Workers at the Apple store in Towson, Maryland, won national attention and praise from President Joe Biden after becoming the first of the tech giant’s U.S. employees to unionize. Less than two months earlier, Starbucks baristas in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood became the first of the coffee chain’s Maryland employees to organize.
Now comes the hard part. While the workers are among those leading what union organizers see as a resurgence in the labor movement, most of these campaigns are in the early stages and labor experts warn that employees face difficulty ahead in a process tilted heavily in favor of employers.
“Labor law is not meant to facilitate the labor movement,” said Michael C. Duff, a law professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law and former government labor litigator with the National Labor Relations Board. “There are lots of defenses that employers have available to them.”
Some say unionization efforts grew stronger amid pandemic-related labor shortages that emboldened workers to stand up for themselves. U.S. workers have launched campaigns in recent months at Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, Google parent company Alphabet, and retailer REI. They’re raising concerns over wages, health and safety, and scheduling, while calling for more of a voice in workplace policies.
“The unions that are going to survive are the ones that can keep employees interested and engaged and fired up for long periods of time,” Duff said.
There are numerous avenues for employers to challenge elections or file administrative appeals, steps that can delay the process or land a matter in court for extended periods, Duff said.
Employers, for instance, can object to certain categories of workers being included in a bargaining unit. Employers that believe they wrongly lost an appeal can simply refuse to bargain, potentially sending the case to the courts. If negotiations stall for more than a year, employers can file a “decertification” petition if they can prove most workers no longer want representation. Employers also can switch to independent contractors or close locations.
And it can be difficult for a union to prove an employer’s next moves are connected to anti-union sentiment, Duff said.
When he discusses the latest news with his labor law students each year, Duff tells them, “Come back in a year, and if this is still going on, then you’ve got something.”
Employees at only three of Apple’s U.S. corporate stores have announced plans to form unions, including the Towson Town Center store, another in Atlanta and one in New York.
Apple workers in Towson voted 65-33 on June 18 to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. When results were announced late that day, employees gathered in the mall parking garage erupted in cheers.
“To be the first Apple store in the country to get a union is incredible,” employee Tiawana Dugger told The Baltimore Sun that Saturday, saying workers were “tired of being overlooked, tired of feeling like we weren’t heard, tired of not getting the things that we deserve.”
Biden, speaking to reporters in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on June 20 said he was “proud” of those Apple workers.
“Workers have a right to determine under what condition they are going to work or not work,” he said.
However, workers at an Apple store in Atlanta have lost their fight, for now. The Communications Workers of America, which they sought to join, withdrew its request for an election at the store.
The union said a fair election was “impossible” because Apple repeatedly violated the National Labor Relations Act. The union, which filed charges with the labor relations board, complained Apple waged a campaign to intimidate the union’s representatives and interfere, spending tens of thousands of dollars on a “union avoidance” law firm.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment on those allegations and on the Towson store’s vote.
The organizing committee told workers at the Atlanta location that it planned to “reset” and work with other stores to “help them really prepare for what’s coming their way. ... It’s just not our time this time.”
Amazon employees are facing setbacks in the early going, as well. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, became the first in the company’s history to unionize with an April 1 vote to join the Amazon Labor Union.
But efforts to organize a second facility, a package sorting center also on Staten Island, fell short in late May. The company fired workers involved in organizing and otherwise pushed back, according to labor board filings and employee interviews with The Washington Post.
In Maryland, two Amazon workers, backed by a labor group called Amazonians United, alleged in an NLRB filing that they were illegally fired from a facility in Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County after collecting signatures for petitions and encouraging workers to take part in a walkout in March.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the allegations were without merit, adding that an employee’s support of a cause or group “doesn’t factor into the difficult decision of whether or not to let someone go.” Nantel said Amazon fired one of the Maryland workers for theft and another for time theft.
Seth Goldstein, an attorney for Amazon Labor Union, said June 23 that Amazon has been filing objections to the Staten Island workers’ favorable vote for weeks in an attempt to delay certification.
Nantel countered that Amazon objected because the union “suppressed and influenced the vote.”
But Goldstein argued that, “It’s another way to bust the union. It’s not about the merits of the case. ... The law should not be this complicated. It should not favor the employer.”
An NLRB spokeswoman said parties in the Towson Apple store election had five business days to file objections. With none filed, the board certified the results and the employer must begin bargaining in good faith with the union.
In Towson, the machinists union’s next step entails taking nominations and electing a committee to represent workers, said David DiMaria, the union’s organizer for the Apple store.
The committee will conduct bargaining surveys and draft a proposal to offer the company. In general, topics likely will include professional development, health and safety, and wages, especially in light of soaring inflation, DiMaria said.
“Employees love the company and love the work, and want room for growth,” DiMaria said. The timing of a proposal “depends on what the priorities are, and is it basic language, or are they trying to propose something that’s never been done?”
A unionization movement has swept across Starbucks cafes across the country since last year. In April, workers at the North Charles Street coffee shop in Midtown voted unanimously to join Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, on a 14-0 vote.
Starbucks has argued before the NLRB that it’s inappropriate to place bargaining units at single stores, rather than a collection of stores in a district. After the Midtown cafe vote, the company said in a statement that it respects the workers’ right to organize and would follow the NLRB process — but still opposes the move to unionize.
“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in an email. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”
Since then, votes in favor of unionizing have taken place and been certified at Starbucks in Linthicum Heights; Nottingham; Olney, in Montgomery County, and Stevensville in Queen Anne’s County, said Rebecca Hess, organizing director for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Joint Board for Workers United. Workers at Starbucks in Bel Air also voted to organize, but Starbucks filed objections related to the NLRB’s vote counting process.
Hess said certified stores in Maryland and Virginia are preparing for the next phase of drafting proposals to present to Starbucks. They will review the company’s benefits package and work to maintain what they favor, and there is “a lot they do like.” They do want promises to be kept, such as one for raises to $15 an hour this summer, she said.
“This isn’t that they’re angry at Starbucks,” Hess said. “They want Starbucks to go back to being the responsible employer they once were” before expansion resulted in “the corporatization of what once was a good idea.”
Workers at the Midtown Starbucks had said they found themselves too often running out of supplies, short-staffed on shifts and feeling pressured to stay late or come in when sick. Worse, many say, was a perception that the company dismissed their concerns.
Nationally, 187 Starbucks stores out of nearly 9,000 have won the right to unionize through elections, but no contracts are in place yet.
Unionized employees are creating a nationally focused bargaining strategy with a national committee made up of local store representatives, Hess said, though contracts still are likely to be negotiated on a store-by-store basis.
“It’s going to take everyone sticking together to do this,” Hess said.
Duff, the labor law professor, said the success of such campaigns often depends upon whether workers have reached a point where “everyone is feeling desperate.
“I think the desperation workers are feeling right now makes it more likely that they’ll stay in their workplaces and fight,” Duff said, especially as inflation erodes purchasing power.
He noted that work stoppages had been on the uptick before the pandemic and the health and economic crisis exacerbated worker dissatisfaction.
“If employers need workers, workers have greater bargaining power, and that’s the position unions want to be in,” Duff said.
Hess sees campaigns at Apple and Amazon as adding momentum to the Starbucks workers’ fight and believes the wave of organizing is just the “tip of the iceberg.” It became clear to workers during pandemic shutdowns that employers earned money only with workers on the front lines, she said.
“Workers wanting to stand up against corporate America is a bolster to everyone,” Hess said. “People who never considered organizing are reaching out. ... We’ve been waiting for this day for decades.”
And, she said, young workers are leading the charge.
“They have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” she said.
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This story was originally published July 1, 2022 5:46 AM.