The brief morning standing rounds in the Apple stores – the salespeople call them “Daily Download” – are usually about simple questions: Is a colleague sick, is there a discount campaign, is there an iPhone model in a new location?
But right now, many American store managers are talking about something else: the consequences for anyone who dares to support unions.
Apple is fighting a rebellion. In several stores, the employees want to set up representatives. One is on the outskirts of Atlanta, one in the small town of Towson north of Washington, and a third above the platforms of New York’s famous Grand Central Station. It’s the first time the Silicon Valley company has faced such self-confident salespeople. So far there is no Apple union in the US.
CEO Tim Cook wants it to stay that way. And he can claim his first success. The Atlanta branch is backing down. Your vendors should decide whether to join the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union. But the CWA has now postponed the election. According to the activists, Apple is systematically intimidating the workforce and making fair voting impossible.
Apple, the CWA claims, bans the distribution of fliers and drums anti-union propaganda into employees during the “Daily Download.” According to the CWA, branch managers also spread the word that members of a union had less flexibility when it came to taking holidays and had fewer career opportunities than other employees.
It doesn’t go down well in stores. “The decision whether or not to join the union,” says Derrick Bowles, a salesman and activist in Atlanta, “must be ours.” It’s not okay that store managers are trying to discourage workers from joining the CWA. “Apple,” says Bowles, “should stay out of it.”
These are all serious allegations against a company that claims to improve people’s lives. “We constantly ask ourselves,” Apple writes on its website, “how our work can do more good in the world.” A nice motto, but it doesn’t seem to apply to Derrick Bowles and the other men and women who work in the 272 American stores sell iPhones, iPads and AirPods.
Apple does not respond to the allegations. In a statement, the company simply says: It is lucky to have such incredible employees and appreciate their commitment. A few days ago, Apple also promised to increase starting wages in its branches from $20 to $22 an hour. Possibly an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of the activists.
What is happening at the Apple Stores in Atlanta, Towson and New York is a milestone. A new climax in the struggle of American workers for more rights. After all, Apple is one of the most powerful companies in the world. In 2021, sales exceeded $365 billion. And on the stock exchange, only the Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco was worth more.
In the past few months, baristas have set up unions in 50 branches of the coffee giant Starbucks, and votes are pending in 250 more. And in April, employees at an Amazon fulfillment center in the Staten Island neighborhood of New York banded together.
All three companies – Apple, Amazon and Starbucks – have long been taboo for American unions. Impossible to achieve anything there, they said. But now times seem to be changing.
Because the US job market is tight, more than eleven million jobs are currently vacant, more than 22 years ago. America’s workers are therefore in a good bargaining position.
They also receive encouragement from the highest level: President Joe Biden is considered a friend of the unions, he repeatedly warns companies against interfering in votes and harassing employees. Unions, Biden said recently, ensure a “safer and healthier” world of work.
It’s a turnaround. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, didn’t think much of unions. He attacked them on Twitter (“they just talk and don’t work”) and kept calling for a reduction in membership fees. And as his first Secretary of Labor in 2016, Trump nominated Andrew Puzder of all people – a union critic and fast-food manager who wanted to automate his restaurants to avoid having to pay wages. However, Puzder lacked support in Congress and never became part of the Trump administration.
Now, under Biden, unions are even reaching Big Tech. Or at least the periphery. So far, the packers have mainly organized themselves in the department stores and the salespeople in the branches. In the heart of Silicon Valley – in the headquarters of big companies – unions are still rare. Only Google has a small one. But it is quite possible that there will soon be more.
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