For Fast Food, 2022 Was The Year Of The Union

It still remains to be seen how the story will go. But, as history is written, 2022 may become known as the year when the dream of fast food unions stopped being fantasy and started becoming reality. When the pandemic began in 2020, which may have been a key turning point in the battle to unionize the fast food industry, workers were forced to toil in poor conditions for long hours — while exposed to far more COVID-19 than those working from home. Failure to provide overtime during the pandemic also highlighted the ongoing problem of wage theft, with the Department of Labor revealing they recovered $34.7 million in backed wages or unpaid wages for food service workers in 2021.

Coming off what may have been the most difficult time in history for fast food workers, the industry has been wracked with discontent. Employees fed up with food service work have been quitting at a faster rate than any other industry, with The Hill stating that nearly 800,000 workers quit each month between April and August of this year. At the same time, labor activists have been stepping up their pressure on owners, with the Associated Press reporting that workers at 100 Starbucks stores went on strike across the country earlier this month.

While frustrated fast food workers are nothing new, their anger started translating into real wins for unions in 2022.

2022 saw big union victories at Starbucks, Chipotle, and Trader Joe's

The big year for unionizing in fast food started early, as the first Starbucks store voted to unionize in December 2021. Since then, CNN reports that the union has claimed victory at over 250 more stores, winning around 80% of the elections held so far. But while the Starbucks Union has been the biggest story, it has been far from the only one in the food service industry this year. 

A Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan became the first store to win union recognition in August, and Eater notes that workers at McDonalds and Taco Bell have gone on strike to force ownership to improve conditions in their stores. There have even been wins outside of the fast food industry, with reporting that a Massachusetts Trader Joe's became the first location to see a union victory in July.

Maybe the biggest win came in California, where AB 257 was signed into law, setting minimum standards for work in the fast food industry. However, that win also shows the difficult road ahead for union activists, as the fast food industry has challenged the bill and set up a showdown for a referendum vote in 2024. 

These victories are exciting, and long overdue, but they are clearly just the beginning in what promises to be a long, bitter battle, as owners ratchet up the pressure to stop unionization from gaining more momentum.