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Sunday, April 14, 2024

An Apple Store Worker Is the New Face of US Labor Law Reform

In the weeks before Apple Store employees in Oklahoma City voted on whether to unionize last October, managers walked a couple of them at a time to a ghostly empty storefront at the mall. Around a table under spotlight-like illumination, a manager or two and an Apple human resources staffer offered takeout from Panera and Chick-fil-A and told spooky stories about how a union would ruin workers’ relationships with their bosses. “That, essentially, we would lose the ability to actually be able to talk to the managers,” says Kirsten Civick, a technical expert at Apple’s Oklahoma City store who sat in at least three of these sessions.

Apple’s goal with those allegedly mandatory briefings was clear: to dissuade employees from voting to unionize. The legality of its method? Ambiguous. What Apple and many employers regard as informational lunch ‘n’ learns have been described by union activists and a key US official as captive audience meetings that amount to illegal coercion. “It was just like six weeks of solid union-busting roundtables, which were scheduled throughout the day,” Civick says. Customer queues back at the store lengthened in the meantime, she says.

“For me and a lot of my other coworkers, it was the worst six weeks to work at Apple,” says the five-year veteran—a particularly notable comparison at a store where she and other workers complain they have sometimes been made to clean up leaking sewage. 

Civick’s store ultimately voted 56-32 to unionize, despite the company’s tactics, and she is now working with labor-friendly members of Congress to pass a law that would limit strategies like those Apple used in Oklahoma City. It would ban bosses from forcing workers to listen to anti-union spiels, along with other legal changes that help unionization campaigns.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act has passed the House of Representatives twice since 2020, but the Senate has failed to advance the measure. Civick spoke today alongside Democratic Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and other lawmakers at a press conference marking the reintroduction of the proposal. The bill also has a Republican sponsor, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick.

“The PRO Act is more than just labor reform—it’s a civil rights necessity,” Schumer says in a statement. “This legislation empowers marginalized workers—women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.”

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Business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce say provisions of the PRO Act would undermine worker rights and destabilize the economy. Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Last month, the company wrote in a regulatory filing that it is planning to assess its compliance with US workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.

The PRO Act’s third time around looks even less favorable in a Congress where Democrats, who are traditionally more union-friendly, no longer control the House and hold only a narrow majority in the Senate. Civick is undeterred. “I don’t want other people to have to go through the intimidation and the fear-mongering that Apple tried to put us through,” she says. 

The percentage of US workers represented by a union has fallen for decades, down to 10 percent last year. But unions have recently scored wins in tech, drawing in the retail clerks at Apple, warehouse workers at Amazonvideo game testers at Microsoft, and coders in corporate offices at places like Google. Pockets of workers disenchanted with tech companies’ handling of sensitive issues that include sexual harassment and military contracts have fueled organizing in recent years.

Tech companies have turned to playbooks typical of more traditionally unionized industries to fight back. A National Labor Relations Board regional office said in December that it is pursuing a case over allegations that Apple unfairly interfered with unionizing at an Atlanta store through captive audience meetings, interrogations of employees, and other coercive tactics. A hearing is scheduled for April. Employees ultimately withdrew plans for a vote in Atlanta last year.

The NLRB had said in the past that employer-led discussions about the drawbacks of unions do not violate workers’ rights to choose what to listen to. But the board has recently changed its view following a wave of appointments by the Biden administration, including General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, the agency’s top bureaucrat, who wrote a memo last April calling captive sessions illegal.

The PRO Act is an attempt to lock more union-friendly policies into law to prevent a future administration or NLRB reversing Biden-era rulings. Beyond addressing captive audience meetings, the legislation would set a new standard for defining independent contractors, which could affect many tech companies; require all union members to pay dues; and allow new forms of strike. It would also hold executives accountable for violations of workers’ rights and let workers sue employers if the NLRB fails to prosecute their case. Other provisions broadly aim to limit the power of employers in influencing the outcome of organizing.

Civick says that before considering unionizing, she and her colleagues repeatedly raised concerns to managers but won little change. Their requests included greater wage increases for long-tenured employees and pay boosts for workers whose multilingual skills prove valuable with customers.

Most urgently, they asked Apple to rid their store’s backroom—where repairs happen, lunch breaks are had, and inventory is stored—of its awful stench. The area has flooded with sewage multiple times over the years, Civick says, and she has personally helped clean the mess a couple of times. Mall operator Simon Property Group did not respond to a request for comment.

The Oklahoma City store was the second Apple location to unionize, following one in Towson, Maryland, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. Several other stores—including in Des Moines, Iowa, and New York City—have discussed unionizing, according to the Communications Workers of America labor group aiding the workers in those areas. The momentum, “it’s just beginning, honestly,” Civick says. (Disclosure: The WIRED Union, of which I am a member, is a unit of the NewsGuild of New York, whose parent organization is the CWA.)

The PRO Act requires mediation and arbitration to help settle contract disputes, but it may not solve every problem for Civick and other workers. The Oklahoma City union is still waiting for Apple to schedule bargaining sessions to thrash out their first contract. Companies sometimes hope that stalling will weaken support for a newly formed union or cause it to dissolve altogether. Civick says that will not happen at her store. “We’re still completely overworked and understaffed, and there’s not been much movement on Apple’s side to improve either of those conditions.”

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