Inspired by successful unionisation efforts among US employees, workers from across the pond are gearing up to take on the tech giant.

Inspired by successful unionisation efforts among US employees, workers from across the pond are now gearing up to take on the tech giant.

The right-wing press has been eager to portray the wave of industrial action across the UK as something distinctly retrograde, or “threaten[ing] to take Britain back to the seventies,” as The Telegraph put it recently. There are plenty of problems with this rhetoric, of course. But one particular issue is that it overlooks the fact that the labour movement is, today, expanding beyond traditional trade union strongholds. After years of moving from one crisis to the next, workers everywhere are beginning to realise the power of workplace solidarity.  

A recent example of this can be seen at Apple. This year, workers across the UK – including some in its flagship Covent Garden and Regent Street stores – have been organising with UTAW (The Union of Tech and Allied workers). 

The motivation for this move – pay, working conditions and shift patterns – isn’t particularly unique when it comes to retail. Liam*, who works in the company’s Genius team — which provides technical support and repairs – claims there is a lack of transparency about pay in the company’s stores, and also describes how tough shift patterns are exacerbating difficulties with his mental health.

“Scheduling is done centrally and automatically and can lead to shift patterns that vary wildly without any regularity,” says Liam. “It makes it difficult to have any semblance of work-life balance or a fixed routine. I know from speaking to my co-workers that many suffer from poor mental health due to these issues.”

UK Apple Store workers are just the latest to take action over pay and working conditions. “All of our shops in Europe are already unionised,” says Norman*, another technician who has been working in a London Apple store for over a decade. Norman points out that in the US, too – a country where employment legislation firmly favours employers — Apple workers have been moving to unionise, inspired, he suggests, by the high-profile efforts of Amazon warehouse staff and Starbucks employees. In June 2022, employees at the Apple store in Towson, Maryland, successfully voted to unionise, becoming the first Apple store in the US to do so.

Although hot strike summer has made headlines in the UK over the last few months, for workers at Apple, it was a global awareness of a nascent labour movement that encouraged them to begin conversations about unionisation. A critical part of this has been the group Apple Together – a solidarity movement providing tools and support to the company’s retail employees looking to organise.

Apple Together encouraged Norman and his colleagues to take the prospect of unionisation seriously. It was as if they had gotten “permission,” says Norman, adding: “We realised we weren’t going to lose our jobs straight away.”

The fear among workers that they might lose their jobs for associating with union activity highlights the power of Apple’s subtle but persistent rhetoric against unions. “The company’s very actively anti-union in the US and a lot of that trickles through to us,” says Norman.

Liam also notes how the company’s policy around solicitation has led to some confusion among workers. “Apple has a policy against solicitation for political causes and a lot of people believe this means they are not allowed to talk about unions at all.” He adds: “there is a lot of nervousness about talking about [unionisation] openly.”

Eran Cohen, an organiser at CWU who has been working with Apple staff wishing to organise, claims that Apple deploys ambiguity to its advantage. “Apple’s internal policies are written in a way that makes it very easy to interpret that it’s prohibited to discuss unions in the workplace or within working hours. The policies never say this explicitly – it would be illegal if they did – but the impression given to anyone reading these is that talking to colleagues about unions is against the company’s code of conduct.” It’s an impression organisers are working hard to dispel. 

In the context of the UK’s current cost of living crisis, the challenges facing Apple workers have only become more urgent. Norman explains that as far as pay is concerned, the goal is to ensure it stays in line with inflation, and although he notes that Apple workers are relatively well-compensated in the context of retail – he claims the modal income is around £27,000, while the average across retail is less than £23,000 per year – he points out the scale of Apple’s profits, the largest on the planet. Last year, the company’s gross profits were just under $153 billion.

Norman echoes comments by his colleague on pay transparency and shift patterns. “There’s a lot of general confusion about how we’re paid, how much other people are getting paid,” he says. He also notes that turnaround times (the time between a shift ending and the next beginning) can be tight. “If you’re a technician working a late shift you might finish at 10.30pm and start the next shift at 9.30am,” he says. “If it takes two hours to get home, that’s difficult.”

Liam says that when customers come into a store, it’s typically because they are already upset (something has broken or isn’t working). “It means that along with having to resolve the issue, you also have to manage the customer’s experience during interactions,” he says. The relatively tight turnaround between shifts means that “workers find it difficult to recover and feel ready and refreshed for the next day,” says Liam. Understandably, this takes an emotional toll.  

When asked to respond to the issues raised, Apple said: “We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple.” Although the company did not comment on any of the specific matters raised, they said they emphasised that they “offer very strong compensation and benefits, including private healthcare, enhanced parental leaves, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits for every team member.”

Although these challenges remain, Norman says that unionisation – in the UK and elsewhere – has helped win concessions. Earlier this year, staff received a pay rise (between seven and nine percent) and the minimum turnaround time between shifts was increased from 11 hours to 12. Although these changes were below what he and his colleagues would have liked, he is sure that it’s the threat of union power that is forcing Apple’s hand. “Every time one of our American shops goes to a union vote they make some big concessions for us,” he says. “We might end up riding a long wave of concessions as each of us threatens to vote.”

Organising might be effective, but it hasn’t been straightforward. There are a number of reasons for this; in part, it’s due to fear of retaliation from management, but it’s also caused by a unique aspect of company culture. “We’re quite a privacy, security-conscious lot in Apple, so people are immediately suspicious when they’re putting their email address into anything, which is probably healthy to some extent, but certainly makes getting people to join a union difficult,” says Norman. Liam notes that the most enthusiastic workers tend to have been in unions previously or to be more left-leaning – those that are more ambivalent, he says, are curious, but there also “some who are anti-union and tout union-busting lines”. 

The challenges aren’t just about raising political awareness; often it’s more pragmatic issues, like the difficulties of even just talking together due to the nature of shift work. This has meant staff have had to be innovative: “We’ve airdropped notes to each other with information,” Norman says.

Even the first steps towards unionisation were tricky: with staff being members of a number of different established unions, including GMB, Unite, and USDAW, it was critical that they were united. Initially, they toyed with the idea of forming their own union, but, Norman says, they soon realised they were out of their depth and lacked the experience and skills needed to set about organising workplaces across the country.

Eventually, they settled on joining UTAW – a national branch of the CWU founded in September 2020. Given many Apple store workers come from phone shops – places where the CWU is already active – UTAW was the obvious choice.

The benefit of joining UTAW has been huge. “We’ve gone from being an unorganised group of probably angry people at work to being quite an organised, clued-up group of people that actually know which challenges to take on,” says Norman. Part of this, he explains, is down to the remote-first nature of the union branch, which suits Apple store staff with varying shift patterns. 

But Cohen also suggests there’s a strategic or political point to be gained from the alignment. “The great thing about UTAW is that it’s a union for all tech workers, regardless of their specific trade or role. That means we have Apple engineers and developers together with geniuses and technical experts… when it comes time to stand together, they’ll all be stronger than if they were in a union that was only retail workers or only developers.”

UTAW has been able to provide Norman and his colleagues with the training to organise effectively. Back in July, it also implemented a day of action at Apple’s two flagship stores in Regent Street and Covent Garden. Groups of UTAW members — who don’t work for Apple — entered the stores to share flyers and talk to staff about the union and how it can support them. “It helped break down a lot of barriers in terms of understanding whether people were allowed to join unions,” says Norman. “It also made management show their hand, in that they very quickly removed all the materials and told people not to interact with the union people!”

The day of action was useful in raising the awareness of the union, but there is undoubtedly plenty of work for Braeburn and his colleagues to do. The first aim, he says, is to win recognition from Apple. He accepts that could be difficult in London, owing to the size of the stores there (to win recognition the store would need a critical mass of staff in the union), but this means they’re going to put energy into working in stores outside of the capital. This isn’t a case of starting from scratch: with members present at stores in Exeter, Manchester, Brighton, and Norwich, there is already a foundation in place on which workers can build. Just last week, Apple retail workers in Glasgow set a date for a ballot for union recognition, putting them on course to become the first Apple retail store in the UK to vote on union recognition.

As Cohen puts it: “Power in numbers is a tried and tested and guaranteed way for workers to get what they need.” 

*Name changed to protect anonymity

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