Workers at Apple’s first unionized retail store began collectively bargaining with management on Wednesday, in a milestone moment not only for the iPhone company but for all of Big Tech.
Apple store workers in Towson, Maryland, who made history in June by voting to form the first union at one of the tech giant’s US stores, started contract negotiations with Apple management on Wednesday morning. The worker group, based out of a mall near Baltimore, is organized with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) union.
Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said “there’s a lot at stake” for Apple employees at this and other stores as the negotiations commence. “Other Apple workers will be watching this,” she said. “Other workers in the tech industry will be watching this.”
The success of the Towson Apple store workers’ unionization bid came amid a broader wave of workplace organizing. A tight labor market lent workers new leverage and the Covid-19 pandemic exposed some of the inequities faced by America’s frontline workers. New unionizing efforts emerged among workers in stores and warehouses from companies such as Amazon, Starbucks and Apple.
The rise of worker organizing efforts has prompted a range of responses from top tech companies. Amazon has so far refused to recognize its first union and engage in negotiations after a landmark union win last spring and continues to fight its legitimacy.
Microsoft, by contrast, has publicly embraced its first union and said this month it looks “forward to engaging in good faith negotiations as we work towards a collective bargaining agreement.”
Apple appears to be the first of those three companies to join the negotiating table with its unionized workers, but it comes after some tensions. Apple was previously hit with a complaint from the National Labor Relations Board over allegations that it interrogated employees regarding their support for a union and selectively prohibited the placement of pro-union fliers in a break room at a New York City Apple store. (Apple pushed back at those claims in a filing with the NLRB.)
An Apple spokesperson told CNN in a statement that the company “will engage with the union representing our team in Towson respectfully and in good faith.” The statement added that the company values the work of its retail team, and touted the company’s compensation and benefits for retail staffers.
David DiMaria, the lead organizer of the Towson Apple store union campaign with the IAMAW, said excitement was high among the Apple store workers ahead of Wednesday’s first meeting. “First contracts are a lot of prep work, and they’ve been putting in a lot of time doing all that prep,” he told CNN. “And now it all pays off, and they actually get to go to the table and start to negotiate their contracts, so spirits are high. They’re really excited and they can’t wait to get there.”
Issues that are top of mind for the bargaining unit include pay, working conditions, and, mostly, having a voice at work and “being a part of that decision-making process in the things that affect them on the day-to-day is really important,” according to DiMaria.
Lieberwitz noted that negotiating a first contract for a union in the United States is “generally difficult” regardless of the industry, as many employers have historically resisted negotiating or have attempted to draw-out the process, as the longer a union goes without a contract, the longer a company will not have to agree to any of worker’s demands. An analysis of Bloomberg Law labor data found that it takes well over a year (465 days) on average for a union that won an election to ratify a first contract.
For the workers, she said, “it will require patience, a recognition that this may take a long time, and sticking together in that sense of labor solidarity.”