Earlier this year, former Apple software engineer Cher Scarlett received a distraught DM from an Apple retail employee at New York’s Grand Central Station. The employee had been working with a union to organize her store, but the partnership dissolved. Adrift, she messaged Scarlett to vent. The employee knew Scarlett as a founder of #AppleTooa campaign that emerged last summer to shed light on alleged workplace discrimination and harassment. Scarlett was an outspoken worker’s rights advocate, and she knew just who to call.
Scarlett had recently met an organizer with Workers United at a rally for the unionizing employees at Starbucks, where she used to work. “I was like, wait a minute. You’re in New York. Workers United started in New York. I have a connection.” She made an introduction, and the Grand Central campaign was revived. In April, they went public with their organizing drive, dubbing themselves Fruit Stand Workers United.
The campaign is one of several unionization efforts taking place at Apple Stores across the country, both public and underground. Increasingly they’ve found support from current and former employees at Apple’s corporate offices, thanks in part to a solidarity union called Apple Together, which Scarlett helped found and which emerged from the #AppleToo campaign. The group’s Discord server has grown to more than 250 employees and provides a space to swap stories, share resources, learn about organizing, and coordinate campaigns. Roughly a third of the group hails from the corporate workforce, while the rest come from the retail stores and AppleCare. Several vetted union representatives hang out on the Discord, ready to talk to anyone interested in organizing their workplace.
The forum also helps workers recognize when their personal struggles are shared. “There have been many people that have joined our Discord server who talk about how seeing these stories is really what empowered them to start speaking up for themselves,” says Janneke Parrish, a former Apple Maps program manager who helped organize Apple Together. (Parrish was fired last year after helping organize #AppleToo. Apple has said her firing was not retaliatory, while Parrish disagrees.)
Apple’s corporate culture is famously secretive, siloing workers from one another in the interest of protecting upcoming launches. That secrecy around products sometimes extends to working conditions, says one Apple Together organizer, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. But between the introduction of Slack in 2019 and the formation of Apple Together, “this is probably the least siloed we’ve been in years,” she says.
Apple Together’s emergence coincides with an inflection point for the company’s workforce, which has been challenging Apple on issues ranging from pay equity to its return-to-office policy. Workers at Atlanta’s Cumberland Mall petitioned for a union election in late April with the Communication Workers of America, and this month employees in Towson, Maryland, filed for an election with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The Grand Central Station store is gathering signatures and also plans to file.
At the Towson location, employees are hoping to finally gain a say over their working conditions, says Kevin Gallagher, who has worked there for several years. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what type of work and skill is required to do the job that we do,” he says. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s a retail store. These must be teenagers who are doing a job while they’re in college.’ We have people in their fifties and sixties working here who are doing highly skilled labor.”
Gallagher remembers how Apple offered free battery replacements to customers in 2016, flooding retail locations with aggrieved customers without substantily changing staffing levels. (It didn’t help, he says, that exposed iPhone batteries could catch fire during the repair process, what’s known in the industry as a “thermal event.”) It seemed to him like no one in corporate had considered how the program would affect the retail employees. This pattern would reemerge in the ensuing months and years, he says, such as when the company lifted its mask mandate and several of his coworkers subsequently contracted Covid-19. Apple declined to comment for this story.