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Will Apple see a wave of unionization like Starbucks?

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(NEW YORK) — A recent surge of U.S. labor organizing has spotlighted, above all, union campaigns at two high-profile corporations: Amazon and Starbucks.

But a watershed union victory last month at an Apple store in Towson, Maryland, may set off a nationwide labor campaign that combines the massive corporate heft of a company akin to Amazon and the nationwide wave of union victories on display at Starbucks, escalating a monthslong spike in worker organizing even as the economy approaches a possible recession, labor scholars and organizers told ABC News.

A succession of union wins at Apple stores across the U.S. is hardly assured and would likely take an extended period of time, since each Apple store employs far more workers than a typical Starbucks shop, making it more difficult and time-consuming to organize each location, the experts said. They also cautioned that Apple retains wide latitude to oppose unionization, which could hinder union efforts.

Unionized Apple store workers in Maryland “showed it’s possible,” said David DiMaria, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAMAW, who led the labor campaign at the store. “These workers have inspired lots of other Apple workers around the country.”

Since the victory last month, the IAMAW has garnered interest in unionizing from numerous Apple store employees “in all types of markets all over the country,” added DiMaria, though he declined to say how many total stores were represented by the workers. The company has more than 270 U.S. stores.

Workers at the store in Maryland organized over concerns about wages, professional development, scheduling, and Covid risks, the latter of which have worried workers since the pandemic began more than two years ago, DiMaria said.

The successful union campaign in Maryland, which began about a year ago, coincided with similar efforts at other Apple stores. Workers at a location in Grand Central Terminal, in New York City, have undertaken an ongoing union drive. Meanwhile, at a store in Atlanta, the Communications Workers of America withdrew a request for a union vote in May days before it was set to take place, citing anti-union efforts from Apple and logistical challenges posed by Covid.

In May, Apple raised the entry-level pay of its retail employees from $20 to $22 per hour amid the union activity, as well as sky-high inflation and a tight labor market.

Apple declined a request for comment for this article. CWA did not respond to a request for comment.

The surge of organizing at Apple comes amid an overall uptick in union activity nationwide. Petitions for union elections increased 57% over the first six months of fiscal year 2022, which ended on March 31, compared with the same six-month period a year prior, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, said in April.

Over recent months, national attention has focused on union campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks, which have followed disparate trajectories.

In April, warehouse workers at a 6,000-worker Amazon facility formed the first-ever U.S. union at the company, though no additional warehouses have unionized since. While at Starbucks, an initial union victory at a store in Buffalo in December set off a wave of union elections, which now total 225 elections, of which the union has won 182, or 81%, the NLRB told ABC News.

“Starbucks shows that victory begets victory,” said Alex Riccio, a Philadelphia-based organizer with the union Workers United who works on Starbucks labor campaigns. “Once people see there’s a path to victory and a path to power, it has a galvanizing effect.”

But a wave of victories at Apple stores would likely prove more difficult and time-consuming because each shop employs more workers than a typical Starbucks, experts said. Ninety-eight workers voted in the union election at the Apple store in Maryland; as opposed to Starbucks union votes, which range in number but typically involve about 30 employees.

“The larger the workplace, the more uncertainty with respect to the organizing environment,” said Michael Duff, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law and former attorney with the NLRB. “In trying to organize bigger places, it takes time to figure out whether you have support or not.”

An anti-union campaign from Apple may also limit or slow organizing at Apple stores, though opposition from employers can instead fuel the spread of labor campaigns, experts said.

Apple has not taken a public stance on the recent union efforts, but the company hired lawyers from Littler Mendelson, the law firm retained by Starbucks in its effort to fight unionizing workers. Workers at the store in Atlanta filed a complaint with the NLRB over alleged mandatory anti-union meetings, and Vice reported that the company sent anti-union talking points to managers at multiple stores to share with employees.

Meanwhile, managers at the store in Towson, Maryland, told workers false information about dues payments and mischaracterized how the bargaining process would work, said DiMaria, the lead organizer at IAMAW, citing conversations with workers.

“Employers have a lot of leeway in carrying out anti-union campaigns,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of employment law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It could make it more difficult.”

When asked whether more Apple stores will unionize, DiMaria expressed cautious optimism.

“If I could call that, I’d play the lottery,” he said. “I know the public would love to see these tidal waves, but it’s the workers who are going through this and they need to build it themselves to sustain.”

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