This June, an Apple retail store in Towson, Maryland, became the tech giant’s first US shop to successfully unionize. More stores looked set to follow—but the broader organizing push at Apple has instead slowed in recent months.
One reason why Apple’s union momentum has dwindled, according to recent reports in Bloomberg and The Verge: The company improved pay and benefits for its roughly 65,000 US retail employees, thereby squelching at least some of the broader dissatisfaction that had led people to consider organizing in the first place. “From my perspective, Apple has appeased people here, but the underlying issues persist,” one anonymous Apple worker told The Verge last week.
Apple’s response exemplifies the carrot-and-stick approach that employers often roll out in response to union drives. But it also shows how union efforts among even a relatively small portion of employees can wind up improving standards for everyone.
The news that Apple workers at several stores were looking to unionize first broke in February. The company swiftly rolled out an anti-union campaign that included mandatory anti-union meetings; an internal video from its vice president of people and retail, Deidre O’Brien, warning about the alleged downsides of unionizing; and a memo for store managers filled with anti-union talking points to share with employees. Apple declined to comment for this story.
At the same time, the company unveiled a new suite of benefits that included doubling the number of paid sick days for retail employees from six to 12, and making paid vacation days and paid parental leave available to part-time employees for the first time. In May, Apple also announced that retail employees would earn a minimum of $22 per hour (up from $20 an hour). And in early June, the company said that it would introduce more flexible work schedules for employees, too.
There are a number of factors that may have prompted Apple to make these improvements. Competition for workers is fierce in the retail industry, while inflation is putting a dent in the spending power of workers’ paychecks.
It was, however, noteworthy that the company announced these changes in the context of its retail union drives, during which workers had spoken out about their frustration with wages that lagged behind inflation, inflexible schedules, and desire for better benefits. It’s also common for companies to offer raises, promotions, new benefits, and other perks in the face of employee organizing, to convince employees that they don’t need a union to advocate on their behalf. But as labor organizer Mindy Isser told Teen Vogue earlier this year, “even in the best workplace, if it’s non-union, everything that’s good about it can change at any moment.” Bargaining over contracts is a way for workers to lock in the things they like about their current working conditions, as well as to push for improvements.
Apple’s response to the union campaigns convinced an Atlanta store to cancel its scheduled vote. The Communications Workers of America alleged that the company had “made a free and fair election impossible.”
It also seems likely that Apple’s concessions made organizing feel less urgent to at least some employees. But the Bloomberg and The Verge reports suggest the larger organizing drive is far from over, with several stores expected to unveil unions in the coming weeks.
“Despite being happy with some of the new perks, employees also believe Apple took too long to add them,” Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman writes. “The improved benefits are a sign that the unionization pressure worked, so it makes sense to keep fighting, they say.”