The percentage of U.S. workers represented by a union has fallen for decades, falling to 10 percent last year. But unions have scored recent victories in tech, with Apple retail clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, Microsoft video game testers and coders in corporate offices like Google. Pockets of employee resentment over tech companies’ handling of sensitive issues, including sexual harassment and military contracts, have dogged the company in recent years.
To fight back, tech companies have turned to playbooks familiar to traditionally unionized industries. A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, said in December it was pursuing a lawsuit alleging that Apple unfairly interfered with a union at an Atlanta store through captive meetings, employee inquiries and other coercive tactics. A hearing is scheduled for April. Workers finally canceled plans to vote in Atlanta last year.
The NLRB has previously held discussions about the harms of employer-led negotiations that unions must hear if they do not violate their right to vote. But the board changed its stance after a wave of Biden administration appointees, including the agency’s top bureau chief, General Abruzzo, wrote a memo last April calling the detention sessions illegal.
The PRO Act is an attempt to lock into law the NLRB’s more union-friendly policies that would prevent a future administration or reverse Biden-era decisions. In addition to addressing closed-audience meetings, the law also sets new standards for identifying independent contractors that could hurt many tech companies. Make all union members pay dues; and allow new types of strikes. It also holds executives accountable for violations of workers’ rights, and allows workers to sue employers if the NLRB fails to prosecute their cases. Other provisions are broadly aimed at limiting employers’ power to influence organizing outcomes.
The Civic of Apple said she and her colleagues repeatedly raised their concerns with administrators before considering forming a union, but to no avail. Their proposal includes significant pay increases for long-serving employees and pay increases for employees who demonstrate that their multilingual skills are valuable to customers.
Most immediately, they asked Apple to clean the back of their store—where maintenance, lunch breaks, and inventory are kept—of the stench. The area has been inundated with sewage for years, Civic said, and she has personally helped clean up the mess twice. Mall operator Simon Property Group did not respond to a request for comment.
The Oklahoma City store is the second Apple location represented by the International Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union in Towson, Maryland. Several other stores in Des Moines, Iowa and New York City have discussed unionization, according to the Communications Workers of America group, which assists workers in those areas. The momentum, says Civic, is “really just getting started.”
The PRO Act requires mediation and arbitration to help resolve contractual disputes, but may not resolve all of the civic and other employee concerns. The Oklahoma City union is still waiting for Apple to negotiate a deal to break the original contract. Companies sometimes hope that a standstill will weaken support for the newly formed union or cause it to break up entirely. Civic says that won’t happen at her store. “We’re still completely overworked and understaffed, and there hasn’t been much movement on Apple’s part to improve either situation.”