Is Apple violating workers' rights under the garb of confidentiality?

Apple’s workplace policies "interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees," the National Labor Relations Board found
Let them organize.
Let them organize.
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Apple’s C-suite is having a chilling effect on employees.

Prosecutors at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that “various work rules, handbook rules, and confidentiality rules” imposed by Apple “tend to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees” from exercising their rights to collective action, an NLRB spokesperson said on Monday (Jan. 31), according to a Bloomberg report.

Some of Apple’s statements and conduct amount to violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the agency found. The original complaint, brought to the NLRB by an ex-employee, cited as an example a September 2021 email to employees from Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. In the email, Cook wrote that “people who leak confidential information do not belong here,” after two pieces of information from an internal meeting—frequently testing unvaccinated employees and details of a legal battle against Epic Games—leaked to the press.

In the midst of such suppressive subtext, the NLRB argued, workers will be reluctant to confront their employer or take issues to the media or the government. Unless Apple settles, the NLRB will issue a complaint against the company.

A brief timeline of (anti-)unionizing efforts at Apple

April 2022: In a memo, Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s general counsel, describes mandatory meetings, in which employees are forced to listen to an employer speak about their labor rights, as a violation of the NLRA. Simultaneously, the Apple Store in Atlanta’s Cumberland Mall becomes the first location to file for a union election.

May 2022: The union Communications Workers of America (CWA) files an unfair labor practices report against Apple, accusing the company of holding mandatory meetings at its Cumberland Mall location to discourage union membership. Apple’s retail chief, Deirdre O’Brien, tells workers about the drawbacks of unionizing in a video address. The Atlanta store withdraws its application to unionize, citing intimidation. On the brighter side, Apple boosts starting pay from $20 to $22 per hour for US workers.

June 2022: Employees in an Apple Store in Towson, Maryland become the first group to unionize at the company.

September 2022: Several shareholders call on Apple to commission an independent, third-party assessment of its adherence to its stated commitment to workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.

October 2022: The CWA files an unfair labor practices charge alleging that Apple managers in Oklahoma spoke against unionizing, threatened to withhold benefits, and engaged in unlawful surveillance and interrogations. Workers at another Apple Store in Oklahoma City eventually vote to unionize, making it the second store to do so. Meanwhile, a complaint from the NLRB claims Apple tried to stifle unionizing efforts at its World Trade Center store in New York by hosting anti-union meetings and prohibiting flyers in a break room.

November 2022: The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the group that represents Apple’s unionized staff in Maryland, drops its petition to represent employees at the St. Louis Galleria Mall Apple Store in Missouri, blaming hostility on the company’s end.

December 2022: The NLRB’s regional director for Atlanta finds merit in allegations of captive audience meetings, coercive statements, and interrogation—all part of Apple’s union-busting tactics.

January 2023: Apple says it plans to “conduct an assessment on Apple’s efforts to comply with its Human Rights Policy as it relates to workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights” in the US by the end of this calendar year.

Quotable: Apple should respect worker’s rights

“Approval of unions has reached its highest point in nearly 60 years, and workers across the country are unionizing at incredible rates—it’s long past time that companies like Apple end their antiquated union-busting tactics. It is both hypocritical and unethical for our nation’s richest company to have a Human Rights Policy that commits to supporting workers’ freedom of association but then interferes in union activities.”

Mark Levine, Manhattan Borough president

Person of interest: Ashley Gjovik

The NLRB’s prosecutors were acting on a case brought by Ashley Gjovik, an ex-employee, who claims she was fired after raising “workplace safety issues, corporate corruption, and unlawful surveillance of employees,” she told Quartz in 2021.

“My hope is that for the first time Apple is told by the government that this culture of secrecy is not OK,” Gjovik told Bloomberg. “I also hope that this sends shockwaves through other corporations that even Apple can be held accountable.”

Apple’s unions are struggling

The Penn Square Labor Alliance, which won the vote to organize in Oklahama, said on Jan. 27 that Apple didn’t give the union a seat at the bargaining table when announcing changes to its covid policy.

“While we’re disappointed by the continued dismissiveness of our legally protected rights, we have submitted a request to bargain with so that we may be an example of following the proper channels and allowing the opportunity to meet us at the bargaining table in accordance with their promised commitment to respect the results of our election,” the union said.

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