Apple Store Workers of America, Unite!

Apple's retail sales force should unionize -- for their own sake, and maybe the country's.
615_Apple_Store_Workers_Reuters.jpg

Reuters

Cory Moll is a soft-spoken San Franciscan with the sort of ambition that, if you were feeling cynical, would be pretty easy to laugh off. He wants to unionize his fellow Apple Store employees. Last year, Moll began the delicate job of reaching out to other workers at the tech giant's retail outlets. He says that, so far, it's been a slow, deliberate process.

"The state of the union, as it were, it's still blossoming," he told me in an interview. "The roots have formed and people are aware. Workers are aware."

Unions have been pushed to the margins of American enterprise. And the odds of Apple letting an organizing drive happen without a fight are about on par with John Boehner doing a charity drag show. But after reading the latest installment of the New York Times' iEconomy series, which lifts the curtain on life at the Apple's 327 U.S. stores, I can't help but hope Moll succeeds. 

MAKING $25,000 AT THE WORLD'S RICHEST COMPANY

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As the Times depicts it, Apple has managed to turn the adoration of its fans into a never-ending supply of cheap labor. Cheap by tech industry standards, anyway, and certainly cheap in comparison to the revenue its Apple Stores generate. The company makes more money per square-foot of space than any other U.S. retailer, nearly doubling the cash haul of its nearest competitor, Tiffany's. And yet many of America's roughly 30,000 Apple Store workers earn just $25,000 a year. Technicians in some states make around $40,000. That's far better than a bottom-scraping retail job at Walmart or Target. But it's far less than what they might make selling iPhones elsewhere, such as AT&T or Verizon Wireless. Unlike at Apple, employees with those companies can earn sales commissions, regularly taking home $50,000 to $60,000. 

It's not simply the pay that's inadequate. In interviews with the Times, former Apple Store workers described a tense environment where staff regularly miss their breaks, working straight through their exhausting shifts to deal with the daily crush of customers. There's little upward mobility. Taking time off, even for an illness, can put your job in jeopardy.

The system works for Apple because because workers are easy to replace. There is always a flood of resumes from young people -- smart college graduates, at that -- who want to play a small part in the world's greatest tech company, always enough "devotees" of the brand who are excited to become its "disciples," as the Times put it.  

And that's the crux of the problem. There are certainly worse fates than working at an Apple Store. The company offers decent benefits, including health coverage and a 401K, and looks good on a resume. But so long as there are enough aspiring "specialists" or "geniuses" lining up for their chance to don a blue Apple t-shirt, no worker has much say over what they make or how they're treated. 

That's fundamentally unfair. But it's also common these days. Corporate profit margins are at an all time high in the U.S., while wages as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time low. Companies know they can pay workers less because they're desperate to hold onto their jobs. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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