Apple's retail sales force should unionize -- for their own sake, and maybe the country's.
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
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.
In other words, we desperately need unions to hand back some leverage to workers.
WHY ISN'T RETAIL UNIONIZED?
Unfortunately, organized labor has been dying in private industry for decades, and it's particularly weak in retail. The sector is responsible for around a tenth of all U.S. jobs. Less than 5 percent of those workers were unionized last year, compared to about 12 percent of the overall labor force. For that, we can largely thank the bruising anti-labor tactics of big box stores, particularly Walmart, which drove unionized chains like Caldor out of business in the 1990s with cut-rate prices, and has gone so far as to shutter a location in Quebec after it voted to unionize. Target waged its own successful battle against the United Food and Commercial Workers in 2011, in part by suggesting to workers that their store might be closed if it approved the union -- a move an administrative judge with the National Labor Relations Board later ruled was improper.
There are other, less malign reasons why retail isn't heavily unionized. Workers move in and out of stores, which makes them hard to organize. In a lot of the country, especially the South, unions just aren't very popular. But regardless of why, it's still a pity. More than any other part of the economy, it makes sense for the service sector to be unionized. Unlike manufacturing, it doesn't face cut-throat international competition. Unlike the public sector, it doesn't bargain with elected officials who need them as a voting bloc. And while organizing shop clerks and sales associates might encourage some stores to try and automate more of their services, many would try to do so regardless. Walmart and its peers are already notorious for staffing their stores as thinly as possible. Making them negotiate those staffing levels with a union rep couldn't make the situation any worse.
Retail should be made safe for organized labor. And unionizing even a few Apple Stores -- the law would probably require each one to go through the process individually -- would be a perfect place to start. The company's profits are gigantic. It doesn't have a competitor that could undercut it on domestic labor costs alone. Its workers are largely educated men in their 20s, people who usually don't need to worry about families and are savvy enough not to bullied by their company. And it sets the gold standard for nearly every industry it touches.
Apple already seems to be taking steps to try and quell any discontent. This year, it's handing retail workers raises of up to 25 percent. But a one-time pay bump isn't change. It's a gesture. And, as Moll told me during our talk, a labor council representing workers at a store in Munich Germany managed to negotiate raises that were much higher.
"I think the momentum and the pressure needs to remain," Moll told me. I agree, even if the odds of success are pretty long.