What Unions Could Mean for Apple with Zoe Schiffer

What Unions Could Mean for Apple with Zoe Schiffer

This week decoder The episode comes a day early as today is Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC. It’s one of the biggest events of the year for Apple, one of the most important companies in the world. In fact, Apple is the most valuable company in the world, and it posted $18 billion in net profit in its first quarter – the highest quarterly profit of any public company in history.

So as we enter another big Apple event, I wanted to have Edge Labor reporter Zoe Schiffer spoke about something else going on inside Apple: pressure from its retail workers to unionize, store by store, because they are unhappy with their pay. and their working conditions.

As Zoe delved deeper into her reporting from the Apple workplace, she learned about the specific challenges faced by Apple Store employees. They struggled with COVID, rude customers, mental health, salary dissatisfaction and lack of advancement. An article she wrote about it a few months ago was widely shared among those employees, who came to see they had common issues and started to organize.

This organization follows a trend for other front-line workers at other large companies — some tech, some not. Amazon warehouse workers have been involved in a very public and drawn-out fight to unionize. (In May, one New York warehouse voted to unionize while another did not.) Additionally, 100 Starbucks locations voted to unionize, and some Alphabet employees are already part of that. called a solidarity union.

Zoe is really well sourced; she has an inside look at this fight. So she helps us explain how it all works and what it could mean.

A note: I divulge it in the conversation, but The edge and Vox Media are unionized; I’m obviously the management, and Zoe is part of our union. It didn’t affect our conversation, but, as you all know, I love revelations, so here goes.

Alright, Zoe Schiffer on unionizing at Apple Stores and beyond.

Here we are.

This transcript excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

So that seems to be a fairly important role for these people. It looks like Apple wants them to be part of the larger mission. Why are they unhappy?

When you look from the outside and compare Apple’s retail workers to other retail workers, you say, “You get paid more, the environment is a bit better, and you get stock. What’s the solution?” Apple’s retail employees really bought into that mission. Apple made it a point to have them watch all the big Apple events, have an executive speak to them directly, and galvanize them about Apple’s mission, that they start comparing themselves to the Apple company. They say, “Okay, you’re the most profitable company in the world. You had the best quarter of any company in terms of turnover. Why don’t we see any of this? Why do you take me into the mission and tell me that I’m part of it, when I’m not even paid a fraction of what does a company employee earn?

I guess Apple’s answer to that is, “Our corporate employees have more skills. They design the camera on the iPhone. There are advertisers. Are people paid differently based on their skills?

Yes.

Is that really what they say?

No, Apple would never say that. I don’t think they would ever say, “Corporate employees have advanced degrees,” because that might not even be necessarily accurate. All in all, I’m sure there are reasons why these people are paid more. I think they’re saying, “Listen, we’re listening to you. We want to improve the environment a bit. We will provide you with more opportunities for advancement in the company. Retail employees are not asking to be paid what corporate employees are paid. They’re mostly asking $26 an hour, and that’s a relatively small increase in their minds when you look at what Apple is making quarter over quarter.

Sounds like a basic request. I just want to contrast that with Amazon, which is also facing unionization efforts at its warehouses. I feel like it’s easier to understand this story. They are warehouse workers, a classically unionized subset of workers in America, and they have tough working conditions. We have heard of robots managing workers in difficult ways. There’s a very controversial anecdote about drivers peeing in bottles that Amazon would refute but workers would tell you it’s true. Amazon itself offers educational benefits; he really wants warehouse workers to graduate from business, or so he says. It’s very noisy about these lanes. Is there a reason? Compare and contrast that with Apple’s relationship with its frontline workers.

Can we also provide another example? I think it’s really interesting to look at Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. When we look at Starbucks and Amazon, they both have these acute issues that workers face. At Starbucks, it’s people are severely understaffed and overworked. At Amazon, these are the working conditions you were talking about. Apple doesn’t have any of those things. Look at the success of the Starbucks campaign versus the Amazon campaign. Two Starbucks locations in Buffalo announced in December that they were running for a union election, and within six weeks another 20 stores had filed for a union election. I think we are now at 250 stores across the country. That’s what we mean when we say there was a big union push that ignited the entire country of Starbucks workers.

At Amazon, there was a thriving union in Staten Island. After that, I think a month later, another union said they were going to file a complaint, but they withdrew the petition. That was it. The reasons for this are various, but one of them – and The New York Times wrote a good article about it – is that Starbucks workers work closely together. They have a lot of time where they’re just sitting with co-workers and a manager isn’t around. Amazon workers are very isolated and don’t always work with the same people. It’s hard to sit down and discuss the reasons for unionizing in the first place. Apple workers are somewhere in between; they don’t have acute labor issues. Although many would tell you that they are overworked, stressed and underpaid, they are down and there is always a store manager present. They are not necessarily sitting down discussing how to improve their working conditions.

What we have seen so far is three stores have announced that they are unionizing with three separate unions. One of them has already withdrawn his petition and it is not known whether the other two will succeed. I don’t mean to be depressing about this, but I think we’re at a point where we really don’t know if Apple is going to go the Amazon route, a slower job that might get you nowhere, or the Starbucks.

Let’s do a little organizing 101, because you brought up a bunch of terms and processes there that I think most people aren’t familiar with. You mentioned that there are three separate unions. Forming a union is actually a somewhat complex process. Let’s say you are an employee of a random Apple Store. How would you start the unionization process?

I’ll try to get it right because it’s really complicated, and I feel like I have to do an encore every time I write a story. Basically, if you’re an Apple retail employee, you start talking to co-workers about improving your working conditions, and some union organizers would tell you at that point that you have a union. In Apple’s eyes, you certainly don’t have a union. What you need to do is get 30% of the people who work in your store who are eligible to vote to sign cards, basically a petition, saying they would vote for a union. At this point, you can request and file documents with the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, to say that you intend to have a union vote.

If you have 30%, the NLRB will say, “Okay, you can come.” You will schedule a vote, either in person or by mail sometimes. If the majority of people who have the right to vote do so for the union, you have a union. At this point you need to decide on a contract and the company needs to come to the table and negotiate with you. This is the power of the union, but it can take years before a contract is actually ratified.

A full transcript will be available soon.

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