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Apple store in Maryland becomes third to launch union drive

Employees at the Towson Mall store say they want a voice on coronavirus safety, scheduling, pay and other topics

Employees at a third Apple store have signaled their plan to unionize, according the letter released Tuesday, May 3. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of Apple employees in Maryland launched a union drive Tuesday, becoming the third store to make a run at organizing the world’s most valuable company.

Organizers at the Towson Mall store near Baltimore say they have been drumming up support for nearly a year in coordination with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, two employees and a union organizer said. They say they have signatures from more than 65 percent of employees who are likely to be eligible, giving them a “supermajority” that would be difficult for the company to overcome.

An Apple spokesperson on Tuesday reiterated the company’s response to an earlier petition in Atlanta, saying: “We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple. We are pleased to offer very strong compensation and benefits for full time and part time employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits.”

The organizers notified Apple chief executive Tim Cook of their intention to organize as the Coalition of Organized Retail Employees ― AppleCore for short ― in a letter dated Tuesday, a copy of which was reviewed by The Post. The union intends to file paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in the coming days, according to David DiMaria, an organizer with IAM.

The union drive is the latest sign of a reinvigorated labor movement: Pandemic-related upheaval has prompted many Americans to rethink their careers and priorities, while a shortage of skilled labor has given workers new leverage. Those tail winds have helped unions make headway at traditionally nonunion workplaces, including Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Earlier this year, The Post reported that several U.S. Apple stores were attempting to organize. Workers at the flagship Grand Central Terminal store in New York City have been gathering signatures, The Post reported, while a store near Atlanta became the first to file paperwork with the NLRB.

In recent interviews with The Post, nine of the Towson Mall employees said they hope organizing will give them a seat at the table on things like coronavirus safety, hours and pay. They complained that the company’s scheduling system — run by a corporate office in Austin — gives too little control to specific stores, making it difficult for people to balance work with other life pursuits.

Some said they want benefits to be commensurate with tenure. They also contend the technical skills and product expertise acquired on the job sets them apart from those in other retail jobs. Others complained that Apple has been too slow to increase its pay at a time when profits are soaring. Last week, the company reported a record $97.3 billion in revenue in the its fiscal second quarter, up 9 percent from the same period last year and nearly double what it was five years ago. It has a market capitalization in excess of $2.5 trillion.

Iwan Barankay, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the latest wave of unionization is driven by issues that go well beyond simple wage and benefits disputes.

“What seems to be the most important issue is that employees lack voice,” he said. Decisions that can have a significant effect on the lives of thousands of employees are sometimes made by people who’ve had little interactions with them, and employees are often “the victims of random and arbitrary choices,” he said, with no recourse for decisions made by faraway corporate offices.

“The pandemic made people who work on the front lines kind of realize what they’re worth,” said Kevin Gallagher, a seven-year employee at the Towson store. “More money is nice, but it’s really about agency.”

Gallagher, whose title is “creative,” who says he spends much of his workday teaching people how to use advanced features on their iPhones, MacBooks, iPads, and Apple Watches, says there were murmurs of a possible union even before the pandemic. He said the topic came up on a chat group he started on the encrypted messaging app Signal before the store, like many retailers, temporarily closed down as a covid-19 precaution in March 2020.

More than a year later, Gallagher was approached by longtime Apple employee Billy Jarboe, both men said. Jarboe, a full-time operations lead who has a side job as a yoga teacher, was in touch with people who had previously been organizing yoga teachers in New York. It was through a yoga contact that Jarboe met David DiMaria, an organizer with the Machinist’s union.

The Machinists union, while more commonly associated with heavy industry, has been branching out to a range of industries, including Apple stores, IAM president Robert Martinez Jr. said in an interview. “When these nontraditional sectors approach us, we’re going to work with them," he said.

Apple workers at the Cumberland Mall store in Atlanta filed for a union election on April 20, becoming the first to do so, with more than 70 percent support, according to the Communications Workers of America, which represents them.

Apple store workers are at the intersection of retail and high-tech. They say they deal with many of the typical retail headaches, but many of them also develop technical expertise ― those with the coveted “genius” status, for example, are qualified to fix customers’ broken devices.

Lindsay King, another supporter of unionization at the Towson store, has been a retail worker there for more than 11 years. At first it was exhilarating, she said. New product launches drew immense attention and long lines. “It was like this elite place that everyone wanted be accepted into.” But in recent years, she said, the treatment of employees has gone downhill. “It started to feel like every other retail job,” she said.

The new scheduling system, which is less flexible, has made it difficult for her to juggle her duties as a parent to three kids, forcing her to take vacation and sick days for routine child-care needs. She also said the company hasn’t adjusted her pay to reflect the market: Newer and inexperienced employees, she said, are making nearly as much as she is now.

Jarboe said the pandemic made him realize he had been performing many of the duties of a manager without being paid accordingly. He also felt he had too little control over his schedule. “I always had the intuition that I was giving away more value than I am being compensated for, and that’s what covid helped me unpack; how much anxiety I had about that,” he said.

Jarboe and others say they want time on the job to count for something, especially given Apple’s rapid growth. “It was our biggest quarter ever, and how much profit did we see in our individual stores as the lowest rung of Apple employees?” said Chaya Barrett, who holds the title of “creative pro.”

Others involved in the unionization effort say the pandemic was a source of pressure because iPhones and Macs became lifelines of a sort when businesses suddenly shifted to remote work.

“You have people frustrated because something’s not working and it’s very vital to them … or they need it to do their job. and some people look at us as punching bags,” said Eric Brown, whose title is “genius.” “They think, ‘my computer is not working, it’s made by Apple, you work for Apple, it’s your fault.'”

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