WITH strikes breaking out all over the UK, comparisons to the 1970s have been made liberally and often.
Picture the picket lines of 50 years ago and you largely picture middle aged men, the stereotypical union member. Since the hey-day of worker solidarity, union membership has declined steadily over the past three decades but in the last few years has begun to rise again, in a hopeful upward tick.
The pandemic has shown the insecurity that many workers face, the poor working conditions and the insufficient pay. It has, arguably, never been more important to join a union with rising membership numbers reflecting that.
An interesting recent union trend, begun in America, is of younger workers at large anti-union corporate giants agitating for recognition. It was unthinkable, even just 10 years ago.
Yet an Amazon warehouse has unionised, more than 150 Starbucks branches have done the same and, just on Saturday, the first Apple store voted overwhelmingly to seek union recognition, showing a trend of younger workers keen to have a formalised voice in how their workplace operates.
The US trend is slowly happening here too with Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Apple store voting earlier this month to seek recognition as part of the GMB Scotland union.
Glasgow’s store is leading in the charge in the UK, joining the branch in Maryland, which made history by becoming the first Apple retail store to unionise. Workers at the Towson shop voted to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) . The group has informed Apple CEO Tim Cook of its intent to organise as the Coalition of Organized Retail Employees… or, satisfyingly, AppleCore for short.
Towson’s is the first to successfully vote but other stores across the United States have already started the ball rolling on union membership. Corporate behemoths have famously pushed back against workers unionising.
I remember in the early noughties when I worked for Starbucks there were cross-pond whispers of a branch in New York where upstart staff wanted to join a union.The CEO, Howard Schultz, who I always pictured as a sort of avuncular Willy Wonka figure, sent a message round all stores dissuading workers elsewhere from getting any similar big ideas.
Despite the ongoing and well publicised efforts of gargantuan American corporations to talk staff out of union membership, unions say employees at more than two dozen of 270 US Apple stores want to follow Maryland.
Of course, it could be years before the Maryland Apple store is formally unionised. There is an appeals process that Apple may or may not choose to use. Even if it doesn’t use that, negotiations can take a long time to finalise. But it’s progress and interesting progress on both sides of the Atlantic to see the desire for greater employee autonomy and control in non-traditional union sectors.
The calls from workers in Glasgow echo those of staff in the US – faster and more meaningful pay increases and better flexibility over shift patterns. Nothing earth shaking there.
These huge corporations that now face challenge from staff who are organising themselves all have the size, money and resources to reinvent what work is. In January Apple posted revenue record of $123.9 billion, a rise of 11 per cent year on year.
It remains to be seen what a GMB recognition agreement would mean for Glasgow Apple staff and if any other UK stores will follow them, just as with AppleCore in the US.
This is a classic David vs Goliath scenario but David, here, isn’t looking to slay the giant. Instead his slingshot is aimed at working together to create a workplace democracy.
The would-be union members’ work is cut out for them, democracy being an anathema to massive multinational corporations. Good luck to them, though, in creating a new face of unionisation and, hopefully, a new way of equitable working.