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Tactics or Coincidence

The Chipolte Mexican Grill Immigrant Labor Force Case

On February 23, 2011, it was reported that a Federal crackdown on the immigrant labor force drove Chipotle Mexican Grill to terminate hundreds of its 1,200 allegedly illegal employees at the company’s 50 Minnesota restaurants. But is there more to the story?

3/4/2011

On February 23, 2011, it was reported that a Federal crackdown on the immigrant labor force drove Chipotle Mexican Grill to terminate hundreds of its 1,200 allegedly illegal employees at the company’s 50 Minnesota restaurants. But is there more to the story?

A related 2009 article, written for the Center of Immigration Studies by Jerry Kammer, explained the ways in which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids boosted union organizing efforts and provided framework for future union wins. Kammer’s story is not isolated, but is in fact just one of many similar cases that I have personally experienced, wherein companies in the midst of a labor organizing camping were suddenly audited by a Federal Regulatory Agency such as OSHA, ICE, DOL, the FDA or FCC.

One cannot help but wonder if this latest event could have been a corporate campaign tactic used by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has tried to organize this employee base for quite some time. Could ICE have felt pressured by other governmental agencies who gain financial support from big labor unions and/or influential union bosses to perform a surprise raid? Of course, the union spin would be that the employer initiated a fear tactic as a last resort to mitigate a potentially successful Union Authorization card signing campaign? One thing that is certain is that a group with political power lit the first match and provided the spark to initiate the raids.

Indisputably, the immigration debate is a sensitive topic for most Americans, with views and opinions varying enormously. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s stance on the topic, both sides would agree that illegal immigration could again be simply a scapegoat for the employer or the union as a means to change the potential outcome of a union organizing campaign.

As earlier cases have shown, when law enforcement is used to force illegal immigrants out of jobs, openings are created for native-born Americans and legal immigrants. One perfect example of this is a 2008 case in North Carolina between UFCW and Tar Heel, where plant workers voted for representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The UFCW victory by a vote of 2,041 to 1,879 climaxed a long and bitter battle between the union and company.

According to the News & Observer, the UFCW called its Tar Heel effort: “the largest manufacturing organizing drive by any union in over a decade.” Its victory had national significance for the labor movement because North Carolina holds the nation’s lowest rate of union membership and has a lengthy history of resistance to labor organizers.

Yet, ironically, the most decisive factor in the union’s victory may have been immigration enforcement raids at Tar Heel the year prior. The raids’ immediate result included the arrest of several dozen workers and was followed by a departure of hundreds of others fearing arrest on charges of immigration law violation.

Their exodus led to an abrupt switch in the plant’s demographics. By the time UFCW representation came up for vote, the majority of workers were once again native-born black Americans (as they had been in the years immediately following the plant’s opening in 1992). The News & Observer further noted that the “raids may have finally sealed the union’s victory….” The 2007 raids purged the plant of illegal Hispanic workers and left behind a majority of native workers more likely to support unionization. That enforcement turned out to be a key factor in possibly swaying the result of future union election votes, generally resulting in successful results in favor of the union.

The SEIU has attempted to organize The Chipotle Mexican Grill employee base for some time with little success. Interestingly, the SEIU is now taking a supportive position and using displaced employees in their marches to seek community empathy and collective pressure, thus forcing the employer to a neutrality agreement and/or voluntary recognition.

It’s no secret that unions have proven that they will do whatever it takes to increase their membership. They have thrown their own people under the bus before. They are also very good at covering their tracks. Were the Chipotle Mexican Grill immigrant labor force terminations politicaltactics or merely coincidence?

Mark Lema, SPHR
Employee and Labor Relations Consultant

Inside Edge Response to Mark Lema's Article

Permanent Solutions Labor Consultant, President and CEO - Ricardo Torres was deeply reminded of issues that caused him to leave the union when reading this article. He decided to post a response reflecting how this article personally affected him and his career. Read the response here. .