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UK Apple Store workers detail ‘union-busting’ tactics

UK Apple Store workers organising for better working conditions have said the company is actively trying to prevent staff from exercising their right to join a union.

In February 2023, Apple’s Glasgow store became the first of its 40 UK-based locations to unionise, after workers gained formal union recognition from the company, while staff at its White City and Southampton stores are currently in the process of seeking “voluntary recognition” so that workers at each location can act as single bargaining units.

In the case of the Glasgow store, the majority of workers voted to unionise with the GMB in a ballot that was subsequently recognised by Apple.

In the other instances, workers joined the United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) group, a branch of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) that represents all workers throughout the tech sector, from software engineers to cleaners.

Although the workers at White City put in a bid for voluntary recognition in December 2022, the process (which is now spinning up again) was stalled due to workers not wanting to test the limits of the company’s “solicitation and distribution” policy, and while Apple is yet to respond to another request for voluntary recognition made by Southampton store employees at the start of September 2023, both parties are currently negotiating.

Those unionising have already outlined a range of demands to Apple, including pay increases in line with the rising cost of living; improved shift patterns so there are longer gaps between shifts; reducing employee surveillance and tracking, which they say is “increasingly leading to stress, burnout and overwork”; and improving the disciplinary process to make it less punitive.

According to UTAW, its presence in Apple’s stores has doubled since December 2022, when workers at the White City location went public with their request for voluntary recognition.

‘Union-busting’ tactics

UTAW members have claimed to Computer Weekly that, despite huge worker interest in unionising, Apple has been using a variety of “union-busting” tactics to discourage them from organising.

This includes allegations of prohibiting employees from even discussing unions at work; holding anti-union “downloads” (Apple-speak for team meetings) and one-to-ones with managers; and implying workers will lose out on workplace benefits as a result of unionising.

UTAW members also spoke about the role of surveillance and automation in Apple stores, claiming these practices support the company’s approach to disciplinaries, which they say is allowing the company to cut back on staff without the negative press other tech firms received following their large-scale layoffs.

They claimed this has been a particular issue for disabled or neurodivergent workers, as Apple’s workplace monitoring systems do not adequately account for their circumstances.

Responding to the claims, an Apple spokesperson said: “We have long been committed to providing an excellent experience for our customers and teams. Apple is one of the highest paying retailers in the UK, and we’ve regularly made enhancements to our industry-leading benefits as a part of the overall support we provide to our valued team members.”

Union drive

Speaking with Computer Weekly on condition of anonymity about the beginnings of the union drive, an Apple worker and UTAW member said that while it is fairly common for people in the job to stay long-term due to comparatively good pay and benefits – they added that they have been working at Apple for nearly a decade – attitudes towards the company started to shift after the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent return to in-store working.

“People do tend to stick about … for a lot of us who’ve been there a while, it’s a very reliable job,” they said. “They do to their credit provide pretty good benefits and the pay is better than most entry-level retail jobs,” they said, adding that the return to busy public spaces mid-pandemic and rapidly-rising living costs meant people were more aware of what they were getting paid, and “how much of a rip-off it was compared with how much the company had managed to profit throughout all of that.

“Apple gave us a raise around that time that we just thought was appalling, because it was way below inflation at the time,” they said.

In 2022, Apple became the first company ever to reach a $3tn market value, although its cap has dipped slightly throughout 2023 to around $2.8tn.

The worker added that the pandemic experience also prompted people from different Apple stores – not just in the UK, but globally – to connect in a way that they had never been able to before. “We all ended up on the same Discords and things like that during that period of time, so we were just suddenly plugged into each other in a way that we weren’t before, and we were talking to people in other Apple shops around country and around the world,” they said.

Noting the wave of unionisation that occurred in US Apple Stores, as well as Amazon warehouses, they added that “just seeing it was possible” was a major catalyst for taking action in the UK.

Anti-union tactics

Apple, however, did not take the unionisation efforts lightly, said UTAW members, who detailed to Computer Weekly a variety of anti-union tactics being deployed by the company.

“A lot of it’s about spreading disinformation about unions while at work, restricting the actions of unions in the workplace, and then trying to slow every process to do with unions down to make the union look like it’s not performing,” said the Apple worker. “For example, lots of employees in the UK have been told that the union is lying to them and … is promising things it won’t be able to deliver, or that “unions aren’t right for Apple”.

“It’s a very predictable script that comes from management, and we see the same sort of ‘catchphrases’ repeated again and again in different locations, so we’re very aware it’s a script and share it with each other.”

UTAW organiser Eran Cohen described such tactics as “passive-aggressive” union-busting: “They say ‘you should do your own research, don’t rely on a third party, just look for the facts’, but they have a few different mechanisms for chilling discussions at the store, so that people are scared to just talk about unions or to ask questions,” he said, adding that this includes the firm using its “solicitation and distribution” policy – which prevents Apple employees from promoting their own businesses or campaigning for political causes at work – to suppress discussions about unionising.

The anonymous worker said the company uses this policy to prevent any union action from happening at work, and have said that it extends to any time spent on its premises.

“It’s almost certainly against the law,” they said, adding that any workers caught discussing unions are directed by managers to the policy, who ask them to read it and whether they understood its contents.

“They’ll threaten people, they’ll pull them into the office and make it sound like there’s going to be a serious situation if they keep doing this .. there’s an implied threat of disciplinary action, there’s an implied threat that you might lose your job if you continue with it,” they added.

They claimed that while no one has been formally disciplined under the policy, at least not for talking about unions, Apple managers are “very, very careful” about how they discuss the policy, so that they can technically claim no one has been effectively stopped from unionising: “It would be very difficult for them to carry out any actual [disciplinary] action against someone for standard union activity, but they repeatedly make it feel very unwelcome.”

While UTAW is in the process of challenging the policy though a series of individual worker complaints, the anonymous worker confirmed it is something that may end up being taken all the way up to an employment tribunal: “Ultimately, it’s a stupid policy and unenforceable.”

Cohen said that while there is no right to discuss unions at work, there is a duty on employers “not to cause detriment” to people seeking unionisation, and the right to join a union is explicitly protected under UK law: “The policy is not enforceable because as soon as they tried to discipline someone for it, they will be in breach of the law. But what they can do is imply heavily to people that they will get in trouble, to chill union talks that way.”

Increasingly punitive approach

Over the past year, while a number tech giants such as Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and others have cut tens of thousands of jobs in a wave of layoffs, Apple has avoided making similarly drastic cutbacks.

In May 2023, Apple CEO Tim Cook said mass layoffs would be a “last resort” for the company, adding that while the company is continuing to hire, it would be doing so at a slower rate.

However, according to the anonymous worker, Apple is still making cutbacks to staff, but it’s managing to avoid the bad publicity of huge layoffs by “just enforcing every policy that they have, to a level that they never have done before – they really are looking for opportunities to get rid of people”.

Cohen further described the practice as “redundancy under the table, where they’re reducing the size of the workforce without replacing”, noting this method means the company avoids having to pay out the statutory minimums for redundancies.

UTAW also claims Apple’s approach to disciplinaries is underpinned by the highly individualised, real-time surveillance of its workers.

“There’s a huge amount of data that they gather on basically everything that we do,” said the worker, adding that this applies to all staff: “As employees, we’re now very much managed by the spreadsheet, and any of that information can come back to bite you if you’re in a disciplinary situation.”

Range of sources

The data collected by Apple, they added, comes from a range of sources, from customer surveys about specific staff they interacted with and the measuring of how much upsell individual workers have managed, to timers that track stockroom workers’ speed.

They claim that while “there’s a huge amount of data recorded about everything and all that data feeds into various systems”, it’s not always clear exactly which metrics are being recorded, and how it will be used down the line. “There’s just a general assumption from the moment you start working there that everything you do is being counted and quantified,” they said.

On the role of automation in Apple’s stores outside of surveillance, the worker said that as more staff are made to leave, more tasks are also being automated by the company, adding that “they’re building in a lot of systems that basically require less people, or more accurately, a smaller number of people to do more work, more efficiently”.

They claim the result is that “a lot of our job is being eroded” as it allows Apple to hire less skilled technicians at lower costs, who must then increasingly rely on the automated processes due to their relative lack of knowledge about the products, further opening more opportunities for employee tracking and surveillance.

The impact on disabled and neurodivergent employees

Both Cohen and the anonymous worker claim this situation has been particularly challenging for Apple employees with disabilities or neurodivergent conditions.

“We see a lot of mishandling of people’s time off when they’re sick, we see people getting paid less because they’re unable to fulfil specific performance criteria, all because they have a disability,” said the worker, adding that these situations seem to “crop up again and again … we’ve got union reps throughout all the different shops that we’re involved in spending a huge amount of time dealing with ridiculous disability-related discrimination.”

Relating this back to Apple’s alleged approach to disciplinaries, they added that “it does end up hitting people with disabilities more than anyone else”.

“Being honest, this has been the bulk of the casework we’ve seen coming from Apple,” said Cohen. “Even though, according to Apple’s own policies, anything to do with a disability should not be counted towards your lateness or your absences, it does seem like it ends up being counted in some cases. It’s a classic example of structural discrimination.”

Cohen added that UTAW will be raising grievances with Apple over the situation with disabled and neurodivergent members, but expects it to go to an employment tribunal if that process is not successful. “They’re not going out of their way to punish people with disabilities. Their systems are just set up in a way that that is the result,” he said, adding that the systems Apple uses to track things like lateness or absence do not automatically take into account people’s different circumstances.

“It takes either the manager who gets put in charge of the disciplinary knowing you have a disability, and checking what the reason for your absence was, or literally taking it all the way to disciplinary,” said Cohen. “We’ve had several cases go that far and then dismissed when we pointed out that half of those absences have nothing to do with the disability and shouldn’t have been counted.

“It’s a ‘computer says no’ mentality in management, just going by what the computer says rather than actually going through to look at the individual human being.”

Mitigating bias

According to Apple’s 2022 ESG report, in 2021, Apple dedicated 80,000 hours of management education, including a focus on mitigating bias and creating inclusive environments through its Apple University, and 10,000 coaching hours to managers and individuals in support of inclusion.

“Accessibility is one of our values and a fundamental human right,” it said. “To make sure that all of our team members have the support they need, Apple’s own best-in-class accessibility features are in use across the company by team members with disabilities to remove barriers and enable them to be more productive and successful.

“We offer on-demand sign language interpretation in the US, Canada, the UK and France to support in-person conversations, or to reach out to employee services,” it continued. “We have multiple accessibility-focused trainings available to team members, managers, and recruiters. We have a dedicated global accessibility and accommodations team to support team members throughout their career journeys. And we have a directory of all of these accessibility resources available that team members can access and search.”

UTAW have said they are trying for voluntary recognition but will take the statutory recognition route via the government’s Central Arbitration Committee if necessary.

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