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Monday, April 15, 2024

Apple’s Corporate Workers Help the Mounting Union Effort

Earlier this year, former Apple software engineer Cher Scarlett received a distraught DM from an Apple retail employee at New York’s Grand Central Station. The employee had been working with a union to organize her store, but the partnership dissolved. Adrift, she messaged Scarlett to vent. The employee knew Scarlett as a founder of #AppleToo, a campaign that emerged last summer to shed light on alleged workplace discrimination and harassment. Scarlett was an outspoken worker’s rights advocate, and she knew just who to call.

Scarlett had recently met an organizer with Workers United at a rally for the unionizing employees at Starbucks, where she used to work. “I was like, wait a minute. You’re in New York. Workers United started in New York. I have a connection.” She made an introduction, and the Grand Central campaign was revived. In April, they went public with their organizing drive, dubbing themselves Fruit Stand Workers United.

The campaign is one of several unionization efforts taking place at Apple Stores across the country, both public and underground. Increasingly they’ve found support from current and former employees at Apple’s corporate offices, thanks in part to a solidarity union called Apple Together, which Scarlett helped found and which emerged from the #AppleToo campaign. The group’s Discord server has grown to more than 250 employees and provides a space to swap stories, share resources, learn about organizing, and coordinate campaigns. Roughly a third of the group hails from the corporate workforce, while the rest come from the retail stores and AppleCare. Several vetted union representatives hang out on the Discord, ready to talk to anyone interested in organizing their workplace.

The forum also helps workers recognize when their personal struggles are shared. “There have been many people that have joined our Discord server who talk about how seeing these stories is really what empowered them to start speaking up for themselves,” says Janneke Parrish, a former Apple Maps program manager who helped organize Apple Together. (Parrish was fired last year after helping organize #AppleToo. Apple has said her firing was not retaliatory, while Parrish disagrees.)

Apple’s corporate culture is famously secretive, siloing workers from one another in the interest of protecting upcoming launches. That secrecy around products sometimes extends to working conditions, says one Apple Together organizer, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. But between the introduction of Slack in 2019 and the formation of Apple Together, “this is probably the least siloed we’ve been in years,” she says.

Apple Together’s emergence coincides with an inflection point for the company’s workforce, which has been challenging Apple on issues ranging from pay equity to its return-to-office policy. Workers at Atlanta’s Cumberland Mall petitioned for a union election in late April with the Communication Workers of America, and this month employees in Towson, Maryland, filed for an election with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The Grand Central Station store is gathering signatures and also plans to file.

At the Towson location, employees are hoping to finally gain a say over their working conditions, says Kevin Gallagher, who has worked there for several years. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what type of work and skill is required to do the job that we do,” he says. “People think, ‘Oh, it's a retail store. These must be teenagers who are doing a job while they're in college.’ We have people in their fifties and sixties working here who are doing highly skilled labor.”

Gallagher remembers how Apple offered free battery replacements to customers in 2016, flooding retail locations with aggrieved customers without substantively changing staffing levels. (It didn't help, he says, that exposed iPhone batteries could catch fire during the repair process, what's known in the industry as a "thermal event.") It seemed to him like no one in corporate had considered how the program would affect the retail employees. This pattern would reemerge in the ensuing months and years, he says, such as when the company lifted its mask mandate and several of his coworkers subsequently contracted Covid-19. Apple declined to comment for this story.

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Some corporate employees and alumni with Apple Together have begun visiting their local retail stores to speak to workers and offer support. After leaving the company, Parrish toured every retail store in her home state of Texas. She knows of at least five other corporate employees who have done similar outreach. She recalls one conversation in which employees recognized her from her organizing work. “They were thrilled that somebody had come to their space and listened to their experiences. It was an incredibly fruitful conversation that, in my understanding, is leading to organizing within that store.” (Since Scarlett and Parrish no longer work at Apple, they participate in Apple Together in advisory roles.)

Some stores have unionized without Apple Together’s help. Gallagher, for instance, had heard of the collective but felt skeptical because he wanted to keep the campaign as quiet as possible. But organizers say that other unionization efforts—some yet to become public—have emerged directly out of connections forged within the group.

The organizers have drawn guidance from experienced groups. Scarlett, for her part, has consulted with the Google walkout organizers and Timnit Gebru, a former ethical AI researcher and diversity advocate who was fired from Google in 2020. She says they emphasized solidarity from the most to least privileged workers. Parrish is a member of the Sunrise Movement, a climate justice organization. “I tried to incorporate what I learned from the Sunrise Movement into how I helped organize Apple Together, keeping in mind all of those solidarity ideals, the importance of storytelling in how you build a movement and recruit people, and that everybody's voice has a right to be heard.”

For now, Apple Together operates largely anonymously, run by volunteer committees, but it could come to resemble something closer to the Alphabet Workers Union, a solidarity union with public officers and dues-paying members that launched last year and is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. Workers at a pair of Google Fiber retail stores in Kansas City, Missouri, recently became the first store to vote for a certified union affiliated with the AWU. “The retail stores are very conducive to majority union bargaining units,” says the Apple Together organizer. Whereas, on the corporate and AppleCare sides, “it might not be immediately clear how those bargaining units break down.”

The organizer believes that the current base is composed of more risk-tolerant employees, given Apple’s history of firing workers like Parrish who have spoken out about working conditions. “Once there's that stronger foundation, then it becomes easier to pull in [other] folks.” As more retail workers file for elections in the coming months or years, she hopes to watch their labor bear fruit.

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