Bulletins

Apple Store employees in Atlanta are unionizing

The proposed union, the company's first, would have 107 workers.

Apple

Another tech worker union fight is on the way.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Apple retail employees in Atlanta have filed to hold a union election, Bloomberg Law reported Wednesday, making the Cumberland Mall Apple Store location the first of the company's more than 270 stores in the U.S. to do so.


The proposed union, which would be called the Apple Workers Union, would have 107 workers. Around 70% of the store's workers signed cards in support of the election, and plan to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board Wednesday afternoon. The effort is backed by the Communication Workers of America.

“Right now, I think, is the right time because we simply see momentum swinging the way of workers,” Cumberland Apple Store employee and union organizer Derrick Bowles told Bloomberg Law. “As we sat back and re-evaluated, what we realized is that we love being at Apple — and leaving Apple, that’s not something any of us wants to do. But improving it is something we wanted to do.”

The move comes after a group of Apple Store employees at the Grand Central flagship store in Manhattan on Monday announced their intention to try to form a legally-recognized union. The group, which calls itself the Fruit Stand Workers United, have to convince at least 30% of their retail peers at the Grand Central location to sign union interest affiliation cards.

Both groups aim to raise base wages, with the Atlanta location seeking a $28 per hour starting wage and Manhattan store seeking $30 per hour, up from the $20 per hour base pay Apple currently offers retail employees. The Manhattan store is also asking for better benefits, including increased tuition reimbursements and 401(k) matches. Reports of unionization efforts at Apple retail locations first emerged in February, with two then-unnamed stores planning to file union paperwork with the NLRB.

“Somebody has got to be the first to do something,” Bowles told Bloomberg Law. “Being first doesn’t matter to us — doing it is what matters to us. And if we have to be first we will be first.”

Tech company employees have in recent months been organizing for improved working conditions. This month, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island formed the company's first union following a hard fight to organize in the face of Amazon's pushback. Google Fiber contract employees also successfully unionized in late March, becoming the Alphabet Workers Union's first recognized bargaining unit.

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Apple called its employees back to the office as the company’s three-day-per-week hybrid schedule finally began in early September. Many tech companies have eased up on requiring office work, making Apple somewhat of an outlier when it comes to RTO.

Another outlier, Google, has been in hybrid mode since April, reportedly leading to outbreaks of COVID-19 at the office. Yet for all the talk about Google’s three-day-a-week RTO policy, two workers who spoke to Protocol anonymously say it’s not much of a mandate. An employee and a contractor both told Protocol that the hybrid policy doesn’t seem to be imposed across the board.

“The impression I have is that it’s basically not enforced,” the employee said. The Google contractor said attendance varied across different teams, noting that while some of their teammates go to the office three days a week, most only go in once. (Neither Google nor Apple returned emails inquiring about how their hybrid policies are enforced.)

Sundar Pichai’s plan to make Google “20% more efficient” may lead nervous workers to choose to go to the office more often. (An August survey found that CBRE tenants were “evenly split” on whether a recession would drive more workers to the office out of anxiety for their job security.)

As of now, most companies’ hybrid requirements are only enforced as a “very soft mandate,” said Brian Kropp, distinguished VP of research at Gartner. About half of companies with a hybrid mandate are tracking office attendance, Kropp said, but even those that are doing so “have no real plans to fire people for not coming to the office, as long as they’re getting their work done.”

More than 40% of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner last month said they weren’t tracking office attendance. Thirty-five percent said they were gathering attendance data from key fob or badge swipes, while 22% said managers were tracking their teams’ attendance. Another 10% said employees were self-reporting their attendance.

Companies that selectively enforce attendance requirements may wind up with unfair outcomes, Kropp said.

“If you have a mandated set of days where you have to come to the office, but it’s unevenly enforced across the company, then you run into issues of fairness,” Kropp said. “That just creates more variability across the company, which then creates more risk as well in terms of that inconsistency.”

And while flexibility puts companies at an advantage when it comes to competing for talent, it also requires more sophisticated management, Kropp said. “The question you should really be asking is: Does our managerial population, on average, have the capability to manage much more flexibility, or not?” Kropp said. “If the answer is ‘yes, they do,’ you should push for as much flexibility as you can.”

To run high-performing teams in a flexible environment, managers need to be “half social worker, half engineer,” Kropp said. That means more empathy and more capacity for planning and organization.

While companies may seem settled into their hybrid ways of working, many leaders are leaving policies open to change with time rather than overcommitting themselves. The world is unpredictable, as we’ve learned in the last 2.5 years. “A lot of these executives — the way that they’re framing it now is, ‘This is our hybrid strategy for now, and it could evolve and could change,’” Kropp said.

Amazon falls into that category. As Andy Jassy put it at the Code Conference on Wednesday, Amazon doesn’t have a plan to force employees back to the office: “We’re going to proceed adaptively as we learn.”

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

If you truly want to gauge a company’s culture before accepting a job offer, you have to become a bit of a sleuth. A journalist, even. Troll Blind and Glassdoor. Browse LinkedIn for current employees who seem trustworthy, or former employees who seem not to have an agenda.

But not everyone has the time to investigate companies in this way. Instead, they may rely on company-sponsored chats with current employees.

  • Ian Royer, a public relations specialist with Amazon Canada, took Amazon up on its “Candid Chats” program that connects candidates with members of employee resource groups.
  • He was on a mission to determine whether he fit with Amazon’s culture. “I am at a point in my career where when I do interviews, I interview for my fit, not the company,” Royer said.
  • Royer spoke with representatives from Amazon’s Black Employee Network and LGBTQ group Glamazon after encouragement from his recruiter. Those conversations ultimately won him over.

Steve McElfresh, founder of HR Futures, said it’s worth it for employers to offer to connect candidates with current employees. The more information, the more helpful to candidates. Still, it’s impossible for company-sponsored candidate-employee chats to be completely candid. Those chats are not entirely trustworthy.

  • “In most cases you’ve got to assume they’re using a stable of people who are prepped and primed to be positive about the company,” McElfresh said. “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but I think you've got to take it with a grain of salt.”

For those who want to connect with employees on their own, scouring LinkedIn and similar sites might be the best option. Professional platform Candor, a new startup trying to be the “more authentic LinkedIn,” was built with job sleuthing in mind.

  • “Especially in a remote world, it's so hard to figure out and so hard to get to know people and know if that culture fit is going to be there at your next opportunity,” said Candor founder Kelsey Bishop.
  • Candor profiles look kind of like corporate mood boards, with descriptors like “my core values,” “teammates that really inspire me” and “things that motivate me.” Bishop said the service is meant for casual networking, and to help people suss out the working styles of their potential future co-workers.

Bishop added that anonymous platforms can quickly turn toxic, hence Candor’s model with private profiles. But without anonymity, how candid will someone really be?

  • “As a candidate, you have to dig beyond what’s publicly available,” McElfresh said. “I would certainly be looking for more of the anonymous material.”
  • On the other hand, you can’t verify the identity, and therefore validity, of anonymous reviews. “The problem with anonymous material is you get the extremes,” McElfresh said. “You get people who are clearly unhappy, resentful and are almost assuredly overrepresented.”

The most prepared candidates will do all of the above. Just perusing Glassdoor or talking to one company-sponsored employee won’t give you the full picture. You’ve got to really do your research to figure out the fit.

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

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The FDA this week announced that cooking chicken in NyQuil isn’t safe, which seems obvious; it came from a “NyQuil cooking challenge” video that went viral — more than a year ago.

Government warnings about viral online fads may come too late to be effective. The NyQuil chicken challenge resurfaced in January after starting as a joke on 4chan in 2017.

  • In June, the FDA warned of the dangers of keeping avocados fresh by placing them in water. That video was popular a couple years ago.
  • Schools and lawmakers took a few weeks to catch wind of, and warn parents about, a “devious licks” video that resulted in students damaging school property.
  • The Tide Pod challenge, which started as a joke on Twitter in late 2017 before making its way to YouTube and elsewhere, got the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s attention about a month after it went viral.
  • And French lawmakers needed a few months to warn against the 2018 “InMyFeelings” challenge, which involved getting out of a moving car and dancing.

Government leaders need a lesson on virality. The timing of these warnings highlights the difficulty of staying on top of potentially dangerous challenges, which can go viral in a matter of days. “The FDA is always playing catch-up with these things,” Jeffrey Blevins, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department, told me. “It’s impossible for them to be ahead of it. Who in their right mind would have thought of NyQuil chicken?”

  • But the fact that the FDA and other government agencies need months — even years — to identify and warn people about dangerous viral trends defeats the purpose of the warning. Once the alert comes around, the damage may have already been done.
  • The way in which the FDA responds to harmful viral videos might not be that effective anyway: The ones making the posts go viral — kids — probably aren’t following government alerts, Blevins said. “I would really encourage these agencies to think about being a little more creative in how they respond,” he said.
  • The FDA could post TikToks or poke fun at the absurdity of cooking chicken with NyQuil while also explaining the harms, for example. (The FDA didn’t immediately return a request for comment.)

It’s not just the government; pediatricians, schools, and other organizations are aware of the dangers of social media trends and are trying to catch on to them quickly. But word spreads fast, and in order for the government’s warnings to be effective, they need to happen sooner.

A version of this story appeared in Thursday's Source Code. Sign up here to get it in your inbox each morning.

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Bulletins