ATLANTA — Sydney Rhodes’s frustration was rising. Seated at a hotel conference table across the street from the Apple store where she worked in Atlanta, she listened as her boss suggested to a dozen colleagues that they should be grateful to be paid more than other retail employees.
It was among a series of arguments he made this month at an off-site meeting ahead of the store’s vote on whether to join the Communications Workers of America union. Ms. Rhodes, a 26-year-old union organizer, considered the roughly $4 more per hour that Apple paid relative to other stores insufficient.
Before a recent promotion, she supported herself by bouncing from part-time work helping customers with iPhones to a second job delivering Amazon packages to a third shift loading boxes at FedEx. She had championed the union because she thought it could boost hourly pay and increase full-time opportunities for a largely part-time staff.
In April, Ms. Rhodes’s advocacy helped garner support from 70 percent of the store’s 100-plus workers for a union election. But as her boss pushed back over dinner at a Sheraton Hotel, she could sense that support beginning to fray.
“Any time someone asked me a question,” she said, “he would come with an opinion about unions that didn’t apply to us at all.”
The exchanges cut to the heart of a contest with implications for some 272 Apple stores across the United States. Two decades after redefining retail with sleek architecture and concierge tech support, Apple is being confronted by the industry’s latest trend: organized labor.
Unionization has been on the rise at Starbucks, REI and Dollar General as employees feel the squeeze of inflation and tire of pandemic risks. The stresses unleashed by those forces also have roiled the tech sector, helping employees emboldened by a tight labor market win support for unions in the video game industry and at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.
Ms. Rhodes and colleagues were expected to be the first Apple store to vote on joining a union this Thursday. But late last week, they suspended the election. Apple stores in Towson, Md., and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal are still expected to hold votes in coming weeks, and more than two dozen more have expressed interest in organizing, union leaders say.
The labor movement has worried Apple executives, who strive to foster love for Apple among employees and customers. The unions could bring an end to 20 years of burnishing the Apple brand with cheerful salespeople hawking $1,000 phones. The company has suggested that they also have the potential to increase operating costs and hobble the introduction of new products.
Apple has hired Littler Mendelson, an employment law firm, to blunt the labor push. It also has furnished store managers with talking points, including that unionizing could result in fewer promotions and inflexible hours, which was reported earlier by Vice. And last week, its leaders urged employees not to unionize and said they would increase wages to $22 an hour from $20.
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“I worry about what it would mean to put another organization in the middle of our relationship, an organization that does not have a deep understanding of Apple or our business,” Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, said in a video sent to many of the company’s roughly 65,000 retail employees. The video was reported on earlier by The Verge.
Josh Rosenstock, an Apple spokesman, declined a request for interviews with Ms. O’Brien and Alex Burrus, the manager of the Cumberland Mall store, which is about 10 miles from downtown Atlanta. And employees who are on the fence or against the union push were reluctant to speak with The New York Times.
In a statement, Mr. Rosenstock said the company provided numerous benefits to retail employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement and family leave. “We deeply value everything they bring to Apple,” he said.
Apple has countered the union push even as online orders diminish the importance of its stores. About 6 percent of Apple’s sales come from its retail locations, roughly half the share before the pandemic, according to Loup Ventures, a firm that specializes in tech research.
Despite the stores’ waning financial importance, employees like Ms. Rhodes view them as Apple’s physical connection to the wider world. She started working at Apple because she loved its products. She bought her first iPhone at 16 with money she earned working at McDonald’s. She became obsessed with the company, tuning into hourslong product events to feed a growing interest in “the way they worked.”
In 2018, she impressed a store technician with her knowledge about the Apple Watch, leading a manager to encourage her to apply for a job in her hometown, Louisville, Ky. She later moved to Atlanta and transferred to the Cumberland Mall store, sandwiched between a Bath & Body Works and a Pandora jeweler.
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Rhodes said, she was grateful that the company was among the first to send its workers home. Employees at the Cumberland Mall were paid for several months without being required to do any work, said Frank Howard, the store manager at the time. Apple later shipped them a computer and asked them to provide remote sales and technical support.
Their return to the store after the arrival of coronavirus vaccines led to frustrations with management. Apple lifted the mask requirement for staff and customers just before Christmas, and a number of workers got Covid-19, Ms. Rhodes and another union organizer said.
“We went through Covid, and y’all made so much money,” Ms. Rhodes said of Apple, which increased its profits to $95 billion in its 2021 fiscal year, 71 percent higher than its last fiscal year before the pandemic. “Why couldn’t we be paid more?”
Derrick Bowles, a colleague of Ms. Rhodes’s, connected with the Communications Workers of America to learn what it would take to organize.Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times
Derrick Bowles, who works with Ms. Rhodes in Atlanta, was listening to a podcast about the union effort at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Pay increases for his job as a genius technician was capped at 2 percent, not enough to keep pace with inflation. After calculating that he was making 15 cents less per hour after inflation, he contacted the Communications Workers of America and started organizing a union drive.
Mr. Bowles first recruited seasoned colleagues. Having been at Apple a decade, he said they were most familiar with how support of retail had dwindled, with perks like the rental of an entire bowling alley for a 2010 party giving way to Christmas gifts such as backpacks. One year, Mr. Bowles said, employees received a printed copy of Apple retail credo on heavy card stock and a T-shirt.
“The next year we stopped getting Christmas gifts completely,” he said.
Ms. Rhodes was initially skeptical but warmed to the union, she said. She had recently been promoted to a full-time job, earning $26 an hour, but only after a colleague with 14 years’ experience departed. Most of her colleagues were part time, working less than 30 hours a week. She thought the union could help create more full-time opportunities.
They drafted a letter outlining goals, including fair compensation, career development opportunities, improved benefits and a bigger voice in safety policies related to Covid-19. They polled staff on whether they should hold a vote to unionize and won twice the support they needed. Afterward, Mr. Bowles distributed red wristbands that said “Stronger Together.”
In May, store managers increased their counteroffensive, posting a letter in the break room from an employee of the Grand Central Terminal store who expressed opposition to unions, Mr. Bowles said.
“We’re not an Amazon warehouse that didn’t get sick leave or bathroom breaks during the pandemic,” the employee wrote. “We’re not an understaffed Starbucks.” He wrote that he understood the calls for “more money” but that “nothing with a union is guaranteed.”
Managers also included anti-union comments in their morning briefings of staff, according to a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board. In a statement to reporters about the meetings, Mr. Bowles said Apple was “putting its thumb on the scale.”
The pressure has divided employees. On a recent Sunday evening at the Cumberland Mall store, about 15 employees in blue T-shirts with a white Apple logo attended to customers browsing rows of colorful watchbands. None of the employees wore a “Stronger Together” bracelet.
Most stopped wearing the bracelet because they felt it made management treat them differently, Ms. Rhodes said.
Union supporters distributed “Stronger Together” wristbands, but employees felt management treated wearers differently, Ms. Rhodes said.Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times
As support in Atlanta wavered, union leaders in Towson and New York said they could still prevail in their elections. They pointed to the success of Amazon organizers on Staten Island after a similar push failed in Bessemer.
“This isn’t ‘Star Wars,’ where the rebels win and things work out perfectly,” said David DiMaria, an organizer advising employees at the Towson store on behalf of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. “We appreciate all the information Atlanta has shared to let us know what to expect. We still feel good.”
In the days leading up to the vote, a Covid outbreak spread through some Cumberland Mall employees, Ms. Rhodes said. Apple, which did not comment on the outbreak, required masks in the store. Ms. Rhodes hoped the setback would remind colleagues of the value a union could offer by giving them a voice in decisions related to their health.
Less than 24 hours later, the union’s organizing committee decided to suspend the vote. In a statement, the union blamed Apple's campaign for creating an environment of fear and coercion. Mr. Bowles said he had not abandoned his campaign.