Apple union begins collective bargaining in Big Tech first

Unions take a step forward at Apple.
17 January 2023

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Big Tech has a strongly anti-union reputation among those who watch industrial relations. But Apple workers at the company’s first unionized retail store made a new kind of history on Wednesday, January 11th – when they began the process of collective bargaining with the tech supergiant.

The Apple store workers in Towson, Maryland, are used to making workplace history. Back in June, 2022, they became the first workers to successfully form a union at any of American Big Tech’s locations. Their position was secured by being organized with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW).

The union spring.

The dam that was broken by the Towson Apple store workers produced a small but definitive “Arab Spring” effect in American Big Tech industrial relations, with both Amazon and Microsoft subsequently getting their first unionized locations.

It’s true that the conditions of 2022 were right to brew industrial upheaval – the combination of Covid-19 and a squeezed labor market, along with a suffering economy, made it harder for workers, especially in retail and warehouse roles, to earn a living wage. It also made the rhetoric of some billionaire Big Tech companies that they had always paid well and still did – and that therefore there was no need for workers to unionize – seem stale and out of touch with the times. In fact, it made them sound like the thing that Big Tech has always fought shy of becoming – traditional businesses.

It’s fair to say that the response of each of the Big Tech behemoths to the arrival of their first unions has been distinctly mixed. Of them all, Amazon has been the most vehemently anti-union, refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Amazon Labor Union, or its right to negotiate with the company over pay and conditions on behalf of its members. Amazon is also accused by many workers of blatant union-busting activity. In fact, the situation with Amazon became so rancorous that a judge ordered the company to “cease and desist” from its anti-union activities in November, 2022.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has acknowledged its first union, and said it “looks forward to engaging in good faith negotiations as we work towards a collective bargaining agreement.”

Around the table.

Now the move from Apple to meet the Towson workers seems initially like a positive move towards evolving industrial relations in American Big Tech – indeed, it will make history by being the first of the tech giants to actually get around a table with its workers. But the meeting doesn’t come entirely without tension between the two sides.

While less overtly anti-union than Amazon has proved itself, Apple has not covered itself in proletariat glory on the way to this meeting. It has weathered a complaint from the National Labor Relations Board, after allegations that it interrogated staff over their support for a union, and prohibited the placement of pro-union fliers in the break room of an NYC Apple store. Apple is also on record conducting anti-union activities in Atlanta, Georgia and Cumberland. So it’s not as though Apple is skipping happily to the negotiating table with its first union – its previous activities seem to indicate that it would much rather it had no unions to contend with. When the company’s second American union formed in Oklahama in October, 2022, it met the formation with bland self-congratulation and an attempt to paint the unionizing workers as ungrateful.

“We believe the open, direct and collaborative relationship we have with our valued team members is the best way to provide an excellent experience for our customers, and for our teams. We’re proud to provide our team members with strong compensation and exceptional benefits. Since 2018, we’ve increased our starting rates in the US by 45% and we’ve made many significant enhancements to our industry-leading benefits,” it said.

Good faith – Big Tech style.

Nevertheless, an Apple spokesperson has told CNN that the company “will engage with the union representing our team in Towson respectfully and in good faith.” As if unable to leave the issue alone, though, it also added words about its own record of good compensation and benefits for its retail workers.

That might give a clue as to what Apple thinks of as “good faith” negotiations. How the talks actually go remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that both Apple workers throughout the US, and workers in Big Tech companies of all sorts will be keenly watching them play out.

To some extent, it could be said that Apple now has a spotlight on its actions at the negotiations – whether it meets the union on the union’s definition of good faith negotiations, or whether it continues to stand on its own record of positive remuneration in spite of the union’s negotiating position.

The talks between the Towson staff and the company will send a message to other would-be Apple union branches about their potential success, and will also define the benchmark for Big Tech negotiations with its rising union-base, even within companies that have been famously anti-union.