All is not happy behind the glass-fronted stores of Apple retail
Mums the word
Apple is on a mission – to get more and more retail sites open as quickly as possible.
Only last week Tim Cook was seen at the opening of Apple BKC in Mumbai, India – their first store in India. That opening was swiftly followed by another – the Apple Saket In New Delhi. And the largest Apple Store ever opened in the Aventura Mall in South Florida recently as well.
Although Apple is keen to roll out as many stores as quickly as possible in their retail outlet program, behind the blue t-shirts and glitzy devices, all is not quite as harmonious as perhaps they’d wish for it to be.
The attempt to keep more of their stores from becoming unionised is an ongoing battle.
We’ve seen and heard stories both in the States and here in the UK about retail workers being keen to explore the union route to back their corner.
Apple is keen to try to quell the movement which swept through Amazon and in particular Starbucks early on. Over the past month or so, managers across the U.S. at their 250-plus stores have held meetings with their staff trying to explain the risks of unionisation – at least the risks as Apple sees them.
In these meetings, they have regularly cited the trials and tribulations of the first store to become unionised in the States – the Towson, Maryland store. But Apple is clearly keen to load the dice in their favour.
Apple retail is famed for its daily meetings which are coined the ‘Daily Download’. They are meant to be a chance to clear the air but it appears that they have been used more to scare or warn off staff from treading the union path.
Although Apple has wound it back a little lately, Apple’s retail chief, Deidre O’Brien did take time to send out a video message to the stores explaining their stance. In another strong-armed tactic Apple has also withheld some new benefits which have been made available to non-unionised stores.
The first signs are that the line Apple has taken has worked. Of all the stores and employees that had originally expressed an interest in becoming unionised, only two have actually followed it through – the Towson one I mentioned and one in Oklahoma City.
Laying it out
Apple is clearly picking things up again though, and is not about to let the idea of unionisation slip far from their radar.
In recent US-wide coordinated meetings, Apple has sent out prepared messages which store managers have been told to read to staffers. The tone of the prepared statement from Apple and the managers was to use the state of the Towson store as a cautionary tale – a tone which has not gone down well, being seen by some as almost a form of light bullying, although Apple would maintain it was purely factual.
Those facts, according to Apple at least were that the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM, the union which represents the Towson employees is asking for dues of 1.5% of their pay. Managers were also quick to warn that the amount would quickly start to add up and that the union would terminate any member who didn’t pay promptly.
Further tales of woe have also been trotted out too – saying that managers at Towson are favouring full-time employees over part-timers by giving them first dibs at having a day off at weekends. Also, Apple claims that longer-termed employees would be given further privileges and advantages over more recently joined team members. Clearly, they are trying to paint a picture of dissent and one that is almost trying to turn Towson employees against one another.
Last year O’Brien issued a company-endorsed statement making it clear to all staff that a union could make changes to the terms without the full permission or endorsement from the union members. This position was highlighted by using the St Louis store which decided not to proceed with becoming unionised as they’d claimed they’d been misled by the union during early negotiations.
All not fair
The long list of negatives has continued to be trotted out by the Apple hierarchy. They reckon that if only a small number of staff ask for a union election, but a majority of that small number are in favour of a vote, it will be enough for the pro-union side to win.
They (the company) also warned staff tempted by the unionisation route to be wary and cautious about what they sign;
“Signing an authorisation card means that you’re authorising the union to speak on your behalf and it means that you want the union to be your exclusive representative.”
Apple is being careful to tow the appropriate HR line and is at pains to point out that they are not against voting, simply they want their retail staff members to be fully aware of what they are voting for.
On the flip side of the coin though, relations between Apple and the Towson unionised store are frosty and communication slow. The two sides can barely seem to see eye-to-eye over anything any more and that is something that will need to be worked on – by both parties. Important and critical issues including pay, health & safety and training are all taking an age to be resolved which cannot be desirable for either party. Some common ground needs to be quickly established.
The retail stores are an important part of Apple’s success. Whether it’s simply where we can go to see and get hands-on with the products, or somewhere to turn to for help and advice at the Genius Bar.
But if you’ve been to any of those flagship stores you’ll know only too well how hard the teams work. The sea of people flooding in never stops, and they are always on hand to greet and meet.
I can see it from both sides. The staff feel they need protection and have their voice better heard, while Apple doesn’t want to hand over control of their retail staff to a third-party union.
As with all situations though, some meaningful middle ground needs to be established. Long-term rifts benefit no one. Apple needs their staff happy, motivated and onside, but equally the staff need to understand Apple’s drive for profit and accountability.
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