TOWSON, Md. (AP) – The historic vote by employees at an Apple store in Maryland to stay connected – the first for the technology giant – is a significant step in a lengthy process that labor experts say is heavily stacked against workers in favor of their employers.
Apple Store employees in a Baltimore suburb voted to organize by nearly 2-to-1 margin on Saturday, joining a growing push across U.S. retail, service and technology industries to organize for better protection of the workplace.
It is not yet clear whether the recent wave of unions represents a broader shift in American labor. But experts say the current shortage of workers for hourly and low-wage jobs means employees have more power than they historically had, especially when unemployment is low.
“It’s not such a big deal to lose one of these jobs because you can get another disgusting job,” said Ruth Milkman, a labor researcher at City University of New York.
The question is, what happens now?
Apple retail workers in Towson, Maryland, voted 65-33 to seek access to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union said in a statement. The National Labor Relations Board must now certify the result. A spokesman referred preliminary questions about the vote to the board’s regional office, which was closed late Saturday. The board did not immediately respond to a statement from the Associated Press on Sunday.
Once the vote is confirmed, the union and Apple can begin negotiating a contract.
“Labor law in the United States is a long process. And so the fact that a single store negotiates or chooses a union does not mean that there is a negotiated contract in the workplace. And we know in recent history that in many of these situations, the parties are unable to agree on an initial contract, ”said Michael Duff, a former NLRB lawyer and professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law, on Sunday.
“The employer in the United States has an awful lot of rights to simply withdraw the recognition at the end of the process. The employer can prove that it no longer supports a majority of the employees in the bargaining unit,” Duff added.
Even after a union is certified, a company has a number of legal maneuvers at its disposal to combat it, Duff said. For example, Apple could say that it does not believe that the negotiating entity certified by the NLRB is an appropriate negotiating entity. and refuses to negotiate with the union.
“If that happens, it’s all going to court, and it could easily take a year or two before you even get the question of whether the employer is obligated to negotiate with the union,” Duff added.
Labor experts say it is common for employers to drag out the bargaining process in an attempt to take momentum out of union campaigns. It is also possible that Apple – or any other company – will restructure its business so that the unionized workers are reclassified as independent contractors and not employees, in which case the union’s vote is controversial, Duff said.
Apple declined to comment on Saturday’s development, company spokesman Josh Lipton told the Associated Press by telephone. Reached again Sunday, Apple did not comment.
The successful vote serves to inspire workers around the country to organize, said John Logan, director of work and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
“Workers are already organizing in other Apple stores, but this shows them that the company is not invincible,” he said.
Apple’s well-known brand name is likely to help as well.
“The public has a very direct relationship with companies like Apple, so the first union victory will generate huge traditional media and social media coverage,” Logan said. “Young workers are learning trade union activism through this coverage, and some are likely to be inspired to try to organize their own workplaces.”
Despite the fact that U.S. labor law is stacked against workers, Duff said he believes that “if there is to be a resurgent labor movement in the United States, it will happen this way.”
Trade union organization in a variety of areas has recently picked up speed after decades of decline in U.S. union membership. Organizers have been working to establish unions with companies including Amazon, Starbucks, Google’s parent company Alphabet and outdoor retailer REI.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and Apple employees who wanted to join said they sent Apple CEO Tim Cook last month that they were seeking to form a union. The statement said their driving motivation was to seek “rights we do not currently have.” It added that the workers recently organized themselves into the Coalition of Organized Retail Employees, or CORE.
“I applaud the courage shown by CORE members in the Apple Store in Towson to achieve this historic victory,” said IAM International President Robert Martinez Jr. in the statement. “They made a huge sacrifice for thousands of Apple employees across the country who had all eyes on this election.”
Martinez urged Apple to respect the election result and let union workers speed up efforts to secure a contract at the Towson location.
The IAM considers itself one of the largest and most diverse industrial unions in North America, representing approximately 600,000 active and retired members in the aviation, defense, airlines, rail, transit, healthcare, automotive and other industries. Logan said the Apple victory shows that the established labor movement “is able to adapt itself to the needs of the group of self-employed, confident workers you find in Apple stores.”
The vote on Apple’s union organization comes amid other work organization efforts at the national level – some of them rejected.
Amazon workers at a New York City department store voted to organize in April, the first successful U.S. organizational effort in the history of the retail giant. However, workers at another Amazon warehouse in Staten Island overwhelmingly rejected a union bid last month. Meanwhile, Starbucks workers in dozens of U.S. stores have voted to join a union in recent months after two of the coffee chain’s stores in Buffalo, New York, voted to join at the end of last year.
Many union efforts have been led by young workers in their 20s and even into their teens. Last year, a group of Google engineers and other workers formed the Alphabet Workers Union, which represents about 800 Google employees and is run by five people under the age of 35.
“This is the generation with the kind of worldview that is really different than we’ve seen for many generations,” said CUNY’s Milkman. “They believe in this.”