Earlier this year, Apple looked poised to join Starbucks in a nationwide union blitz. Two stores filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board, while dozens of others began to organize. In June, the country’s first Apple Store, in Towson, Maryland, voted to unionize.
Apple’s response was unequivocal: The tech company hired anti-union lawyers from Littler Mendelson. Then it released a video of vice president of people and retail Deirdre O’Brien discouraging workers from joining a union. Finally, it announced a salary increase of about 10 percent in the retail sector, hoping to satiate workers.
The union campaign came to a halt.
“The temperature to consider a union has turned cold, much to my disappointment,” said a Texas employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “From my perspective, Apple has reassured people here, but the underlying issues remain.”
But experts say it is far too early to write off the union campaign. “That’s actually a lot of organizational work over six months — most campaigns take several years,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of employment 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 of the Communications Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — two unions that help organize Apple workers — say more stores are expected to announce unions next month.
That some Apple employees fear the movement is already dead hints at the importance of media coverage and the perception of momentum for nascent organizational campaigns. During the pandemic, Apple corporate employees were able to organize on Slack, find like-minded people who didn’t want to return to the office, and circulate open letters about their concerns. But most store associates can only access Slack from in-store devices, making the press about organizing critical to surface shared concerns and inspire employees to take action.
“Media attention is critical — it’s part of the dynamics that propagate these campaigns,” said 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, they will not only say they have heard of Starbucks and Amazon union campaigns, but they will often say they were inspired by them.”
The dynamism is especially important at Apple, where the company has almost limitless amounts of money to spend on dismantling unions and the culture of secrecy is seeping through to the front lines, making employees less likely to share their support for a union on social media.
Apple workers in Towson, Maryland, who joined a union in June, had been organizing for more than a year before announcing it. The vote was 65-33 in favor of the union. By comparison, the first Starbucks store to join a union had 19 yes votes and 8 no votes.
“This isn’t Starbucks, where you have 10 employees and can quickly decide to organize,” said Dave DiMaria, an IAMAW representative. “Towson has taken a lot of planning and training. We had meticulously lined up all our dominoes before we made this thing public.
Now Towson employees have elected a negotiating committee and are preparing to negotiate a contract. “We are now in that transition period,” said Kevin Gallagher, a member of the negotiating committee. “But we get a lot of coverage from other stores. So the idea that it has fallen silent is incorrect; it’s just that stores try to organize themselves as quietly as possible so as not to create the wrath we have or that Atlanta got.”
The store is also experiencing tensions between workers who voted for the union and those who voted against. An employee said the two sides barely talk to each other and the no votes have started to make false HR complaints against the organizers. “The no votes have united and become a bit militant,” Gallagher says. “They tried to get together to vote with their people on the negotiating committee, but no one got the votes to make it.”
It’s possible that Apple’s concessions on pay, along with the company’s overtly anti-union messages, have been effective in crushing union support among its most lukewarm supporters. “I think there’s a lack of interest right now just because we feel like we don’t necessarily have control over the situation because of how big Apple is,” said a Chicago employee. It may be enough for store-level management to nip union efforts in the bud. “Even if we tried to give a formal push, my personal fear is that our store or industry leader would get the notice and close immediately.”
But the organizers stress that this is all just part of the process. CWA continues to meet with employees weekly to train them in organizational tactics. “Union unions are definitely still happening in Apple stores. New employees are reaching out to us almost every day,” said Beth Allen, communications director at CWA. “Apple stores are large, many with more than 100 employees, and organizing is a series of one-on-one conversations between workers about the issues they face and how having a union can empower workers to tackle those issues.”
“We’re keeping everyone energized and getting the base ready to go,” Gallagher says. “We are preparing for battle.”