Apple may have crossed a crucial line in the sand in its dance to squash budding unions.
The National Labour Relations Board on Tuesday reportedly filed a complaint against Apple accusing the tech giant of illegally intimidating and discriminating against employees at a New York City retail store. The official complaint follows months of allegations of interference and intimidation from workers in at least three Apple stores nationwide.
First reported by Bloomberg, the filing accuses Apple of prohibiting workers from placing pro-union materials in a store’s break room while simultaneously letting employees hand out non-union solicitations. The complaint reportedly bears out two allegations lodged earlier this year by the Communication Workers of America which claimed Apple interrogated employees at its World Trade Centre location about their support for unions and forced them to attend anti-union presentations. Those complaints came within weeks of similar union-busting allegations at an Apple store in Atlanta.
Apple did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment but disputed the NLRB’s complaint in a statement sent to Bloomberg.
“We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple,” Apple said on Tuesday. “We regularly communicate with our teams and always want to ensure everyone’s experience at Apple is the best it can be.”
“It is past time for Apple’s senior management to respect its retail employees and stop its unlawful and heavy-handed attempts to prevent them from forming unions,” CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens said in a statement to Gizmodo. “The NLRB has made it clear that it will hold tech corporations like Apple liable when they break labour law and violate the rights of workers. Apple has a choice – does it want to be known for intimidating its workers and creating a culture of fear or does it want to live up to its stated values and welcome true collaboration with all of its employees – including retail workers.”
The NLRB did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
This week’s NLRB complaint represents some of the clearest evidence yet of Apple’s increasingly open anti-union behaviour amid a period of growing mobilisation within its retail stores. Union talks at Apple retail stores date back to at least February when reports emerged suggesting several workplaces successfully obtained backing from major unions. Amongst other areas of concern, workers at those locations are reportedly unsatisfied with wages that haven’t kept up with inflation at one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Though union membership rates nationwide dipped last year and are generally caught in a downward spiral compared to 20th-century highs, those same trends don’t necessarily track within tech. Across the industry, 12 new unions emerged last year along with 69 reported instances of collective action according to data from the group Collective Action in Tech.
That momentum carried over to 2022. Amazon workers in a Staten Island fulfillment centre became the company’s first workforce to unionize at the company despite aggressive, ruthless tactics to crush it. Just months later, Apple retail workers in Maryland voted to form the first union in that company’s history. Now an Apple store in Oklahoma is looking to follow suit. Each of these cases, while written off by Amazon and Apple as mere one-offs, has nonetheless set the spark for what organisers hoped could amount to a tech labour wildfire. They’ve also had the secondary effect of making some large firms like Microsoft release statements seemingly softening their stance towards potential unions.
That feeling when you form the first union at Apple in America. Congrats, @acoreunion!
— Machinists Union (@MachinistsUnion) June 19, 2022
Other tech giants like Apple and Amazon haven’t shown much interest in easing up already hot tensions with unionizing workers. Just this week Amazon reportedly suspended around 50 of its night shift warehouse workers who refused to work the previous day after a cardboard compactor allegedly caught fire. The impacted workers, who were suspended with pay indefinitely while Amazon conducts an investigation, worried lingering smoke wafting through the warehouse could pose a health risk.
“We were getting first-hand reports about both smoke and water flowing in response to the fire itself,” The Amazon Labour Union said in a statement. “And when workers demanded the right to speak together as a union, Amazon then increased their intimidation by informing us that key worker leaders have now been suspended for doing exactly what workers voted for, coming together to make a plan that we as frontline workers felt safe on the job.
Amazon has suspended over 50 workers who were involved in last night’s walkout. It was not a “handful.” It was nearly everybody involved in the action. This is clear retaliation against workers who refused to work in safe conditions. #alu pic.twitter.com/CuRN13LX0A
— Amazon Labor Union (@amazonlabor) October 5, 2022
So far, Apple’s managed to walk an anti-Union tightrope. On the one hand, they’ve clearly signalled their preference for a non-unionized workforce but have also so far managed to present those preferences without the same level of Monopoly Man-style absurdity deployed by Amazon. More complaints from the NLRB and other authorities documenting aggressive conduct however could complicate the company’s relatively cautious image.