Employees at several Apple Stores across the country are quietly working to unionize, according to people familiar with the efforts, as growing dissent among hourly workers threatens to disrupt one of the most stolid tech giants.
Spurred by wages that have stagnated below the rate of inflation, and encouraged by successful efforts by Starbucks employees to form unions, retail workers say they hope they can push the world’s most valuable company to share more of its record-setting profits with the workers who sell, repair and troubleshoot the products it sells.
Apple has more than 500 retail locations around the world and more than 270 in the United States, according to its website. It employs more than 65,000 retail workers. Sales through Apple retail stores and the Apple website made up 36 percent of the company’s $366 billion in total revenue in the 2021 fiscal year, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Apple has seen astonishing revenue growth in recent years, bringing in $378 billion in the last calendar year, compared with $240 billion in 2017. Its astronomical cash flow has allowed the company to spend tens of billions a year in stock buybacks and dividends for investors, buoying its share price.
Retail employees interviewed by The Washington Post say they haven’t shared in the company’s gains. Apple retail employees can earn anywhere from $17 to more than $30 per hour, depending on their market and position, and receive between $1,000 and around $2,000 in stock, they said. But those wages have not kept up with inflation over the years, they say, which means retail employees are making less as they sell more Apple products.
Employees say Apple’s hourly rates are usually in line with what other retail jobs pay in the regions where they’re employed. But most other retailers do not earn so much in revenue, nor are they valued at near $3 trillion. Apple Store employees interviewed by The Post believe their knowledge and passion for the products help drive sales and that they should share more fully in the company’s success.
Meanwhile, Apple’s board this year proposed a $99 million compensation package for Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“I have a lot of co-workers and friends who I genuinely love and they do not make enough to get by,” said one labor organizer who works at an Apple retail store. “They’re struggling and they’re hurting and we work for a company that has the resources to make sure that they’re taken care of.”
Apple did not have immediate comment.
The labor efforts at Apple Stores come as unions are starting to make a comeback after decades of decline. More than 80 Starbucks venues and counting have filed to unionize since the first store started the trend last August, with a successful vote in December. Last month, employees at an REI store in Manhattan filed to form a union. And employees at Raven Software, a division of Activision Blizzard, formed a union called the Game Workers Alliance last month. Google employees a year ago formed a union, but did not certify with the NLRB.
Not all cases have been successful. In April 2021, employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., voted against unionizing in a closely watched test case. Workers got a second chance to vote, after the NLRB found irregularities the first time around. The new vote will be decided sometime next month.
Apple is known for its loyal base of more than 150,000 employees, but the fact that its retail workers want to unionize reflects the way the company’s sheen has worn off in recent years. Some employees have increasingly voiced disapproval with how Apple handles alleged discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace, as well as work-from-home policies.
Apple Store workers interviewed by The Post said the company is an attractive one to work for and promises promotions to management or “corporate.” But those sometimes fail to materialize.
Matt Herbst recently left an Ohio Apple Store for another job in part for that reason. After starting there five years ago, he earned a shot at what the company calls a “career experience,” a six-month stint at Apple’s headquarters in California. But the store wouldn’t allow him to go, he said, because of a worker shortage caused by the pandemic. Herbst, now 24, detailed his experience at Apple in a recent blog post.
“I do think a union would be beneficial for retail employees,” he said.
In recent weeks, Apple has offered raises to some of its retail employees. But workers at several Apple Stores said the raises in some cases backfired. Some employees got raises of less than a dollar per hour, when they were hoping for more than $5. Many employees say they got raises that don’t compensate for recent inflation. Because of inflation, they effectively make less money than when they started, they added.
Before officially filing, Apple Store organizers have been informally gauging interest among the staff, hoping that more than half of the employees will vote to unionize, people familiar with the matter say, the threshold needed to gain official legal standing with the NLRB.
In at least one case, store employees hoped to gain at least 80 percent support before officially filing to form a union. That’s because the organizers expect that Apple will try to convince employees to vote against the union.
To avoid detection by managers at the stores, employees have been meeting in secret and communicating with encrypted messaging, sometimes using Android phones, the competitor to Apple’s iOS operating system, to avoid any possible snooping by Apple.
Apple Store employees at one store said managers have already begun pulling employees aside and giving speeches about how unions will hurt employees, lower their wages and force Apple to take away benefits and opportunities, such as the “career experience” that Herbst described. Managers try to eavesdrop on employees, they said, while pretending to do something else.
Labor organizers refer to this kind of activity as “union busting.” Starbucks, for instance, recently urged its employees, which it calls “partners,” to vote against unionizing, arguing that Starbucks could better address employee concerns by negotiating with them directly and saying a union would just get in the way.
More than 90 Starbucks stores have filed paperwork to form unions since a store in Buffalo became the first last summer. Apple Store employees hope that once the first store successfully unionizes, others will fall like dominoes.
The retail workers are getting support from a contingent of employees, including software engineers and product managers, who work at Apple corporate, as it’s called by retail workers. Some Apple corporate employees have donated to The Coworker Solidarity Fund, a nonprofit that has helped employees from Apple and Netflix who have spoken up to criticize the companies.
That support is happening in secret, because employees fear they will face retaliation for aiding in labor organizing.
Last year, Apple fired Janneke Parrish, who helped organize #AppleToo, a movement aimed at improving working conditions at the company, particularly for traditionally underrepresented groups. Parrish said she was being investigated for leaking information from a company all hands meeting, a charge she denies.
And Cher Scarlett, a software engineer who encouraged employees to share their salaries in a survey to expose possible wage disparities hurting underrepresented groups, alleged she was pushed out in retaliation for her efforts.
“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters,” Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock said previously.
Parrish and Scarlett both said they have been in contact with organizers at Apple retail stores and support their efforts. “If the richest company in the world won’t pay its workers enough to live, who will?” Scarlett said.
On Dec. 24, Apple retail employees staged a walkout and launched a new website, Apple Together, to help retail employees.
“Apple does think stores are looking at organizing. I think they are looking at how unhappy retail workers are,” Parrish said. “What they don’t know is how far some of these stores are into the process.”