Earlier this year, Apple seemed poised to join Starbucks in a nationwide union blitz. Two shops filed papers with the National Labor Relations Board, while dozens more began organizing. In June, the country’s first Apple store in Towson, Maryland, voted to organize.
Apple’s response was clear: the tech company hired anti-union attorneys at Littler Mendelson. Then she released a video of Deirdre O’Brien, vice president of human resources and retail, discouraging employees from unionizing. Finally, it announced a retail pay rise of about 10 percent, hoping to satiate workers.
The union campaign fell silent.
“The temperature has gone cold for contemplating unionization, much to my disappointment,” says a Texas worker who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation. “In my view, Apple has reassured 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 for six months — most campaigns last several years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, research director for labor education at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Don’t measure it against Starbucks Corporation – the Starbucks campaign is the exception.”
Organizers from the Communications Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — two unions that help organize Apple workers — say more deals are expected to announce unions as early as next month.
That some Apple employees fear the movement is already dead points to the importance of media attention and the perceived momentum for organizing campaigns to emerge. During the pandemic, Apple employees have been able to organize on Slack, find like-minded people who don’t want to return to the office, and send out open letters about their concerns. But most retail workers can only access Slack from in-store devices, making press to the organization crucial to surface shared concerns and inspire workers to take action.
“Media attention is critical — it’s part of the dynamics through which these campaigns proliferate,” 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 they’ve heard about Starbucks and Amazon’s union campaigns, they’ll often say they’ve been inspired by them.”
The momentum is particularly important at Apple, where the company can spend nearly unlimited amounts of money on union busting and the culture of secrecy permeates to the front lines, making workers less likely to share their support for a union on social media .
Apple employees in Towson, Maryland, who unionized in June, organized for more than a year before announcing it. The vote was 65-33 in favor of the union. For comparison, the first unionized Starbucks store had 19 votes in favor and 8 votes against.
“This isn’t Starbucks, where you have 10 employees and you can make a quick decision to organize,” said Dave DiMaria, an IAMAW representative. “Towson needed a lot of planning and reconnaissance. We had carefully set up all our dominoes before releasing this thing to the public.”
Now Towson workers have elected a negotiating committee and are preparing to negotiate a contract. “We are now in this transition phase,” says Kevin Gallagher, member of the negotiation committee. “But we got a lot of inquiries from other stores. So the idea that it’s gone silent is wrong; It’s just that businesses are trying to organize as quietly as possible so as not to draw the ire that we or Atlanta got.”
The shop is also experiencing tensions between workers who voted for the union and those who voted against. A staffer said the two sides hardly spoke to each other and the no votes had started filing false HR grievances against the organizers. “The no votes have coalesced and become a little militant,” says Gallagher. “They tried to band together to elect their people to the negotiating committee, but no one got the votes to make it.”
It’s possible that the concessions Apple has made on pay, coupled with the company’s overt anti-union messages, have helped quash support for the union among its leaguest supporters. “I think there’s a lack of interest at this point just because we feel like we don’t necessarily have control of the situation because of Apple’s size,” says a Chicago staffer. It might be enough for store-level management to nip union efforts in the bud. “Even if we tried to make a formal move, I personally fear that our store or market leader would find out and just shut it down immediately.”
However, the organizers emphasize that this is all just part of the process. CWA continues to meet weekly with workers to train them in organizational tactics. “Unification is definitely still happening in Apple retail stores. We have new employees contacting us almost every day,” said Beth Allen, director of communications at CWA. “Apple Stores are large, many have 100+ employees, and organizing is a series of one-on-one conversations between workers about the issues they face and how a union can give workers more power to address those issues.”
“We’re powering everyone up and getting the base ready,” says Gallagher. “We prepare for battle.”