We’ve seen increased interest in Apple Store unionization by retail employees, frustrated with stagnating wages at a time of high inflation, or other business conditions issues.
It is the prospect of unionization that often fills management with fear. This is not surprising given the confrontational nature of most management and union relationships. But there are a lot of collaborative models out there, and Apple currently has a golden opportunity to adopt it…
The story so far
We first learned of retail employees’ plans to join unions back in February.
Groups in two stores are reportedly preparing the papers for submission to the National Labor Relations Board, with about six other locations in early stages of planning.
The “Washington Post” says the main cause of the unrest is wages. Apple pays retail employees in the range of $20 to $30 an hour, depending on job and seniority. However, workers say those rates have not kept pace with inflation.
Inspired by recent successful union votes in more than 90 Starbucks stores, the report says efforts to form unions have accelerated recently.
Things got real last month, with the official start of operation at Apple’s flagship Grand Central Terminal store in New York, with a number of goals for a better deal for employees.
Besides seeking better working conditions, more vacation time and better retirement options, the group is looking to secure a minimum wage of $30 an hour.
Similar moves followed in Atlanta and Maryland.
Apple’s initial response
Apple’s initial response appears to have been defensive.
The Verge reports that Apple is working with San Francisco-based law firm Littler Mendelson to de-escalate union battles. Littler Mendelson is also representing Starbucks in an effort to prevent its partners from organizing a union. The company previously helped McDonald’s in 2014 when workers were asking for $15 an hour […]
An anonymous employee at an Apple Store in New York told The Verge that the company is spreading anti-union messages during meetings. “There is a lot of misinformation that has been disseminated in an attempt to scare the masses,” the employee said. “I think they’re terrified.”
As I say, this is understandable – but there is a better option. Instead of fighting unions, embrace it. This is a model that works very well in Germany, where workers and management work in a collaborative manner to achieve common goals. It is also found in a host of other countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain.
The form is given different names, with different forms of legal recognition, but I will use the German form as an example.
In Germany, workers are free to form or join unions – but they also have the legal right to require an employer to create what is known as a work council. Workers elect board members, who are then appointed as members of the company’s board of directors. This generally works at the local level, not the company level.
Job board terms are designed to win. Councils agree not to call strikes (although unions are free to do so), and management agrees to consult the council on decisions affecting workers. Then the two parties try to agree on solutions to any problems that arise to meet the needs of the company and its employees.
The model is hugely successful, and there is no better evidence of this than during the banking crisis and the economic recession that began in 2008. Companies needed to cut costs, and usually this could have been achieved through layoffs. However, at many large companies, job boards have collectively agreed to cut each worker’s hours — with a government fund making up some lost wages — rather than lay off workers.
There have been many studies of the effectiveness of job boards, and they consistently show that employees make higher salaries than unions, and that companies are more productive than their workers. Demonstrable model is win-win.
Apple has a short window to work in
So far, only a handful of stores have begun the process of actively syndicating – but there seems little doubt that this will flow through the Apple Store network. If Apple left things out for too long, the default management consortium model of confrontation and disruption is pretty much foolproof for the app.
But if Apple acts now, it has a golden opportunity to instead create a collaborative model in which both parties win.
If I advise Apple CEO Tim Cook, I’d suggest he sends a note to all retail employees. Arguments for or against explicitly recognizing unions can be made within this. On the “disingenuous” side, you could say it draws attention to an option employees haven’t thought of yet. On the “pro” side, I’d argue that almost everyone will know about it soon enough, and you’ll always be more credible when the company admits the reality.
So my suggestion for the memo would be along the lines of the following:
I would like to begin by offering my continued thanks for your hard work during difficult times.
I understand that some of you have concerns that you would like the company to address, and that you did not feel that existing channels of communication worked for you – or that you were reluctant to raise issues. I also understand that some of you feel that union may be a way for the company to better understand your needs.
Let me make it clear that I have no problem with any Apple employee forming or joining a union. Anyone wishing to take this route is free to do so, with no implications for their future with Apple.
At the same time, I firmly believe that cooperation is always better than confrontation, so I would like to suggest an alternative. Today I asked Deidre O’Brien, Senior Vice President of Retail and People, to create the Team Store Initiative. Within each store, a group will be formed that includes the store manager, two senior store employees, and three members chosen by you.
The Team Store will serve as a forum for employees to raise any issues they wish to be addressed by management, whether this is something specific to your own store, or to the Apple retail world. Management representatives will be tasked with listening to the issues you raise, and working with elected representatives (and human resources where applicable) to find solutions that work for you and your store.
Deidre will write to you shortly with details of how to register your interest in the Team Store, and how the election process will work.
If Apple does this right Nowand taking it seriously enough to respond quickly to employee concerns, I think there is a real chance that most store employees will choose this route rather than the union. But even if employees choose to join a union (and many German workers belong to both unions and job boards), this approach will ensure that confrontations with unions are minimized.
The result – as evidenced by the German model – is a win for all. Apple is getting a happier workforce, which inevitably shows in its interaction with customers. Employees get better working conditions than if they were through unions.
This is my opinion – what about yours? Please take part in our survey, and share your thoughts in the comments.
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