What Unions Can Do for Apple with Zoe Schiffer


Of this week Decoder episode comes to you a day early because today is Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC. It is 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, posting $18 billion in net income in the first quarter — the most quarterly profit of any publicly traded company in history.

So, as we go to another big Apple event, I wanted to have roadside Labor reporter Zoe Schiffer to talk about something else happening at Apple: a brooding pressure from its store associates to unite, store by store, because they are unhappy with their pay and benefits.

As Zoe delved into her coverage of Apple’s workplace, she learned about the specific challenges Apple Store employees face. They struggled with COVID, rude customers, mental health, being unhappy with wages and lack of progress. 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 started organizing.

This organization follows a trend for other frontline workers at other large companies – some tech, some not. Amazon warehouse workers have been involved in a very public, protracted battle to become unionized. (In May, one New York warehouse voted to join a union, while another didn’t.) In addition, 100 Starbucks stores voted to join a union, and some Alphabet employees are already making part of what is called a solidarity association.

Zoe is really well produced; she has a glimpse into this fight. So she helps us explain how this all works and what it could mean.

One note: I’ll announce this in the conversation, but The edge and Vox Media are unionized; I’m obviously management and Zoe is in our union. That didn’t affect our conversation in any way, but, as you all know, I like a reveal, so there it is.

Okay, Zoe Schiffer on unionization at Apple Stores and beyond.

Here we go.

This transcription excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

So that seems like a pretty important role for those people. It seems that Apple wants them to join the bigger mission. Why are they unhappy?

If you look from the outside and compare Apple store employees to other store employees, you say, “You get paid more, the environment is a little better, and you get inventory. What’s the problem?” Apple store associates have really accepted this mission. Apple has made it such a point of letting them watch all the major Apple events, have an executive speak to them directly, and get them really excited about the Apple mission that they’re starting to compare themselves to Apple companies. . They say, ‘Okay, you’re the most profitable company in the world. You’ve had the best quarter of any company ever in terms of revenue. Why don’t we see any of that? Why do you take me to the mission and tell me I’m part of this, but then I don’t get paid even a fraction of what a company employee earns?”

I assume Apple’s answer to that is, “Our employees in the company have more skills. They design the camera on the iPhone. There are advertising people.” Are people paid differently based on their skills?


Is that really what they say?

No, Apple would never say that. I don’t think they would ever say, “Corporate employees have higher education,” because that might not even be right. In general, I’m sure there are reasons why those people get paid more. I think they say, “Look, we’re listening to you. We want to make the environment a little better. We will give you more opportunities to grow with the company.” Retail workers don’t ask to be paid what company employees get paid. They charge $26 an hour for the most part, and that’s a relatively small increase in their minds when you consider what Apple makes quarter after quarter.

That feels like a key question. I just want to contrast this with Amazon, which is also dealing with union efforts in its warehouses. It feels like it’s easier to understand that story. They are warehouse workers, a classic unionized group of workers in America, and they have harsh working conditions. We’ve heard about the robots controlling the workers in difficult ways. There’s a very controversial anecdote about drivers peeing in bottles that Amazon would disprove, but the workers would tell you it’s true. Amazon itself offers educational benefits; it really wants warehouse workers to graduate in business, or so it says. It’s very noisy on those trails. Is there a reason? Compare and contrast that with Apple’s relationship with its frontline workers.

Can we actually cite another example? I think it’s very interesting to look at Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. If we look at Starbucks and Amazon, they both have these acute issues that employees face. At Starbucks, people are severely understaffed and overworked. At Amazon, it’s the terms of employment you talked about. Apple has neither. Look at the success of the Starbucks campaign versus the Amazon campaign. Two Starbucks stores in Buffalo announced in December that they wanted to apply for union elections, and within six weeks, 20 other stores filed for union elections. I think we’re now at 250 stores across the country. That’s what we mean when we say there was a major industrial action that set the entire country of Starbucks employees on fire.

At Amazon, there was one successful union on Staten Island. Then, I think a month later, we had another union that said they would file a file, but they withdrew the petition. That was it. The reasons for this are varied, but one of them – and The New York Times wrote a good piece about this – is that Starbucks employees work closely together. They have a lot of time where they just sit with colleagues and a manager is not present. Amazon employees are very isolated and don’t always work with the same people. It’s hard to sit and talk about the reasons for unionization in the first place. Apple employees are somewhere in between; they have no acute labor problems. While many would tell you they are overworked, stressed and underpaid, they are on the floor and there is always a store manager present. They are not necessarily chatting about how to improve their working conditions.

What we’ve seen so far is three stores announcing that they’re merging with three separate unions. One of them has already withdrawn his petition and it is unclear whether the other two will succeed. I don’t want to put a damper on this, but I think we’re at a point where we really don’t know if Apple is going to follow Amazon’s route, a slower slog that might not go anywhere, or Starbucks’ route.

Let’s do a little union work because you brought up a lot of terms and processes there that I think most people are not familiar with. You said there are three separate unions. Union formation is actually a rather complex process. Let’s say you’re an employee of any Apple Store. How would you start the unionization process?

I’m going to try and get this right, because it’s really complicated, and I feel like every time I write a story, I need to do a refresher. Basically, if you’re an Apple store employee, you start talking to co-workers about improving your working conditions and some union organizers would tell you at that point that you’re unionized. In the eyes of Apple, you certainly don’t 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, essentially a petition, saying they would vote for a union. At that point, you can petition and file paperwork with the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, to say that you intend to cast a union vote.

If you have 30%, the NLRB will say, “Okay, you can come.” You schedule a vote, sometimes in person or by post. If the majority of voters are in favor of the union, you have a union. At that point, you need to decide on a contract and the company needs to come around the table to negotiate with you. That is the power of the union, but it can take years before a contract is actually ratified.

A full transcript will be available shortly.


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