent surge in organizing—more Americans have a positive view of unions than they have had in decades.
We have to talk about the coronavirus, too. Hospitality remains one of the industries most affected by COVID-19. At the pandemic’s worst, when thousands of Americans were dying per day, restaurant workers faced one of the highest mortality rates in any industry. Since 2020, many service workers have left the restaurant industry altogether, citing burnout and chronic understaffing as their reasons for finding work elsewhere. Over the past few years, while Americans have been happy to praise restaurant workers as “essential” to the economy, we’ve also effectively forced them into working in person while many of us have been able to stay home. And although outdoor dining has become popular, few necessary protections for workers have become permanent—whether in the form of improved ventilation or other risk prevention tools—as Saahil Desai reports in The Atlantic.
For Starbucks Workers United, the health and safety of its workers is near the top of its objectives, along with protections from unfair firings and opportunities for workers to have a voice in company decisions. Chipotle Workers Union’s organizing goals say the same. Without the ongoing support of the government or their bosses, restaurant workers see unionization as the last route to avoiding the tragedies of the past few years.
Restaurants are particularly difficult to unionize. On average, winning a union contract in any industry can take well over a year. The length of these campaigns, combined with the reality that job turnover in restaurants is notoriously high, can make organizing restaurant workers even harder. Starting a union is hard work in and of itself, and most restaurant work is already demanding, with long hours and exhausting physical requirements. Meanwhile, organizers at places like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s say they have been met with intimidation and other anti-union responses in their union fights.