Should we care that Apple pays its retail store employees relatively little money?

The New York Times has a long piece about what Apple pays its retail store workers. Here are some of the details:

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year. They work inside the world’s fastest growing industry, for the most valuable company, run by one of the country’s most richly compensated chief executives, Tim Cook. Last year, he received stock grants, which vest over a 10-year period, that at today’s share price would be worth more than $570 million.

And though Apple is unparalleled as a retailer, when it comes to its lowliest workers, the company is a reflection of the technology industry as a whole…

“In the service sector, companies provide a little bit of training and hope their employees leave after a few years,” says Arne L. Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. “Especially now, given the number of college kids willing to work for low wages.”

By the standards of retailing, Apple offers above average pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 and better than the Gap, though slightly less than Lululemon, the yoga and athletic apparel chain, where sales staff earn about $12 an hour. The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount…

“It’s interesting to ask why we find it offensive that Wal-Mart pays a single mother $9 an hour, but we don’t find it offensive that Apple pays a young man $12 an hour,” Mr. Osterman said. “For each company, the logic is the same — there is a line of people eager to take the job. In effect, we’re saying that our value judgments depend on the circumstances of the employee, not just supply and demand of the labor market.”

I find two things very interesting from the quoted sections above:

1. This is a reminder that we now live in the era of the service economy. While Apple may generate tremendous profits and have a really high stock price, the majority of its jobs are low wage. This is what our economy looks like today: many jobs are relatively low-trust and low-paying and not everyone will have an opportunity to parlay it into a better, more fulfilling job. One could criticize Apple for such policies but they are hardly the only company doing this and it appears to be effective for generating profits.

2. The difference in perception between Apple and Walmart is indeed intriguing. One company has a better image than the other. Both rely on similar methods as they look for ways to make their products in a more cost effective way (though they aren’t exactly operating in the same price levels in the market – it will be some time before we see Apple computers sold at Walmart), have a number of jobs overseas (or at least their suppliers do), and are looking for ways to maximize their market share. It would be interesting to know if any of the recent reports about Apple employees in China (see this NYT story about Foxconn) has influenced people’s perceptions of Apple as well as altered their consumption habits.

This story got me thinking: what would happen if US Apple retail store workers decided to unionize and demanded better wages (perhaps even a living wage)? Apparently there is an effort underway to unionize the stores:

“People have definitely listed [pay] as a top issue,” said Moll, who started the Apple Retail Workers Union in an attempt to unionize U.S. store workers. “Because of our low wages we often can’t afford to buy the technology that we sell.”

Would Apple strongly fight these efforts and if so, how much negative attention would they receive?

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