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Apple store workers in a Baltimore suburb are the first to unionize

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's the sound of unionization.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Employees at an Apple Store in Towson, Md., are the first to unionize in the United States. People are pushing to join unions at big brands like Amazon, Starbucks and Google, now Apple, and union organizers are targeting more Apple Stores, of which there are hundreds across the United States. Apple declined to comment on those unionization efforts, but the Maryland workers are talking. Apple employee Billy Jarboe led the effort that ended in a vote for the union.

BILLY JARBOE: It's going to benefit Apple ultimately because it's going to lead to better customer experience. We're going to get better metrics because of it. We're going to be able to, you know, bring in a continuity, a true continuity of learning, which has been lacking from how we teach each other how to be skillful at the job.

INSKEEP: Jarboe says his own 12 years of experience led him to want to be part of a union. His responsibilities kept expanding.

JARBOE: The icing on the cake is my sort of job scope changing in a way that didn't feel balanced and felt like even though I was speaking up, I wasn't getting what I needed.

INSKEEP: Jarboe is, of course, a tech guy with a job in an upscale suburb. He says he's really into yoga, which shaped his desire to do good. He and other Apple workers have now chosen to join an old-style national union. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has been around since the 1800s. It started with workers on railroads, then aircraft factories. Today, as old industrial unions fade, the machinists have welcomed librarians, lobstermen and veterinarians. David Sullivan is a union vice president.

What kind of Apple workers voted to join?

DAVID SULLIVAN: I would say some very excited workers (laughter). The people that we have are Apple specialists, experts. There's a Genius pro, the leads and creatives.

INSKEEP: And what did they want a union for?

SULLIVAN: I think the biggest thing that we found is kind of respect on the job. They wanted dignity, respect. They like their jobs. They enjoy working there. But they wanted to have some say in their future. It's mostly about having a say in their schedules, their work schedules, working conditions, safety on the job.

INSKEEP: Were there safety issues during the pandemic at Apple?

SULLIVAN: People had to be very careful with COVID, and stores and businesses had to stay running. The machinists union itself was very instrumental in trying to make sure workers were safe on the job so they could continue to work and businesses could continue to run. We're finding that workers across the country just - they want to have a voice. They want to have a say in their workplace.

INSKEEP: Do you see retail as a big growth area for unionizing?

SULLIVAN: It is. It's probably one of the faster growing right now. And again, those are - I think when we say nontraditional, those are workers that a lot of people in the past - they didn't - in those fields that they worked part time, or there were not a lot of full-time jobs, they didn't want to kind of rock the boat. We were encouraged to see that people are coming forward now. And they're stepping up and saying, you know, we're willing to put it on the line to do better.

INSKEEP: How welcoming, if at all, has Apple been?

SULLIVAN: We have not heard from them yet. They have a week to file any objections to the certification. Once that week is up, we're hoping that will be certified immediately, and then I'll send them a letter. I'm hoping that they do the right thing. The workers have spoken. People have the right to form a union, join a union. It doesn't have to be an adversarial relationship. I think if they give these workers and the Machinists Union a chance, that they'll probably be pretty impressed. So we're pooling all resources together as we speak this week to start planning on next steps.

INSKEEP: Have you identified multiple stores among those 270 or so that you expect to be next?

SULLIVAN: Yes, we've been talking to stores across the country right now from coast to coast, but we are concentrating on this one. We wanted to hear from these workers in Maryland. We wanted to focus on them and make sure they were taken care of, their issues were heard. And we just want to do all the right things. To organize these days - and a lot of people get fired or made an example of.

INSKEEP: Do you have a sense that Apple is responding?

SULLIVAN: They had several executives come and visit them and try to talk them out of joining the union. And don't let a third party get between us. And the employees there properly responded that if they form a union, they are the union. So their tactics really didn't work there in Maryland. For these workers in Maryland to say, you know what? - we're stepping out, and we're going to take this step - I think that empowers Apple workers across the country to say, you know what? Maybe we should do that, too.

INSKEEP: David Sullivan of the Machinists Union, thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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