- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Several workers at an Apple retail store in Kansas City, Missouri, say they were recently fired for attempting to organize a union. Now the Communication Workers of America (CWA) has filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the company for wrongful termination and intimidation on the job.
The charges also allege that some of the terminated workers were forced to sign a “Release of All Claims” in exchange for severance, which was recently deemed unlawful by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). According to the CWA, Apple has also engaged in anti-union retaliation and intimidation at one of its stores in Houston, Texas.
Gemma Wyatt and D’Lite Xiong, who were both fired by Apple over the past six months for organizing at the Country Club Plaza store in Kansas City, sat down with Jacobin’s Peter Lucas to discuss why they tried to organize their workplace rather than quit, and the retaliation they and their coworkers faced.
What were the issues in your shop that led you and your coworkers to organize?
Things really started with the way the store was handling COVID-19. There was a lack of transparency as to why certain decisions [about safety protocols] were being made. So that was the genesis, and then we began to recognize a lot of other elements we were uncomfortable with, like an extreme lack of transparency around promotion, poor pay and cost-of-living adjustments, and a lack of support for employees dealing with health issues.
I sustained a concussion at work. Upon returning to work part-time, I was dealing with post-concussion syndrome, and it was a really challenging time for me. I felt that my managers were doing their best to get me to quit the whole time. I know coworkers who had similar experiences. We wanted to see that stuff addressed and believed a union would be the best way to do so.
We were Apple’s frontline workers, returning to the store to serve customers, constantly reminding them to wear masks. It was a very hard time to be working in retail, especially as things first reopened after COVID-19.
Also, Spanish-speaking employees weren’t properly or evenly compensated for their language services. It didn’t make sense — Apple is a trillion-dollar company, and for some reason it can’t compensate all six Spanish speakers? Raises didn’t match inflation for some workers, and there was a lack of transparency around how those decisions were made.
No grace time around clocking in was a huge issue as well: workers would get docked for showing up one or two minutes late. We asked for a bit of a buffer period, which used to be a common store practice, but were told it couldn’t be done. It could’ve been done because, again, they had implemented it before. But they wanted to use attendance as a weapon.
How and at what point did the organizing start?
The organizing started with us and our sister store in Leawood, Kansas, about nine miles away. Unfortunately, management at that store seemingly came down in a much more direct way, and the worker-organizers ended up leaving the store.
As for our store, some of us began talking about how we could address the issues in our shops, and from there we started reaching out to various unions. Eventually, we got in touch with the Communications Workers of America and moved forward with them. It just grew from there.
Can you tell me a bit about the actual organizing? Were your coworkers receptive to it?
We were extremely active in recruiting, and we coalesced around a strong organizing committee at our store. In late July, we were going through talking to everyone in the store and got a bunch of positive reception. But somewhere in the process, the names of organizing-committee members were brought to management. Not long after they became aware, I and five of my coworkers lost our jobs.
By the time management likely discovered our efforts, we had a solid group involved in the actual organizing and more than met the threshold needed of workers who said they would vote yes in an election.
What was management’s response once they heard that you and your coworkers were organizing?
The best we can tell, they got the names in early August, and by September, six of us were on “documented coaching.”
What does that mean?
Documented coaching is essentially the Apple flavor of the three-strike rule. Once you’re on this track, if you don’t improve the identified behavior within a four-to-six-week period, then you’re immediately fired. But even if you do complete it, it stipulates that anything that is viewed as regression, or even a new, different issue is also grounds for termination. Essentially, it sets the groundwork for firing.
What did they say the identified behavior was?
Time and attendance were the issues cited, but it clearly had to do with our organizing. For me personally, I was a minute late to shifts on occasion. Another worker was out on leave for a medical issue, and one of the dates was wrong on their paperwork. They went on to correct the date with approval from management, but were still placed under documented coaching, laying the groundwork for their eventual firing.
I was placed under documented coaching for attendance reasons, which I thought was odd considering I had just gotten a raise and promotion. After describing what was happening to me at a union meeting, the other workers who would go on to be fired as well described similar experiences. We quickly put two and two together: management was targeting all of us for organizing our workplace.
Do you feel now that it would have been easier not to say anything?
With the issues we’ve discussed in mind, I noticed that they were driving coworkers of mine to quit, and I felt that was something that just couldn’t continue. That really was the biggest motivator for me. I felt like if I just sat back and watched that continue to happen, it would be morally indefensible.
It felt great to organize, because I was doing something I know is right, but it hurt because I loved working at Apple. I was working as a creative, teaching people how to use our products. I didn’t want to leave the job at all. Frankly, it sucked seeing management union bust; they were way too heavy-handed — interfering with captive audience meetings and such.
I’ve heard discouraging comments like, “If you didn’t want to get fired, you shouldn’t have shown up late.” We didn’t get fired for being late. We got fired for trying to better our workplace on our own terms.
Within our store, none of us wanted to leave our job. We loved our coworkers and wanted something better for ourselves. It seemed obvious that organizing was the only real option. If we left, we would be abdicating the responsibility we had to one another.
What would you say to other workers who are considering unionizing?
It’s hard, but it’s worth it. Employer retaliation against you isn’t legal. You have recourse. Don’t use our experience as an example not to; use our experience as a reason to go for it.
And there’s nothing about unionizing that takes away your power; it only improves your station. Contrary to what management might tell you, a union isn’t something else that you’re introducing to the workplace. It’s you. It’s your coworkers. It’s working for the betterment of everyone.
We’ve seen workers across the nation realize that you can make a change to the company if you gather and unionize for better working conditions. Our store particularly had issues with diversity in management: we had an all-white management team and leads, with one white female manager. It was a huge issue, and many peers made complaints to corporate about management. After that, management then started to intentionally transfer black queer female leads and managers to our store. We saw that if enough of us gathered and worked together to organize, we could better our working environment on our own terms.
Can you give us an update on what is happening with you and your coworkers’ firing?
When I officially got terminated, Apple made me sign a legal release form, which I had forty-eight hours to sign lest I forfeit the lump-sum money attached to it, which wasn’t an option. I needed the money to get out my lease I signed when I moved here for this job. It also stuck out to me that I had to sign something that said I wouldn’t hold influence over my coworkers still at the store.
Management also unevenly distributed and applied the release form for the workers who were fired. And the company typically informs people when someone is terminated, but I eventually found out that the store didn’t tell anyone about those of us who were fired for organizing.
We just did our final statements this week to wrap up our end of the ULP, which is good, but the whole thing hurts because other workers can see what happens when you try to organize.
We filed relatively recently after going through having everyone do their statements with the NLRB. And so just getting through that stage makes me feel more confident about it all. It’s been galvanizing. I think everyone was feeling a little lost after we were all let go, but having this ULP to coalesce around has been a good way to stay in touch and to support one another.
What’s the desired outcome for the ULP charges?
The desired outcome would be, at a bare minimum, back wages for the time we’ve missed. I think a good percentage of us are interested in at least having our jobs offered back. That would go a long way. I also think a recognition that we were wronged would go a long way. Apple needs to know there’s consequences to that.
The Apple store in Houston is facing similar challenges, so we know the playbook. People want to unionize; Apple wants to union bust. We actually saw our Starbucks shut down because the workers tried to unionize. It was really sad to see the biggest Starbucks in Kansas City closed seemingly overnight. But it’s important to pull inspiration from the other stores across the country, and in places like Japan, where 30 percent of the stores are already union.
A ton of Apple stores are active with union efforts, and it’s not even limited to the United States. Apple stores globally are looking to unionize and are succeeding because of the successful efforts of the workers at the Towson Town Center [in Towson, Maryland] and Penn Square [in Oklahoma City] stores. This movement is absolutely poised to take over Apple. And I think you see that in how aggressively they’ve responded to people trying to unionize. They’re using exactly the same tactics as a company like Starbucks.