Earlier this year, Apple seemed poised to join Starbucks in a nationwide unionizing blitz. Two stores filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board while dozens more began to organize. In June, the first Apple Store in the country, in Towson, Maryland, voted to unionize.
Apple’s response was unequivocal: the tech firm hired anti-union lawyers at Littler Mendelson. Then it released a video from vice president of people and retail Deirdre O’Brien discouraging employees from unionizing. Finally, it announced a retail pay bump of roughly 10 percent, hoping to satiate workers.
The union campaign went silent.
“The temperature for considering a union has gone cold, much to my disappointment,” says a worker in Texas, who asked to be anonymous for fear of retaliation. “From my perspective, Apple has appeased people here, but the underlying issues persist.”
But experts say it’s far too early to write off the union campaign. “That’s actually a lot of organizing activity for six months — most campaigns take several years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Don’t measure it against the Starbucks Corporation — the Starbucks campaign is the exception.”
Organizers at the Communications Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — two unions helping to organize Apple employees — say more stores are expected to announce unions as soon as next month.
That some Apple workers fear the movement is already dead hints at the importance of media attention and the perception of momentum for nascent organizing campaigns. During the pandemic, Apple’s corporate employees were able to organize on Slack, finding like-minded people who didn’t want to return to the office and circulating open letters about their concerns. But most retail employees can only access Slack from devices inside the stores, making press about organizing crucial for surfacing shared concerns and inspiring workers to take action.
“Media attention is critically important — it’s part of the dynamic through which these campaigns spread,” says John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “If you talk to people at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Apple, or REI, not only will they say that they’ve heard of Starbucks and Amazon union campaigns, but they’ll often say that they’ve been inspired by them.”
The dynamic is particularly important at Apple, where the company has near limitless sums to spend on union busting and the culture of secrecy filters down to the frontlines, making workers less likely to share their support for a union on social media.
Apple employees in Towson, Maryland, who unionized in June, were organizing for more than a year before they announced. The vote was 65-33 in favor of the union. As a point of comparison, the first Starbucks store that unionized had 19 yes votes and 8 no’s.
“This isn’t Starbucks, where you have 10 employees and can make the decision to organize quickly,” says Dave DiMaria, a representative for IAMAW. “Towson took tons of planning and education. We had all our dominos painstakingly set up before we took this thing public.”
Now, Towson workers have elected a bargaining committee and are preparing to negotiate a contract. “We’re in that transition period now,” says Kevin Gallagher, a member of the bargaining committee. “But we’ve been getting a lot of reach outs from other stores. So the idea that it’s gone silent is incorrect; it’s just that stores are attempting to organize as quietly as possible to not bring the wrath that we got or that Atlanta got.”
The store is also experiencing tension between workers who voted for the union and those who voted against. One employee said the two sides are barely speaking to one another, and the no votes have started to lodge spurious HR complaints against organizers. “The no votes have banded together and gotten a little militant,” says Gallagher. “They tried to rally together to vote in their people to the bargaining committee, but none got the votes to make it in.”
It’s possible that the concessions Apple has made regarding pay, along with the company’s overt anti-union messaging, have been effective at squashing support for the union among its most tepid supporters. “I think there’s a lack of interest at this point just because we feel that we don’t necessarily have control over the situation because of how large Apple is,” says an employee in Chicago. It might be enough for in-store level management to nip union efforts in the bud. “Even if we were to try and do a formal push, my personal fear is that our store or market leader would get word of it and just immediately shut it down.”
But organizers stress this is all just part of the process. CWA is continuing to meet with workers weekly to train them on organizing tactics. “Union organizing is definitely still happening at Apple retail stores. New workers contact us almost every day,” says Beth Allen, communications director at CWA. “Apple stores are large, many with over 100 employees, and organizing is a series of one-on-one conversations between workers about the issues they are facing and how having a union can give workers more power to address those issues.”
“We’re keeping everybody energized and getting the base ready to go,” says Gallagher. “We are preparing ourselves for battle.”