The next union organizing wave is at Apple

The next union organizing wave is at Apple

Workers at the Towson Town Center Apple hold their new union T-shirts after their store employees decided to join the International Association of Machinists Union. Theirs is the first Apple store in the US to vote for union representation.
(Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Ramishah Maruf | CNN

New York  — Apple faces plenty of challenges this year including regulatory scrutiny in Washington, sluggish sales in China and a competitive landscape in AI. Now, its leaders also have to contend with labor unrest.

Apple store workers in Towson, Maryland, made history in June 2022 when they voted to form the first union at one of the tech giant’s sleek US stores. Since 2023, the worker group outside of Baltimore has been in contract negotiations with Apple management. Now, workers are weighing a strike.

Saying management has yet to meet their core demands, the Maryland workers are holding a strike authorization vote on Saturday, one of the strongest labor actions taken against the Big Tech company yet. And it’s far from the only labor challenge Apple is battling in the US.

Employees in New Jersey are holding a union election this weekend. In addition, the National Labor Relations Board this week upheld a decision alleging Apple’s union-busting tactics in New York City. The company also has unfair labor practice complaints against it in front of labor judges right now (Apple denies these allegations).

The labor wave that has hit Apple retail stores echoes the mass organizing that began at other influential companies in the United States, such as Starbucks and Amazon. As Apple grew to become the world’s first $3 trillion company, a tight labor market coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed labor conditions and inequalities front-facing workers in places such as stores and warehouses faced.

“It speaks to a growing frustration among workers and also a contagion in labor activity, which is when one group of workers stands up and inspires others,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, the Director of Labor Education Research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said.

So far, workers at two Apple store locations – Towson, Maryland and Oklahoma City – have voted to unionize. But the union vote in New Jersey this weekend, along with other efforts across the country, could just be the beginning.

Apple is a high profile company – and many, many Americans have at least one Apple product.

“This whole segment of the economy that didn’t have a lot of activity, suddenly has activity. The Apple workers (possibly) going on strike is going to be a spark for other workers,” Bronfenbrenner said.

“At Apple we work hard to provide an excellent experience for our retail team members and empower them to deliver exceptional service for our customers. We deeply value our team members and we’re proud to provide them with industry leading compensation and exceptional benefits. As always, we will engage with the union representing our team in Towson respectfully and in good faith,” an Apple spokesperson said in an emailed statement to CNN.

A possible strike

The Maryland workers are considering a strike because after over a year of negotiations, management had yet to come up with solutions to core issues such as “work-life balance, unpredictable scheduling practices that disrupt personal lives, and wages that do not reflect the cost of living in the area,” a release by the union said.

A strike sanction vote doesn’t mean the store is going on strike. It’s one step of a longer process that ends with a final strike authorization vote.

The workers at the Maryland Apple store are members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Coalition of Organized Retail Employees (IAM COTE).

“This strike sanction vote sends a strong message that the workers want Apple to recognize the need for an equitable and respectful work environment for all its employees,” IAM District 4 Directing Business Representative Jay Wadleigh said in a statement.

The Maryland store has an ongoing complaint filed against Apple, which alleges the company provided improved health and education benefits to non-union employees and not the unionized employees.

Bronfenbrenner said a big motivation behind organizing is the gap between corporate profits in America’s biggest companies – such as Apple, Amazon and Google – and worker wages and benefits, especially for workers in retail stores or warehouses.

“There’s just a lot of anger. And the corporations like Apple have made huge profits while the workers feel like their wages have stagnated,” Bronfenbrenner said.

Union drives in full swing

Apple, like other big companies, is cracking down on union activities. The NLRB found that Apple went too far in trying to crack down on a union drive in New York City.

The NLRB ruled this month that Apple unlawfully interrogated employees and confiscated and prohibited union flyers while allowing non-union materials at the World Trade Center location in 2022.

The NLRB held up the US Labor Board judge’s decision from last year – which was the first time a labor judge ruled against Apple. The affirmation from the NLRB is a win for labor organizers.

But across the river in New Jersey, there is a union election for employees in Short Hills, a New York City suburb.

There are other unfair labor practice complaints against Apple before labor judges at the moment.

Similar to New York City, workers in Atlanta issued a complaint in 2022 alleging Apple illegally interrogated employees about union support and tried to convince them not to join one.

The labor action is not just taking place at Apple’s front-facing retail stores. In its Cupertino, California, headquarters, a decision is pending for a complaint that alleged Apple illegally fired, disciplined, threatened and interrogated an employee for “engaging in protected concerted activity.”

Big Tech, traditionally seen as a prestigious and secure field, has been hit with mass layoffs. These workers “tend to be higher paid positions and more technological positions. And those are workers that traditionally were not seen as organizing,” Bronfenbrenner said.

In a statement regarding the open complaints, Apple said “We strongly deny these claims and look forward to providing the full set of facts to the NLRB.”

CNN’s Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.

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