This week’s Decoder episode is coming to you a day early because 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 profits in its first quarter — the most quarterly profit of any public company in history.
So, as we go into another huge Apple event, I wanted to have Verge labor reporter Zoe Schiffer on to talk about something else that’s happening inside Apple: a brewing push by its retail employees to unionize, store by store, because they’re unhappy with their pay and working conditions.
As Zoe dove deeper into her reporting on Apple’s workplace, she learned about the specific challenges facing Apple Store employees. They struggled with COVID, rude customers, mental health, unhappiness with wages, and lack of advancement. A piece she wrote about it a few months ago was widely shared among those employees, who came to see that they had some common problems and began organizing.
Do you have a tip about Apple? Contact Zoë confidentially at 805-699-5607 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This organizing follows a trend for other front-line employees at other big companies —some tech, some not. Amazon warehouse employees have been involved in a very public, drawn-out fight to unionize. (In May, one New York warehouse voted to unionize while another did not.) In addition, 100 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize, and some Alphabet employees are already part of what’s called a solidarity union.
Zoe is really well-sourced; she has an inside look at this fight. So, she helps us explain how this all works and what it might mean.
One note: I disclose this in the conversation, but The Verge and Vox Media are unionized; I am obviously management, and Zoe is in our union. That didn’t have any bearing on our conversation, but, as you all know, I love a disclosure, so there it is.
Okay, Zoe Schiffer on unionization at Apple Stores and beyond.
Here we go.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Zoë Schiffer is a labor reporter here at The Verge. Welcome to Decoder.
Thanks so much for having me.
You are our very first repeat guest. It’s an honor.
It really is an honor, Nilay. Thank you.
The last time you were here we talked about how Apple’s return-to-work policy had upset a number of employees who were being asked to return to the spaceship campus, particularly in various engineering departments. I would say that conversation has shifted over the last year. Apple said they were going to return to work, then they walked it back as Covid-19 has come and gone. A lot of the energy in the Apple employee base has really moved to Apple retail and retail workers saying they wanted to be treated better, in many cases thinking about unionizing. Why do you think that shift has happened?
In part, I think retail workers were inspired by what they were seeing at corporate. They were like, “Wow, people at corporate are fighting for their right to work from home. We obviously never get to work from home and we are paid far less than they are. We should be organizing as well.”
One of the most interesting things about Apple is that it has a lot of employees; I think most people think of Apple employees as engineers, designers, and executives who get on stage at keynote events. But a huge percent of their employees actually work in the stores, in retail. The last number I have here from The Washington Post says Apple retail has 65,000 people, which is a massive number of people to work at any company. Do they feel like they are integrated into Apple proper? Do they feel like they are part of the whole show, or do they feel separate?
It’s a great question. I would say Apple does an enormous amount of work to make their retail employees really feel like they are part of the overall Apple mission, more than most retail jobs. Every single shift starts out with this morning meeting, called the “download meeting”, where they read the Apple credo, which is this very elevated text about how the mission is to “empower the whole world and turn dreamers into doers” and people will cry when reading it. It’s a big thing.
I think retail employees really do feel like they believe in the mission, in Apple proper, and it’s borne out by the fact that they stay at the retail job for far longer than your average retail employee. There are people who have been at Apple retail for 10 or 15 years.
Is there advancement in Apple retail? Can you make a lot of money working at the stores, or do you transition into corporate in some way?
You do get an annual raise. This is one of the core issues that people are upset about; people used to start out at $17, $18, $19 an hour, and then every year would get a 30- or 40-cent raise. With rising inflation, it just was not keeping up with the cost of living in a lot of major cities.
Then in terms of career advancement, there are obviously store lead positions in the Apple retail stores. These are not highly paid, they are still hourly jobs. You can also do career experiences. Basically, Apple corporate offers the opportunity for retail workers to work a corporate job, but they get paid their same retail salary. The idea is that you are going to try out what it’s like to work on a corporate team and eventually you could be in the running to get that corporate job.
In reality, it is very rare for employees to move from retail to corporate. Unfortunately, the company does not release numbers on how many people actually advance. I just know anecdotally, from talking to a lot of people, that it feels like a position that is always dangled out in front of them like a little carrot. It is really hard to actually make that transition.
You mentioned people stay there forever. Do they stay there forever out of loyalty to Apple even though they are not advancing or getting raises? Are they staying there because it is the best job in the mall? What would make you stay somewhere for 10 years if there is a cap on your advancement?
I think the reality is that it still is a better retail job than most retail jobs. It pays about $4 an hour more than other retail positions. I think what happens — again, this is just my sense from chatting with a lot of retail employees over the past couple years — is that people come in comparing Apple retail to their last retail job and it is significantly better.
Then when they are there for a long time, they start to compare themselves to Apple corporate and it feels significantly worse. They are stuck in this position, where they do not want to transition to another retail job that is going to pay them a little less and not be as good of an environment, but they really don’t know if or when they will ever get to advance beyond their current retail position.
One of the things that has obviously changed over the course of Apple retail’s existence is the primacy of the store and the place it occupied in the Apple ecosystem. Steve Jobs famously starts the stores. Everyone tells him they are going to fail and he is going to destroy the company because he’s opened a store in a mall. They then turn out to be a huge success for Apple and are part of the brand’s revitalization under Jobs. He wants people to have a good experience with computers. The original stores had boxed software in them where you could buy apps for your Mac and learn how to edit on an iMovie.
Over the years, there have been many changes to what the store represents for Apple. There have been many leaders of the store. There have been some executives who did a horrible job. There was Angela Ahrendts, who wanted to make them community cafes or something. Now they have Deirdre O’Brien who was the head of HR. Is there a sense of what the stores are supposed to do for Apple? It feels like there have been many changes about the importance of the store. They have a lot of them, and they’re architecturally significant, but it’s not like Apple needs help getting the word out or that it is hard to buy an iPhone anywhere in the world. What are the stores for?
That is a really interesting question. If you talk to retail workers, they feel like, “We are the conduit between corporate and the customer.”
People want to buy an iPhone, and they are going to want to buy an iPhone regardless of whether the stores exist or not. But they might not have a personal relationship with Apple. If they are an older person who doesn’t know how to work certain technology, they might not feel like the company cares enough to walk them through how to set up their phone or computer. That is really the position for the retail workers, along with AppleCare employees. I think they feel like, “We are your brand ambassadors. Everyone knows the brand, but if you really want people to love the brand, then we are the people that make that happen.”
So that seems like a pretty important role for those folks. It seems like Apple wants them to buy into the larger mission. Why are they unhappy?
When you look from the outside and compare Apple retail workers to other retail workers, and you’re saying, “You are paid more, the environment is a little bit better, and you get stock. What is the issue?”
Apple retail workers have really bought into this mission. Apple has made such a point of having them watch all of the large Apple events, having executives speak directly to them, and really galvanizing them about the Apple mission, that they start to compare themselves to Apple corporate. They’re saying, “Okay, you are the most profitable company in the world. You’ve had the best quarter of any company ever in terms of revenue. Why are we not seeing any of that? Why are you bringing me into the mission and telling me that I’m part of this, but then I’m not even paid a fraction of what a corporate employee makes?”
I’m assuming that Apple’s response to that is, “Our corporate employees have more skills. They design the camera on the iPhone. They’re our advertising people.” Do people get paid differently based on their skills?
Is that actually what they are saying?
No, Apple would never say that. I don’t think they would ever say, “Corporate employees have higher educational degrees,” because that might not even necessarily be accurate. On the whole, I am sure there are reasons why those people are paid more. I think that they are saying, “Look, we are listening to you. We want to make the environment a little bit better. We’ll make more opportunities for you to advance at the company.”
Retail employees are not asking to get paid what corporate employees get paid. They’re asking for $26 an hour for the most part, and that’s a relatively small raise in their minds when you look at what Apple is making quarter over quarter.
What else are these unions asking for in addition to higher pay? What else are they unhappy about?
There are a few different reasons, but one of the big ones that has become particularly important over the past couple years is just the mental health strain of the work. I think part of the problem with Apple indoctrinating people into the company ethos so effectively is that when the workload gets really intense, or customers are really shitty to employees, or corporate puts out some mandate about how fast people should be fixing the iPhone, and it’s really hard to keep up with, people feel like it’s really hard to step away and their voices aren’t heard.
People will email Tim Cook and they won’t hear back, and they’ll email Deirdre O’Brien and they won’t hear back, and they feel like they’re drowning a little bit.
If you have a problem with any of these things and you talk to your store leader, oftentimes it doesn’t go anywhere. And so people will email Tim Cook and they won’t hear back, and they’ll email Deirdre O’Brien and they won’t hear back, and they feel like they’re drowning a little bit.
And we talked about this in an article that I wrote that came out in December. Not to make this about my reporting, but I do think that piece kind of sparked a conversation, from what I’ve heard from a lot of different people. That people kind of looked at this piece, which centered on one employee who died by suicide after being bullied by a manager for years and friends of his really felt like the death was unfortunately related to the mental health strain of his work at Apple. And they said, “Wow, I’ve been struggling with this, and I didn’t know that anyone else was.”
One of the themes that keeps coming up in this conversation is people feel really alone, and then they realize that other people have the same problems and that leads to a sense of solidarity, and then potentially leads to unions. Why do you think that happens so often, that people don’t recognize that other people in different stores, or even the same store, are having the same experiences?
I mean, I think that when it’s happening to you and you are trying to talk to a manager, to corporate, about it and the message you’re getting is like, “Okay, well, if you need to step away, you can. But I need you to come back next week and be on your A-game.” Then you’re kind of getting this subtle nod that the problem is you.
And I think most companies are pretty effective at like keeping employees pretty siloed, particularly in retail. I mean, we’ve had this conversation before, but it’s why Slack is such an effective organizing tool because suddenly you can bring people together in the same room who all have the same problem with the same manager, or the same policy, or what have you. And so I think when the article came out, or an article comes out and people read it, it’s kind of the first time that they feel like they’re not the only one.
Let’s put this in contrast to some other relevant examples. Amazon is also facing unionization efforts at its warehouses. It feels like it’s easier to understand that story. They’re warehouse workers, a classically unionized subset of workers in America, and they have arduous working conditions. We have heard about the robots managing the workers in difficult ways. There is a very controversial anecdote about drivers peeing in bottles that Amazon would refute and then the workers would tell you is true. But Amazon itself provides educational benefits; it really wants warehouse workers to graduate into corporate, or at least it says it does. It is very loud about those pathways. Compare and contrast that to Apple’s relationship to its frontline workers.
Can we actually bring in another example too? I think it is really interesting to look at Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple. When we look at Starbucks and Amazon, they both have these acute issues that workers are facing. At Starbucks, it is that people are severely understaffed and overworked. At Amazon, it is the labor conditions that you were talking about.
Apple doesn’t have either 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 filing for a union election, and within six weeks, 20 other stores filed for union elections. I think now we are at 250 stores across the country. That is what we mean when we say there was a big unionizing push that ignited the whole country of Starbucks workers.
At Amazon, there was one successful labor union on Staten Island. After that, I think a month later, we had one other union say they were going to file, and then they withdrew the petition. That was it. The reasons for that are varied, but one of them — and The New York Times wrote a good piece on this — is that Starbucks workers work close together. They have a lot of time where they are just sitting around with colleagues and a manager is not present. Amazon workers are very isolated and they are not always working with the same people. It is hard to sit around and chat about the reasons for unionizing in the first place.
Apple workers are somewhere in between; they don’t have the acute labor issues, though many would tell you that they are overworked, stressed, and underpaid. But they’re on the floor and there is always a store leader present. They are not necessarily sitting around chatting about how to improve their working conditions.
We really do not know whether Apple is going to go the route of Amazon, a slower slog that might not go anywhere, or be more of a Starbucks.
What we’ve seen so far is that three stores announced that they were unionizing with three separate unions. One of them has already withdrawn their petition and it’s unclear whether the other two will be successful. I don’t want to be a downer about this, but I just think we are at a point where we really do not know whether Apple is going to go the route of Amazon, a slower slog that might not go anywhere, or be more of a Starbucks.
Let’s do a little unionizing 101, because you brought up a bunch of terms and processes there that I think most people are not familiar with, and you mentioned that there are three separate unions. The formation of a union is actually somewhat of a complex process. Let’s say you are an employee at a random Apple Store. How would you begin the process of unionizing?
I am going to try and get this right because it is really complicated, and I feel like I have to do a refresher every time I write a story. Basically, if you are an Apple retail worker, you start chatting with colleagues about improving your working conditions and some union organizers would tell you at that point you have a union.
But in Apple corporate’s eyes, you most certainly do not have a union. What you need to do is get 30% of the people who work in your store and are eligible to vote to sign cards, basically a petition, saying that they would vote for a union. At that point, you can file paperwork with the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, and 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 through the mail sometimes. If the majority of people who are eligible to vote do so in favor of the union, you have a union. At that point you have to decide on a contract and the company has to come to the table and negotiate with you. That is the power of the union. But it can take years for a contract to actually be ratified.
I feel like I am very much obligated to disclose right now that I am management, and Zoë is in the Vox Media Union — of which I have no part — who is currently negotiating a new contract. There’s your disclosure. I don’t think you have anything to do with it, but we are on opposite sides of the table in that respect. Although, here at the Decoder table, I feel like we are definitely a team.
Would you say we’re a family, Nilay?
I would not at this moment in time.
I have a family. I like my family very much. Anyhow, so you mentioned a contract. This is a key sticking point in the formation of a union and what you get out of a company. You said they had to negotiate a contract. What do those contracts look like at some of these unions? What do they cover?
It totally depends. It covers anything that the company and the workers decide on the contract covering. Oftentimes it is things like minimum pay, vacation policy, maternity leave, sick leave, things like that. What is the floor for the basic working conditions when people come into this company and work for it?
I brought that up very specifically because there is another union at Alphabet, called the Alphabet Workers Union, that organized itself into a union but did not negotiate a contract with Alphabet.
Yes. That is what we call a solidarity union. I said at the beginning that, technically speaking, when employees come together and advocate for better conditions, that is a union. That is true.
Historically speaking, going before the NLRB and voting for a union is a relatively new phenomenon. Unions existed before that, and they were just people coming together. That said, when you have corporate companies that have a lot of money and a lot of power, they might not take you as seriously if you do not have a contract in hand.
I will say, the Alphabet Workers Union has been effective. They have filed unfair labor practice charges and have done some of the things that we would expect a typical union to do, but I don’t know that we have seen those large-scale policies that change the working conditions for everyone.
In the context of this as a business podcast, the basics are pretty simple. You get together, you file with the NLRB and say, “We are a unit.” Then because you are a unit, you have leverage to negotiate with a company around things like pay and benefits.
Yes. The more workers you have in the union, the more power you have. At this point, we have gutted a lot of the labor legislation in this country, so what you have is workers coming together and saying, “We will strike if you don’t give us what we want and we will stop working.” If you don’t have a lot of people doing that, a lot of your power has been taken away.
When the Alphabet Workers Union formed, is there a reason they went the other way and did not form a unit that could negotiate for a contract or threaten a strike?
The reason they give is that they wanted contractors to be part of the union. Because contractors are categorized differently at the corporate level than corporate employees, they cannot be in the same union as corporate employees if you go before the NLRB and vote in that regard. They would be part of different bargaining unions, essentially.
The other thing that seems very interesting to me came up in both the Starbucks and the Amazon example. It is warehouse by warehouse at Amazon, so every warehouse has its own union. It is coffee shop by coffee shop for Starbucks, and it is store by store for Apple. Is there a reason it is not all of the coffee shops or all of the Apple Stores, but individual stores as units?
The basic reason is that, by design, these companies do not give workers at different locations an ability to talk to one another very easily. It very much feels like if you work at an Apple Store in Austin, Texas, you work at that store. You do not have a lot of connection with the Grand Central union Apple workers.
In a practical sense, this means that while corporate employees have a Slack they can use to talk to any other corporate employee, retail workers have a Slack where they can only talk to their store. When it was first rolled out, I do believe there was more of an ability to talk between stores, but that was taken away.
Is there a legal reason that it has to be store by store or warehouse by warehouse?
No. If you could do it, you could organize all of the stores at once under one major union, because all of those workers are categorized the same way. I believe all of the Starbucks stores are organizing under Workers United.
Let’s say Workers United, as a labor union, goes to a store and says, “You should organize.” Do they bring workers into the fold and create a new union? How does that work?
If you said that to Workers United, they would be like, “Absolutely not. The workers come to us when they want to unionize. We merely assist them with the process.”
I think that there is some debate where it comes from, because it is definitely true that unions will approach workers, particularly after one store has already announced. You will see a lot of outreach from unions saying, “Did you look at what was happening at the store in New York? Do you also want to unionize?”
I think one thing that has been coming up — in the tech industry in particular — is that it is kind of a badge of honor to be the national union that is organizing a very famous tech company. There is this personal stake that a lot of unions have to be the one organizing Apple or to be the one organizing Amazon.
What is the relationship between the national union and the one at an individual store? How does that relationship play out?
Basically, your store will have workers who come together and say they want to unionize. Then the national union will have organizers who work with that particular store to help unionize. You will have a union rep from the national union who is assigned to your store and will help you along the way with your process. They will help with the union campaign and explain how to combat anti-union talking points from corporate. They are professional organizers and will teach people who have not professionally organized before how to do so.
Do they provide any other services? Do they teach you how to do it and walk away? Are they in it with you? Are there lawyers? I ask this because there are always lawyers.
It’s a good question. They are in it with you, and there are lawyers involved. Communications Workers of America — one of the unions organizing Apple workers — has already filed unfair labor practice charges on behalf of two stores in the United States, saying that some of the anti-union moves that Apple has been making are illegal. In that regard, they are filing paperwork and have lawyers involved. They are working with people. When they hear workers say, “Hey, my manager said that if we unionize my benefits will be taken away,” it is usually the CWA rep who says, “That is highly illegal. Let’s file something right now and get this fight moving forward.”
Very famously, companies will tell employees, “You are going to have to pay dues. It is going to come out of your paycheck.” I am assuming the dues are what pays for the lawyers and the national unions?
Yes. The talking point that corporate will often make is that the union is a business. “If more people join it, they get paid more, and you should be very wary of that.” In reality, they are doing a job for you. There is a reason that union dues exist. It is true that you are paying the union organizers, but it is what makes the union have teeth in a lot of ways.
It has often felt to me like a bunch of people getting together to hire a lawyer. In a very abstract way, you are hiring some lawyers to negotiate a contract for you. It makes sense to me in that way. The question that I have is about the various unions fighting it out to be the ones that organize the tech industry. You mentioned Apple has three of them competing for its stores. Are those unions different? Do they compete?
That is another thing that seems very overlooked to me. You have these multiple national unions. You should be able to measure their effectiveness, or their cost structures, or their dues schedules. As I look around for that kind of information, it is actually quite hard to find direct comparisons of these organizations, the way that you might compare something like streaming services.
I think it is honestly somewhat random which national union the stores end up going with. There is not a good way for worker to compare one union to another. Have you talked to the union reps at these different places? Do they have a history of organizing people in your field? Do you have a good feeling about them maintaining the fact that you, as the worker, have the power, not the national union?
That said, I think it is somewhat random which national union the workers end up going with. The Apple store in Maryland has filed a petition to unionize with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. We do know just from chatting with employees in the store that even after that announcement came out, CWA reps were chatting with workers. There was a conversation around whether they should stick with the union that they had filed with or whether they should move over to CWA.
Strategically speaking, it is not unheard of for one industry to have workers who are unionized with different national unions. The flight industry is a good example of this; I think there are two unions that specifically represent flight attendants at American Airlines and such. It certainly can weaken the power you have when Apple is negotiating with three different unions at three different stores with a smaller group of employees versus all of the employees coming together pushing for the same set of demands.
It just occurs to me that if you are the average store employee that you have no way to measure or even look up how effective CWA is versus the International Machinist Union.
Are you saying that we need a Yelp for unions? I’m hearing a business idea.
I’m not not saying it. It’s hard to know until you are in it and no information comes out.
I think you are putting too much emphasis on the national unions. They are certainly helpful, but one of the things that you read about again and again with Starbucks is that the push is coming from workers. It is not coming from Workers United, the union. Of course, in practice, we have seen these fights play out before, like when Amazon workers in Bessemer lost the union vote. Jane McAlevey, a really famous organizer, wrote a scathing article in The Nation about how the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) had really fucked up the union campaign. She had all of these reasons why it was their fault that Bessemer had not been successful. It is obviously important which union you decide to go with. But ultimately, workers being very motivated to organize their workforce is what is going to make this happen or not.
Do you think there is any connection to the other industries that these unions have taken hold in? CWA, the Communications Workers of America, is very familiar to me because they have largely unionized Verizon and AT&T down to their retail stores and a lot of their line workers. I think most Decoder listeners know how I feel about Verizon and AT&T as corporate entities. I would not say that on the whole, those workers feel respected or well taken care of, even though they have this long history of a union. Does that come through? “Hey, this specific union has this long history negotiating against AT&T or Verizon. I can look at that history and pull out some themes that would apply to me here.” Or is this all de novo, happening for the first time?
I am going to push back a little bit on something you said. I do not think the fact that AT&T workers don’t feel respected is a reason that CWA is not an effective union. We do not know how much worse their lives would be if there was no union. So I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison.
At least in my conversations with retail workers, I have not heard them say, “we chose CWA specifically because they have a very long history of unionizing workers in our industry, and these are the reasons we think they will be successful.”
I think that CWA certainly uses those talking points when they are talking to workers. Because one of the things that corporations will say — and Apple said this very quickly — is that, “the union does not understand our business. They do not understand your day-to-day work and they do not understand Apple. That is why they are going to come in and slow us down. They are going to get in between us.” So for a union to actually have some history in the field that you are in is important.
That makes sense to me. It doesn’t even seem like there are trade publications. You mentioned that piece about Bessemer and Amazon was in The Nation.
These are one-off conversations that happen here and there, as opposed to how we review every cell phone. It just seems like if you are going to pool all your money together and hire a bunch of lawyers, you should be able to Google who the best lawyers in town are. That seems to be one of the more confusing aspects of this whole puzzle. It is hard to know who is really effective and who is only somewhat effective.
It does feel a little more random than you might expect.
Completely. The other thing is that within the unions, there are a lot of organizers who are going from one union to another. It is not like they are so distinct and separate in their strategy that you are going to get a radically different experience. The question is more, “Will they be able to push back at the corporate talking points about why we shouldn’t unionize in an effective way because they understand my industry?”
When you talk to people in Atlanta who chose to go with CWA, they did not say they chose them because of their long history in the comms industry. They said, “We looked at Amazon workers who were unionizing. We Googled unions and they were the first ones that came up, so we submitted a form.” In that regard, it does feel a little more random than you might expect.
There are two other unions inside of Apple. CWA is one, but what are the other two stores? Who have they gone with?
The New York Grand Central Terminal store is with Workers United, which is the one that is organizing Starbucks workers. The store in Maryland is organizing with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Are those three unions collaborating? Do they talk to each other? Are they ferociously competitive? How does that go?
How do I say this? There is no doubt that they are competing with each other, in the sense that there is a big push to not just organize the one store where workers have filed for an election, but to then get out and talk to workers at as many stores as possible. So that when and if this starts to pick up momentum, you are the union that it is picking up momentum with. When you talk to people at the different unions, the national unions, they are not saying, “Screw that other union. We hate them. They are bad at their jobs.”
They are saying, “They are really great. It is totally fine to have three separate unions. No big deal. We are working together in the sense that when we see them file an unfair labor practice charge, it helps us file ours.” They are a little more supportive in how they talk about it.
That’s kind of the process here. Right? You identify one of these unions using however much information you might have, you organize your group, you tell the government that you are a group, you get the official stamp of approval, you get to negotiate a contract, then you have a contract. Once you have that worker power and you’ve got that unit and you’ve got your contract, how do you make sure that power is used effectively? That seems like a very hard thing to learn about. I’m curious if you have any insight.
Yeah. In addition to helping employees organize, the national union is a big part of helping them wield their power effectively once they actually have a contract in place. They assist in the process of going back and forth with the company to negotiate and what the contract says, and then when it’s up for renegotiation, they’re really part of that process too. I think that for employees, they have the expertise on what needs to change at their specific workplace, and oftentimes the national union will have the expertise on how to go about implementing that change.
My joke with the show is that it’s about org charts and tradeoffs. Any two comparably organized groups of people will have different strengths and weaknesses, like sports teams or, I don’t know, oil companies. Everyone’s not all the same, groups of people are not all the same. Is there a framework that people can use? Or is there like a commonly accepted measure of, this structure is effective at achieving these goals, and that structure is effective at achieving those goals? Or is it kind of novel every time?
I think we know enough to say that if you’re looking at a solidarity union versus a union that has gone before the NLRB and gotten a vote and has a contract in place, the NLRB-ratified union is, I would say, more effective. They can push for change in a way that a solidarity union just can’t.
On a legal level, we also know that unions in right-to-work states are markedly less effective than unions in states where people are obligated to pay dues, whether or not they’re part of the union. So things like that really do matter.
I think when you’re just talking about like, “if I want to go with OPEIU, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which is the union that organized Kickstarter, or if I want to go with CWA, do I have a way to see which of those would be more effective?” I don’t think you do, because honestly, even just looking at the working conditions of employees, like the companies themselves are so different. And the power of the union might be really affected by that. And so it’s hard to look and say, “Well, those people have more benefits, so I’m going to go with that national union,” because it may or may not be because of the national union in the first place.
It strikes me that if you, I don’t know, start a T-shirt store online, there’s infinite “how to manage” resources available for you. But if you’re an Apple store employee and you win your contract, or you get your unit, and now it’s time to operate your union, where do you learn how to do that?
From the national union. I mean, that’s really what it’s for. The union is supposed to be the workers themselves. But the people teaching you how to effectively wield your union power, that’s where the national union comes in.
It just seems like a weird media black hole. Like in an information environment where there’s infinite resources for anything you can think of, for that to be like the single source of expertise once you’re in it. Are there issues with that? Is that working well? How do you think it’s going?
There are certainly issues with it. Like there are legitimate criticisms of national unions. There’s a lot of bizarre infighting that takes place at unions. I think there is a level of secrecy that envelopes these organizations that can be a problem, because when you get inside, you don’t realize, or you didn’t realize prior to joining, how slow and bureaucratic they can be. They are bureaucratic organizations also.
I don’t think they’re like a solve for everything. And I do think the lack of information about how they function is an issue. And it’s a more complicated problem than just David and Goliath, or the unions being perfect and corporations being evil. They are also businesses. And some of them have better and worse organizers at them, and people who are more and less dedicated to the worker cause. There’s no doubt about that.
Yeah. I think it’s particularly fascinating at this moment where there is such a push towards unions across every industry that, I don’t know. I literally follow TikTok accounts about how to be a better manager. You see the amount of emphasis on that skill development, which in some ways I’m sure is transferable, but I don’t think anybody knows how to be a good manager until they do it.
And I’m assuming no one knows how to run an effective union inside any company at any size until they start doing it. But you don’t have the scaffolding underneath it, except for the national union, which you can’t compare. That just seems odd to me.
Yeah. I mean, we can start a Twitter account where we talk about the effective ways to run a union. I hear you. I think that it’s a little simplistic. If you were looking for specific ways to organize a large-scale protest, I don’t know if you’d be able to look online and really understand that. I think at a certain level, grassroots organizing is always going to be kind of like an oral history project where you’re talking to people who’ve done it before, and then you’re going out and doing it yourself.
But that said, I think we do have an oversimplified conversation in this space where one side is good and one side is bad, and one side is for the worker, and the other side’s against. And there is a level of that that has truth to it. The corporation is always going to be more concerned with its bottom line. And the union I think will be more concerned about worker welfare. But it’s also true that the union’s bottom line is tied to worker welfare.
How far away from a contract do you think any of these stores are with Apple?
Honestly, yes. To get a little more in the weeds on process, you file for a union election and you hold the vote, but the vote can be appealed. We have seen this with Amazon with the Bessemer election. I don’t even know how much time has passed between when they filed for an election and where we are now, where the vote was defeated again. There are so many steps and opportunities for both sides to appeal just the election part that we are far out from actually sitting down at the table and negotiating a contract, which in and of itself can take many, many months.
One of the pieces of the puzzle for Amazon is turnover in the warehouses. Even between the time of the first election and the second election at Bessemer, some huge number of employees have churned out of that warehouse and do not work there anymore. Some of the employees have been interviewed throughout that whole process and said, “I am only here for a minute. I don’t care. I am just moving on.” You mentioned at the beginning that Apple store employees tend to stay for a long time. Do you think that they are committed to this years-long process? Are they going to have a similar turnover issue?
There is still not-insignificant turnover because it is a retail job. You have the people who are working it while they are in college and are actively moving on to something else. I don’t think they are going to have the issue with turnover that Bessemer had, with a lot of the core organizers being gone by the time you actually get to vote. I think that we have yet to see whether there will be enough core people there to push this through, and whether the new people coming in are going to identify the same problems or the opportunity for improvement in their work that the organizers currently do.
One thing you mentioned at the top of the show was that the key ask from Apple is $26 an hour.
$26 to $28.
If Apple just gives them $26 to $28 an hour, then some college kids leave and some new people come in, does that end this?
We are still very much at the very beginning of this.
That’s not their only ask. I don’t know. I really want to stress that we are not at the point that Starbucks is at, where this union has taken storm and a lot of stores are organizing. We are still very much at the very beginning of this. We have yet to see if this organizing effort goes away completely or turns into a lasting movement. I don’t say that to be negative, but the momentum is not quite there yet, in my mind, to make it a sure thing.
That said, it is not just that they’re organizing about pay. While they do want more pay to keep up with the cost of living in major cities, they also want better career development opportunities. Going back to that career experience, they want the promise that you could move up at Apple and eventually join corporate to be realized a little more. They also want a bigger say in Covid-19 safety measures.
That point is interesting, because Apple was really ahead of the curve in closing down stores really early on in the pandemic. I think it had the first brick and mortar locations to do so. But the store managers at Apple have an enormous amount of power and they are really in charge of keeping the net promoter score, which is how Apple measures how well a store is performing, high. Apple corporate can make really great Covid policies saying everyone can work from home and still get paid, they need masking in the stores, and that people should stay home if they are sick. In reality, we saw store managers pressuring people to come in even when they had reported Covid-19 symptoms.
When you say they want a say in Covid-19 procedures, do they want to be on a committee? Do they want to veto? How does that play out?
They haven’t specified. They wrote an open letter and laid out their asks. But we are still at the point where the asks are very high-level. When we talk about career development opportunities, they have not gotten very nitty-gritty on what that actually means.
They know what they don’t want in terms of Covid-19 safety measures, which is different mandates that change all the time. They do not want a different experience from what corporate is saying should happen versus what your store manager is saying should happen. As someone on the ground in the retail store, they want a voice to say, “I am uncomfortable coming into the store if there is no masking,” and to have corporate actually listen to them.
That would all get negotiated in a contract, which is years from now. It is a very optimistic connection that Covid concerns are very of-the-moment, and that years from now they are not so much of a concern. Is that the sort of thing that fades away as you go into the contract process? Or is it the sort of thing that actually galvanizes them all the way through?
I don’t know if safety measures would be something that would galvanize them all the way through. That is something that is very of-the-moment, particularly for employees who worked through the pandemic. I do not know if people coming in, who just see a healthy functioning store and no big risk of getting Covid, have the same commitment to getting this sorted out before the next pandemic hits. It is really a function of the particular confusion that happened early on in the pandemic. It was like, “Are we going to have a job after this? How long is this going to last? How at-risk am I when I’m in the store?”
When the organizers try to set up the union, what is the argument that they make to workers? What is the best pro-union argument they have?
The high level one that you hear again and again is, “You should have a bigger say in your workplace.” The idea is that regardless of what you want to accomplish, you are more likely to accomplish it if many of you come together and push for change. Whether that is more pay, more benefits, or more sick leave, it is going to happen. You will be able to design the workplace you want more effectively if you have a union.
So what is particularly notable about all of this is that you are saying it is at this very early stage. But I think Apple can see what is happening with Starbucks, and they would prefer it not to happen. They’re reacting in a much louder way than you would expect, with three stores that aren’t very close to the finish line.
Totally, but it is worth pointing out that — and I feel I have been a little bit negative on this podcast. I am just trying to temper my responses — but there are so many stores. Almost every single one that I have talked to — and I talked to many, many of them across the country — is at least having conversations about organizing. I think Apple is looking and saying, “Okay, we do not know whether this is going to light a fire where every store organizes like Starbucks, but we don’t want the momentum to get there. We want to quash it while it’s here and just three stores.” It’s not clear which of those directions it’s going to go in right now.
What has Apple tried to do to quash this movement?
At first, Apple was not coming out and saying whether or not it supported the union, but I think we all knew that it didn’t support it. Apple functions with such tight control on all aspects of the business that to cede that control to workers didn’t seem like something they would want. They were giving these very measured responses in articles that were coming out about it. Basically, “We really value retail employees and we think they have a good environment.”
Then something interesting happened. I was leaked a document that looked like very early-stage anti-union talking points, just in that it was highlighting all of the benefits that Apple retail workers already have. This is something we see a lot of times in an early union campaign. Corporate will put out a doc saying, “Look, you already get paid well, and we’re committed to diversity and inclusion, et cetera.” Apple did that. When I got the document, I showed it to another source who I trust and said, “Hey, is this legit?”
They were like, “No way. Look at the fonts on that. All of the fonts are different, from the headers to the body. Apple would never do that.” But it turned out that was actually a real document. The company was wanting store managers to post this in break rooms to spread the word about the benefits that retail employees already have. It looked like a sloppy move, honestly, just because it was so un-Apple-y in the design, but that was that.
We had a big development last week that I was very surprised by when Apple’s VP of Retail + People, Deirdre O’Brien, sent out a video to all retail workers. This is something that happens a lot, you see Deirdre talking to employees about return-to-work, Covid, all sorts of things. In the video, she very clearly said, “I know that workers are talking about organizing. There is a union push. I think unionizing is a bad idea, probably, because it would get in the middle of Apple and you. It would limit our ability to respond to your concerns and it would slow us down.” This was the first time that we really saw Apple corporate essentially saying, “We don’t think you should unionize.”
The thing that strikes me about that document and the talking points about slowing down is that it’s all the same. Every company says the same things. Do you buy Union Busting for Dummies? Why is it always the same?
There are a limited number of law firms that tend to work with really big companies to push back at union efforts. Apple hired Littler Mendelson — which is the law firm that was working with Starbucks and McDonald’s — to try and quash the union effort. They literally do have very similar talking points because they are working with the same people telling them how to get a union to go away. They are not that creative. The anti-union talking points don’t feel specific to Apple. They feel like what you would read at any other company. It’s just a general reason for not unionizing, not a reason that an Apple worker shouldn’t unionize.
That just feels like a huge mistake to me. We started this whole conversation by saying every morning they sit down and talk about how special Apple is, they read the credo, people are emotional about working at that company, and they stay there for a long time. Then when it comes to pushing back on a unionization effort, they are going to some law firm’s playbook. That just does not seem like something Apple would do at any moment in time. Is there a reason for that? Are they legally required to say these things? Are they boxed-in in some way?
Partly, Apple just hasn’t had to deal with this in a while. There was another union effort that was starting up at a store in San Francisco a while back that didn’t really go anywhere, but it’s been a minute. I would say this union effort feels a little more formidable than ones in the past. They don’t have a team locked and loaded, ready to send out all of the talking points that Apple corporate has workshopped in the way that they workshop all of their other writing.
There are also a bunch of legal rules around what a corporation can and cannot say. If they say something they can’t, such as, “Your benefits will be taken away if you unionize, or you’re not allowed to unionize, or you can’t meet in small groups to talk about unionizing during the workday,” the union can then file an unfair labor practice charge to try and hold them accountable.
It is worth pointing out that “holding accountable” is very relative here. There’s not much that actually happens besides maybe they have to hold a vote again or they are fined a little bit. That said, Apple doesn’t want to be seen as a company that’s illegally telling workers stuff about unionizing.
It feels like Apple’s brand here is not actually a credit to them. Amazon seems to have no qualms about trying to crush the various union efforts. Elon Musk seems to have no qualms about paying whatever fees at Tesla and other companies that he runs when he says unions are bad. They file the unfair labor practices, he loses and pays the money, and that is the end of that. Then he does it again, which is very on-brand for Elon. In that case, his brand credits his strategy. It doesn’t seem like Apple can do that.
No, I would say that Apple is more committed to the brand and the value that, “We are all in this together and you should really work hard for the Apple mission.” That Apple credo and the Apple mission is in pretty stark contrast to a company that’s saying, “We don’t want you to come to the table with more power than you have right now, so please go away.” It wants the unions to go away, but it wants to do it in a very quiet way, which is why the video last week was surprising.
It seems like one move Apple could make here is to just give the workers things they are asking for. They have started to do that a little bit.
Yeah. We know that the company is sending out Keurig coffee machines to Apple stores that didn’t already have them.
That’s incredible. Was this a real complaint, that people didn’t have coffee pods?
No, it wasn’t. No one I talked to was upset about the lack of coffee, but the company took the initiative to send people the machines and stock them up with little Keurig capsules. People honestly were like, “This is pretty dope. I’m not mad about it.” On a more serious note, they raised the starting salary from $20 an hour to $22 an hour. It’s not $26 to $28, but it is part of the way there.
Is that having an effect on the union worker side? Are they seeing that even a little bit of pressure is getting them the things they want? Is it, “Maybe we keep the pressure up, but we don’t go through this year-long process,” or is it, “They are trying to buy us off, we’re going to keep going?”
I think a lot of people feel like it’s too little, too late. They have been asking for this for years, so $22 an hour is not going to cut it anymore. There are also people who have been on the fence the entire time. This job seems totally fine to them, and they will probably be appeased by the benefits that they are getting now. Even just coffee and a little more pay could tip the scales and make them less likely to want to organize.
It feels like the unionization effort inside the stores is of a piece with you see traditional unionization efforts. There has been some talk about Apple workers themselves unionizing. There has been some alleged retaliation against Apple designers and other corporate employees unionizing. How has that played out?
Some of the key organizers were fired last year or left of their own accord. That effort, which really was started by a desire to not return to the office, has kind of died down a little bit. What’s happening at corporate is at such an early stage that I don’t think that there is anything to talk about at this point. Corporate employees are chatting with each other like they are at a lot of big tech companies, but it is not at the point where we should expect to see even a solidarity union in the immediate future.
Is there anybody looking at the success rate of the Alphabet Workers Union as a tech company, a solidarity union, saying, “That is really successful, I want one of those,” or, “That is not so successful, we should do it the other way?”
Honestly, I have heard both when talking to people at Apple corporate. I have heard people say that is the route they should go because they want contractors to be part of the union. They feel going for an NLRB vote is really unlikely to be successful at the company. Then you have people say, “No, the Alphabet Workers Union has mainly written letters in the past year. I think we should do something more substantial if Apple is ever going to take us seriously.”
We are seeing this kind of union effort across the industry, mostly with frontline workers. We have mentioned Amazon warehouse workers, Starbucks workers, and Apple store workers. It’s that class of employee that feels underappreciated, taken advantage of, and that it’s too little, too late. So they’re unionizing. How is it going to change the companies themselves? Is Amazon going to change in some substantial way because some of its warehouses unionized? Would Apple change in some substantial way because its stores unionize?
Even if three stores unionize, I don’t know if that’s enough to get Apple to significantly change how it does business or how it treats employees.
I think it really depends on how many warehouses or stores unionize. You know, if one store does it and it stays at that level, even if three stores do it, I don’t know if that’s enough to get Apple to significantly change how it does business in this way or how it treats employees.
That said, symbolically speaking, it’s certainly significant that workers could come together and be successful. And I think with Amazon, we’ve seen that just that one warehouse in Staten Island has been a big symbol of worker power across the country.
Has it changed Apple corporate in some significant way yet? No, I don’t think so. But I think it can kind of be a north star for employees who feel like they’re not being treated well and do want to organize that this one place was successful. So if more stores are going to try to go that route, I think having one that has done it is important.
Which one do you think will be the first, if any?
For the Apple stores?
Right now we’re just between the Maryland store and the one in New York. Between those two, I would guess Maryland, just because they have been filing unfair labor practice charges. They have seemingly been slightly more active in terms of the legal push. But it’s early days, and I think we will know a little more on June 15, when the votes actually start.
What are the unfair labor practices they’re charging?
They are saying that forcing employees to listen to anti-union talking points is illegal. This is a significant change that this NLRB has made recently. Historically speaking, companies could hold captive audience meetings. You saw this happen all the time with Bessemer, with Amazon’s union push, where they can force employees to get into a room to talk to them about why unionizing is really bad and they should not do it. That was perfectly legal and fine. Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB General Counsel, put out a memo a few months ago saying that captive audience meetings are illegal. She had various reasons for this, but basically said that it went against the NLRA, the National Labor Relations Act.
Apple holds a Daily Download meeting that I talked to you about at the beginning of this podcast, where every shift starts with employees coming together. In those meetings, managers have been sharing anti-union talking points. The unions have been taking advantage of the fact that there is this new NLRB mandate about such meetings being illegal, saying that sharing anti-union talking points in the Daily Download goes against labor laws in this country.
Are they winning these fights? Are they just filing them? How is it going?
Nilay, Nilay, Nilay. This is going to take a very long time. You cannot just file an unfair labor practice charge and then get your answer in the next week. We don’t know yet. They have to investigate. There has to be a ruling. Please. We are in it for the long haul.
Let’s skip to the end. What is going to happen? This movie is too long. How long is it going to take?
I really don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows right now.
Do you think that even filing it is enough to dissuade Apple? One of the reasons you file something like that is to just stop them from doing it again.
The ability for the NLRB to actually hold companies accountable, even when they do something highly illegal, is so minimal in this country at this point. Maybe Apple cares because of their reputation, but Amazon certainly does not and they are going to continue doing what they were doing the whole time. They are walking the line between what is legal and illegal in terms of what they tell employees and definitely straying over into illegal territory because the consequences are really minimal.
So what is next for these three stores? You said there is a vote on June 15 in Maryland. The New York store is ongoing. There was a vote at another store scheduled.
In Atlanta, for June 2.
And that one has been postponed.
Yeah, they have withdrawn it, which I think means they cannot file again for a few months, or maybe even a little longer than that. That store basically decided they were not going to be successful. If you talk to organizers there, it is because Apple was doing so many illegal things that they were not getting the momentum that they needed. They have put off the vote rather than go for an election, lose, and have the momentum die from the movement at large.
June 15, the Maryland store goes up for the vote. I don’t actually know the date for the New York store but I can look it up. In the next few weeks, I think we will have a better sense of what could be happening with these unions. If the vote is successful in Maryland, then Apple will appeal. We will be in a long process, but it will be a step in the direction of actually having the first Apple union in the United States.
All right, Zoë. That was amazing. You have obviously been covering this story very deeply. It is all on The Verge. It seems like we are at a pretty important transition point for a lot of these companies, but it also seems like they are very motivated to make it go away.
Totally. I think that there are situations like Starbucks, where I think we are over the hump of what is going to happen. It is pretty clear that stores are unionizing and that workforce is going to change pretty dramatically. Then there are places like Amazon and Apple where I think it is still very much up in the air.
We will have you back on Decoder. You will be our first three-time guest the next time around.
I can’t wait. Thank you.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast from The Verge about big ideas and other problems.