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Apple & the fight against unions

As much as they have fought against unionisation, it seems to be becoming a realisation that has to be dealt with for Apple

Apple & unions
image courtesy of author

The problem is…

Apple has never had to consider unions and their retail stores, until this year. Suddenly, the two words Apple & union have become all too common, well, certainly for Apple that is.

As is very frequently the case, at the centre of this issue are pay, conditions and annual leave. The retail workers feel that Apple is expecting too much from them, particularly in the light of the efforts they put in through the pandemic.

And, as much as Apple has tried to rebuff the issue, and almost bury their heads in the sand, it seems now, it’s becoming a reality.

One loud voice

This story started to gain traction in the summer. At that point, it was just the voices of the retail workers from one store, that started the rumblings. The focus was on the Apple Store in Towson, Maryland. There were 110 employees who were eligible to vote. And, vote, they did. With votes cast over four days in June, 65 employees voted to join the Machinists Union, and 33 voted against…with a few abstainers.

Apple reacted as swiftly, and positively, as they could in the light of the vote. Changes to shift patterns were implemented, meaning there would always be at least twelve hours between shifts (previously it was 10 hours). Late night shifts, working past 8pm, are now limited to three days per week. Weekend shift patterns were also discussed. Finally, Apple also placed more vacation, extra paid sick days and increased parental leave on the negotiation table, in an effort to stave off unionisation.

The voices spread, and stores in New York, Atlanta, and Washington State, followed suit, and also took initial steps towards unionisation.

Apple’s next steps

In a rather odd next move, Apple’s head of retail, Deirdre O’Brien, in May, sent a video to all Apple retail employees. The video was sent in an effort to dissuade employees from being swept up in the swell of union chat. O’Brien said in the video;

“It is your right to join a union, but, it is equally your right not to join a union,” O’Brien said in the video. She went on to say that “you should consult a wide range of people and sources to have a full understanding of what it would mean to work at Apple under a collective bargaining agreement.”

She also pointed out “that a union would make it more difficult for Apple to implement immediate, widespread changes, and it could make it harder for Apple to act swiftly to address things that employees may bring up”.

Back in the news

In June, President Biden threw his hat, and voice, in the union ring. In a statement reported by Reuters, Biden said he was “proud” of the Maryland workers who chose to vote in favour of unionising. He added to that in saying, “Workers have a right to determine under what conditions they are going to work or not work. Everyone will be better off, including the final product.”

With Towson now unionised, Apple, this week, were seen to bolster their efforts in attempting to quell any resurgence of further stores going the union route. There are over 270 stores for Apple to focus on in the US alone.

Employees who have been present in meetings this week, have said it seems clear, that Apple’s stance is to tell them “the grass is not always greener”, or words to that effect, at any rate.

The Daily Download

This is not a podcast (but what a great name that would be!), rather a daily, pre-store opening meeting at Apple stores for staff & management.

Late last week, staff were invited to an informal FAQ kind of meeting, covering the events at Apple Towson. Staff coming out of these meetings mentioned how oddly upbeat & cheery management seemed to discuss the union situation at Towson. Until then, it had always appeared to be the elephant in the room at these Daily Download meetings.

Apparently, the vibe going in to these meetings (which were entirely optional to attend), was almost one of being told about a new manager coming in, news from Apple Park or even new product launch updates. Yet, the direction of the store meetings was very focused on openly discussing Towson.

It appears that Apple executives had briefed store management to clarify that voting to unionise will do more harm than good in employees’ relationships with the company. Numerous employees coming out from the meeting felt as if scare tactics had just been levied at them. They wanted to somehow make it seem as though Apple Towson had failed, even though they’ve hardly begun implementing unionisation.

Very specific points were preselected to cover in the FAQ’s, including;

  • What is a union and, why did it matter at Towson?
  • Did everyone at Towson get a pay raise?
  • Can you opt out of a union?

Apple’s take, inevitably, was highly jaundiced against the benefits of employees & stores becoming unionised. They were keen to point out the negatives of unionisation, such as joining a union does not guarantee better benefits and pay, and emphasising that employees cannot leave a union once they join.

To be clear though, Apple Towson has not, formally begun negotiations with Apple yet, and is still in the early stages of preparing for discussions with the company.

And, rather suspiciously, Apple brought forward pay increases this year from the fall, to summer. Merit-based salary bumps have been offered, in a move widely speculated to have been an attempt to ease employee concerns.

Coming to a store near you

The union word has spread across the Atlantic, with the first Apple Store in the UK about to become unionised.

The store in Glasgow, the Buchanan Street branch, is said to have filed for Voluntary Union Recognition with Apple. Employees cited that low wages, lack of pay transparency, and unfair shift patterns (sound familiar?) have pushed them to make the move to join the GMB (General Workers Union).

Understandably, with the crippling cost of living crisis gripping us all, they feel the current hourly pay-rate (reportedly) of only £12 an hour is not tenable.

Apple has issued an official response, thus;

“We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members, and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple. We are pleased to offer very strong compensation and benefits, including private healthcare, enhanced parental leaves, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits for every team member.”

Wrapping up

It’s clear that change is coming. That is a truth for most things in life, and Apple’s retail workers should not be exempt from that.

The details of their pay and contracts, are clearly something we will not have knowledge of, but if the reported hourly rate figures are to be believed, then surely, that needs to be addressed?

When we go to an Apple Store, we are looking for, hoping, and expecting a premium level of service, coupled with great knowledge. We want to feel as if our best interests are all that matters. In order for that user experience to manifest, the guys at the stores need to be remunerated fairly.

I totally get that Apple is a company, and any company has overheads and costs. A profitable company has to look at its bottom line. But…one of the most important overheads of all is staffing. By making the staff, the people we face, feel cared for and rewarded, can only benefit everyone.

It’s a tricky one, but I’m sure a fair outcome for all can be found, either with, or without unions being involved.

Possibly, this was just the kick that Apple needed. Historically, they have been a good company to work for.

Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that continues to be the case.

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