I’ve been reading Daring Fireball for something like 18 years now. I appreciate John Gruber’s insights on Apple, and find him more right than not in analyzing their products, strategy and motivations. Hell, I survived a layoff in 2020 by buying an ad on his site.
But I’ve been scratching my head at this recent remark about union drives at Apple’s retail operation:
This public enthusiasm for labor unions is manifesting in high-profile unionization drives at big companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and now Apple.
This is a strange logical construction to me, but it mirrors a larger challenge I find among pundits in understanding the current moment and movement in labor.
In one of my favorite quotes of all time, noted 20th century troublemaker Upton Sinclair wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
The most insightful people in the game are struggling to make sense of a resurgent labor movement. But it’s not that hard to follow—if your incentives aren’t too bound up in the interests of the people who already have a lot of money.
Trouble is, that’s a hard line to walk while getting paid to write. I'm sympathetic—and unaffected. Maybe I can help.
Unions aren’t forming because they’re popular; they’re popular because they’ve become urgently needed and they’re forming for the same reason
In most people’s interactions with a workplace, the company takes too much and gives too little. The only recourse for labor is to form structures of counter-power to try and balance the equation.
You can stop reading there. All I’m going to do next is prove the point several ways, but if you came here to understand why unions are both forming and popular, you’re good to go.
CEOs, as agents of Wall Street and other financial interests, are paid hundreds of times what their workers make every year. In Apple’s case, Tim Cook took home $100m in 2021 alone. The typical Apple Store employee, making $22 an hour, would need to work 2,367 years to match Tim’s compensation.
This isn’t unusual to Apple, though. CEO pay is at an all-time high, but that’s not even the worst part. When workers create profits for corporations, what doesn’t go to the CEO is too often sucked up by shareholders in the form of stock buybacks.
Supporters of the status quo will argue that guys like Tim Cook create outsized value for companies, and deserve outsized compensation as a result. I can accept that Cook is a uniquely talented person with unique insights. Gil Amelio, Michael Spindler and John Sculley are proof enough that not everyone is suited to run Apple.
Nevertheless, I struggle with the idea that Cook deserves that much more of the pie than the people who make it possible for him to move the vast quantities of hardware and services that allow Apple to post its billions in quarterly profits.
This isn’t an argument in the abstract, either. It’s becoming harder and harder to afford the basics of life—housing, food, transportation, childcare—in the United States, precisely because of this inequality. For example:
- Rents have increased an unprecedented 10%
- Consumer price index on food has risen 11.2%
- Childcare costs have surged 41%
The people with money are living the high life while wage workers are struggling to get by. But this is about more than money. Employees of large corporations are separated from decision makers by enormous gulfs of reporting structure and policy, with limited say in their day-to-day work.
Apple’s workers don’t just want more money, they want things like better scheduling and career advancement. The timing of when you work is everything: it impacts your ability to rest, to be with friends and loved ones, to meet educational goals, and otherwise determine the course of your life.
Scheduling in a recurring theme in many recent retail labor disputes, as in the case of Starbucks.
Amazon presents perhaps the most extreme example of how precarious today’s workers are. Six warehouse workers died when a tornado struck a distribution center in Illinois last year. Desperate drivers with no slack in their schedules have to piss in a bottle to meet their delivery quotas, as the company admitted to lawmakers. The company’s idea of worker well being is, in a bit that would go too far even for Severance, a phone booth-sized cubicle where workers can watch mindfulness propaganda.
Self-determination is an issue for wage earners across many sectors. The US sits on a knife’s edge as rail workers—over-scheduled and fighting for the basic right to do things like visit the doctor once in awhile—contemplate a nationwide strike that would grind logistics infrastructure to a halt. Those guys, at least, have a union.
To recap, workers are struggling with:
- The basics of reliable scheduling and paid time off
- Soaring costs of the essentials
- Their ability to advance their careers
- All the surplus value they create going to CEOs and Wall Street
In an economy that has produced enormous gains over the last decade, all of the fruits are going to the richest people in the system. After a global pandemic, in which frontline workers kept entire global economic order afloat, the rich are richer than ever, while workers are scrambling to pay the bills.
That’s why unions are popular. That’s why unions are happening.
There’s just no other recourse for such a wide-ranging, unfair, structurally entrenched bargain.