This June, Apple retail workers in Baltimore made history by winning the vote for union representation at the first of 270 Apple stores across the US. This represents the first shots in the battle to unionize the company with the highest market cap valuation in the world, reaching an eye-watering $3 trillion at the start of this year. The battle for Apple joins the rising wave of organizing drives at Starbucks, the recent unionization developments at Activision Blizzard, and the historic union vote at Amazon.
In the first half of this year, Apple workers in Maryland, Georgia, Kentucky, and New York City have all announced unionization campaigns. Socialist Revolution has followed these events carefully and fully supports all union organizing efforts—from the fight for union recognition to the establishment of higher wages, benefits, and better working conditions.
As with the battle at Amazon, the struggle to unionize one of the world’s most powerful companies will be anything but easy. Winning this battle will require nothing short of an all-out offensive by the labor movement, a return to the militant class-struggle tactics of the 1930s and 40s, and the broadest solidarity and support from the working class generally.
Socialist Revolution argues that the Communication Workers of America (CWA), and any other unions involved, must dedicate all necessary resources to fortify the strongest possible campaign with the aim of unionizing every single Apple store. This effort must sweep across every corner of the Apple empire, linking up retail workers at the Apple stores worldwide with workers at the corporate headquarters, as well as with the workers who design and manufacture the Apple products.
Socialist Revolution recently sat down with a New York City Apple retail worker and Socialist Revolution sympathizer, who spoke to us about the current state of the campaign in NYC. The conversation was held on condition of anonymity given the early stage at which the campaign is currently at in their store. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
When did the workers at Apple start having conversations about organizing at stores?
COVID was one of the major pushes. When things were starting to shut down, Apple was one of the first companies to actually shut down all their retail stores. Apple already had a lot of experience in dealing with it from China—they have so many stores there that by December 2019, January 2020, they knew what was up. They were already starting to reduce capacities in stores all around the rest of the world.
At the time, one of the things that they started to do was take retail workers and put them into support roles, like over-the-phone and text chat for support. And that was the beginning of a lot of discussion among workers across the company. Before this, there wasn’t really any communication between corporate, support, and retail workers altogether.
So we just didn’t really know what was going on in each separate world. Now we do. Now that we’ve had that experience, we know what corporate is making, and I’ve heard a lot of the poor experiences from people that were moved to working from home. It’s pushed a lot of us to realize we’re making Apple a lot of money. We are just absolutely dumping money into their accounts.
Can you talk about the compensation disparity between corporate and retail?
A lot of the disparity is in the benefits that come along with it. For example, pretty much everyone at Apple gets restricted stock units (RSUs). The retail RSUs are pitiful compared to the corporate RSUs.
For example, I only get about $2,000 a year in RSUs. Some people at corporate are getting like $50,000 or $60,000 that vest faster. Mine is only once a year and they get six-month vesting periods. And yet, we’re both working 40 hours a week.
It’s just an absolute disconnect in what we provide to the company and how much they value the corporate employees over us. While corporate employees were working from home, we reopened three months after the initial lockdown. We were in the stores literally risking our health to sell computers and fix phones.
We started to see that the difference in benefits didn’t really reflect the realities of the job. Even on top of that stuff, recently in retail we got a $1,000 bonus because we all found out that corporate employees were given $1,000 per diem to show up on campus while it was shut down. Basically they were getting paid extra to show up to a place where there was virtually no one there. And they weren’t risking anything just to go into an office and do a little bit of work on their own.
Meanwhile, we’re still getting twenty-something per hour to deal with customers yelling at us for requiring that they wear a mask.
It sounds like the Apple workers knew about some of these disparities pre-pandemic, but COVID was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Yeah, the shift in the mentality has been around health. Apple told us at the beginning that they’re taking COVID very seriously. They said: “call out if you don’t feel well—don’t show up.”
The only problem with that is that they continued with all of these staffing shortages as workers were getting sick, and they still tried to pack the stores as much as possible with as many customers as they could get to come in on any given day.
There was a period of time in early 2021 where in New York, at least, we went to this “express” model, as they called it. Basically we just had a bunch of windows, like bank tellers at the front of the store. And you could come in and drop off your device for service or pick up an order from online.
There was no in-store browsing or anything like that. The idea was that there would be less direct interaction. You’re not close to these people all the time. The problem was they expected us to see 50% more customers, since it was the “express” model. The way Apple sets up appointments is almost entirely algorithmically, and they increased the capacity of the algorithm by about 50% because we’re supposed to be spending so little time with these customers. Of course, this was never the case because the customers are always there for as long as they feel is necessary, not as long as we want. But the algorithm vastly increased the amount of people that were coming through at any given time.
So they shoved even more people into the store, or we had them wait outside in the cold, because it was over the winter. There were massively long wait times to get any kind of service. The service was terrible because we couldn’t spend any time working on anything. For me, at least, I found it stressful because there were so many more people coming through at any given time that were all standing compacted in a line before anyone was vaccinated. So it was basically a super spreader event. It felt awful.
So they increased foot traffic in those conditions to increase sales transactions?
Pretty much. This has been a running theme throughout the pandemic and prior to it, as well, but it really came through during this time. The way that Apple sees the interactions has to do more with the amount of time that people spend in those interactions.
The current model is that customers aren’t required to wear masks, but workers are. The justification is that customers shouldn’t be spending more than 10 to 15 minutes in the store because you should be done with your interaction by then.
Effectively, that never happens. They want to stay there as long as possible. And a lot of stuff that you work with them on does not take only 10 minutes. But on top of that, the bosses effectively shift the blame on us. They’re saying, “Oh, you didn’t finish your sale in 15 minutes.”
Well, if you get sick, that’s your fault because you weren’t fast enough. It’s completely on its head. In New York City they’ve required us to all get vaccinated. So we’re the ones we can guarantee are vaccinated, but we’re the ones that have to wear masks to protect the customers who are allowed to come in. And I’ve had customers coughing and spitting all over me. It’s not a great experience.
How are things going with the organizing efforts in New York?
The two stores that are the furthest along right now are around Manhattan. Tim Cook visited those stores to try to intimidate the workers. Corporate is directly breathing down employees’ necks at all times.
It would’ve been really good to be all under the same union banner. We reached out to CWA through different stores and [the other stores] all are meeting together, working with them. They’ve been very easy to work with so far, giving a lot of resources, doing a lot, even just having Zoom meetings where we talk about what your manager’s going to say to dissuade you from unionizing.
So I’m happy to work with them right now, but it’s been a wild situation.
So a lot of the stores are acting independently rather than a coordinated effort? Can you talk more about that?
Each store is kind of doing its own separate union drive. That does concern me a lot. In New York City, as an example, there have been plenty of times where workers have been called before our shift and told, “Hey, go to this or that store to help.” Not a big deal. I don’t mind doing that. But when you have nearly ten different stores, both unionized and non-unionized, and you can very easily get a workforce from another store to just come in, what does that look like?
You have that constant threat of potentially just straight up scabs coming in for a day’s pay. Workers could be sent from one location to another in a matter of minutes. There are quite a few stores in NYC that are within easy transit distance.
The goal is to win over the non-union shops and bring those workers as close to the union as possible. Ultimately, organizing every location is the only way to stop management from deploying an almost inexhaustible supply of scabs that could descend upon any store at any given time, depending on what Apple thinks is the best way to union bust at that time.
Can you give me your perspective on the open letter from the Atlanta workers and what you think Apple workers should be fighting for?
This is a conversation I’ve had with a lot of people who have been unionizing. I am nudging them in a more militant class-struggle direction, and away from a softer attitude about the company and the conflict that’s at stake.
There are some people who approach the organizing effort by appealing to the “values” that Apple claims to uphold, with the attitude like “we love this company and we want it to live up to its values.” A lot of the flowery language that comes with this, where they want a nice workplace and everything is appealing to the Apple credo. Management wants the workers to recite this nice little saying “We are here to enrich lives, to help dreamers become doers,” and all that kind of crap.
And there’s a lot of really “nice” stuff in there. The appeal of it is to say to the bosses, “Hey, you say all these nice things, why don’t you act on them?” I think this line of argument comes from a well-intentioned place, but it’s going to fall short because at the end of the day this is a company that wants to make money. This is a class struggle.
This is a company where people work for a wage. They exploit workers, not just in the US, but around the world. It’s a starting point to say that Apple has all these values and they’re just not living up to them. But even if they did live up to them, what would that actually look like? Would that change workers’ lives meaningfully? You know, the company can say “we believe our soul is our people” but this is the world’s most valuable company, because of our labor. We’re making them record profits. We don’t want flowery language, we want to be paid a wage that actually covers our rent and other living expenses.
We want better benefits. I’ve seen this a lot from people that are outside the company saying, “Oh, you have it so good working for Apple retail because your wages are much higher than minimum wage.” I didn’t realize that minimum wage was the goal here. Of course they’re higher. Apple can afford that. It’s a multi-trillion dollar company, one of the most profitable in the world.
And as far as retail goes, yeah, it’s a pretty good gig, but there’s so much more that we give to the company and they take from us. I’ve had long hours at launch weekends for iPhone sales where they tell us, “Oh, our store made one and a half million dollars this weekend. Here’s a slice of pizza.” It’s insulting. The sale of a single one of those phones could buy us the best catering in the city. They give us a slice of pizza and tell us to go get it ourselves.
With the amount of money that’s going through these industries, we should be seeing some of it, too. I’m one of the most highly trained people in any given retail store at Apple. I get less than $30 an hour to fix $2,000 computers with thousand dollar components. And I’m expected to do multiple repairs every shift. We have so much that we offer in this sphere and we deserve more.
What resistance and concerns have you and fellow organizers found among those who didn’t want to join a union?
With some of the anti-union talk that I’ve heard from some people in the store, I heard someone say, “Oh, it sounds really nice, but it might be harder to get promoted.” The bosses say they’re going to start taking metrics really seriously. People think that the entire culture will change around promotions or certain other benefits that we have.
For example, I’m a “genius” at Apple, so I’m mostly in the Genius Bar, fixing Macs and stuff like that. But say I was really interested in being a lead, which is basically a supervisor role, I could take an in-store “experience” and spend about six months in that role. Basically I would get trained and then I’d be a supervisor.
The main issue with this is that they don’t change your pay and you don’t get paid for the job you’re doing. You get paid for the official role that you have. So with the in-store experiences, there’s been plenty of times where someone who’s just a sales specialist—the lowest paid on the payroll—is doing a supervisor’s work for sales pay. It’s like an unpaid internship.
Going to Cupertino, you get a per diem, so they cover a lot of the costs, but you’re still only getting paid for the retail job that you have. And even so, people are afraid. They’re like, “Oh, Apple will take that away from us. They won’t let us do that.”
Other than that, I hear about fear of losing benefits, RSUs, or losing the ability to swap shifts with people. A lot of it comes down to thinking they’re going to lose benefits Apple has given to us.
And the main thing I say to that is just there’s no guarantee that we keep any benefits unless we unionize. All these things are only there by the company’s “good graces” and they can go away at any time. The only way to guarantee them is to unionize. And the union is us. We make the calls as to what we want to include in our contract. If we want to demand paid training, we’ll fight for it. We’ll make sure we get the wages that correspond to the actual work we’re doing. The point is that these kinds of things that people are worried about losing are not a matter of the union not letting you have it. It’s that Apple’s threatening to take it away if you unionize. That’s the struggle before us.
Getting that across is the most important thing—nothing we have is ever guaranteed unless we fight for it. And for that, we need to have a union.
What support has CWA given you?
Mostly, it’s been a lot of training and opportunities to use their meeting spaces. Their method of unionization is a fairly standard method of building an organizing committee first and getting 10% to 20% on board with that. And then you can go public and start pushing for a vote. If we have questions or want to talk about certain things, it’s been really nice to have that to fall back on, even in our early stages at my store.
How can other workers, union members, and socialists help the effort locally and internationally?
Probably the best thing they can do is just look for our updates and when you see that a store is unionizing, support any solidarity actions you can. And make sure that people know that workers are taking up this fight because we know we can get so much more from this company—and for other workers across retail and other industries.
When you hear about these little aggressors like, “Oh, well they already get so much money as it is or they’re paid so much more than other retail workers,” correct them. Help them get into the mindset that just because it’s better than average retail doesn’t mean that it can’t be even better for everybody. The thing with Apple is that even in technology, they end up being trendsetters. They put a notch on a phone and suddenly every phone has a notch for three years.
The same thing happens with their retail experience. A rising tide lifts all boats. The more Apple workers can win from the company, the better the position of all workers, even in other sectors.
Are there any plans to link up with workers at corporate?
We are in contact with them. I don’t know if they are specifically working with CWA yet. But we do have those ties. I know that with Derrick Bowles, one of the worker leaders behind the efforts to organize in Atlanta where they launched the first unionizing petition, a lot of his organizing started because he was speaking with employees at corporate. And we have open channels to speak with them.
The people that we’ve spoken with have been very supportive. Corporate workers are on our side with this. They want us to unionize and they want to unionize, too.
What are the bosses doing to union bust?
Well, Tim Cook showed up at some stores, for one thing—to try to “calm” things down. Pretty interesting. Other than that, they’ve been trying captive meetings which the NLRB has ruled as illegal.
Apple’s just been sending out a lot of anti-union messaging. There’s a video saying: “Oh, at Apple we’re really glad that we give you so many benefits. That’s why you don’t need a union.” It goes on and on about how great it is to work for Apple, followed by a good five minutes of saying a union is a “third party” that wants to stop you from interacting with us [the bosses] personally, and we know that individual interaction is the best way to go. It’s all very standard anti-union discussion.
Other than that, the New York City metro area market leaders come through stores daily to observe people. They pull them aside to talk to them about benefits and things like that to try to figure out who’s pro union and who isn’t.
There was one incident at a store where there was a staff discussion of benefits in the store opening meeting, and one of the worker organizers started speaking up about how those benefits don’t come from anything except the goodwill of the company; there’s no guarantee of any of them. They were pulled aside and yelled at basically for having dared to speak up against the benevolence of Apple. A lot of it is very standard and combined with manager power tripping.
Apple has responded in other ways, too, where they’ve given out a lot of salary increases as of late. They’ve added a lot of benefits that are available, especially for part-time workers. Normally our yearly raises come in the fall around October, but they’ve pushed it ahead to July which is abnormal, and they are also increasing the base pay.
So you can see the unionization efforts are doing something already. Apple’s already feeling the pressure to increase pay and benefits, which is arguably union busting because they want to give nominal increases so workers don’t fight for anything better.
To what extent has there been a discussion on the potential of going on strike and what that would mean?
There hasn’t been much discussion on striking at this stage. I think that people have the illusion that any kind of negotiation over contracts will be in good faith. They very much will not be. I really hope that workers understand that, before they go into negotiations. This is a very shrewd company that knows exactly what it’s doing. Apple hired the same anti-union law firm that Starbucks was using, Littler Mendelson, which has a reputation for being one of the most aggressive union-busting firms in the country.
The stuff that I mentioned about the potential scabs is something we’re going to have to contend with, because the way the unionization drive has been going, it’s been store by store.
Can you talk about the national CWA campaign?
They’ve been contacted by Apple stores all across the country. I don’t think this will be a quick process. It’s going to take a serious fight. Just based on my own work and how long it’s taken for Atlanta and other stores, I think it will still be a while before we see more and more stores coming forward.
But CWA is assigning people to each store and committing resources. I think with the success around Verizon they’re really into the idea of getting Apple under their belt, too. It would be a huge win for CWA and for Apple workers if we can actually get these union elections through and get some good contracts.
And clearly the tide is turning in favor of this kind of fight.