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 Amazon, video game testers at Microsoft, and coders in corporate offices at places like Google. Pockets of workers disenchanted with tech companies’ handling of sensitive issues including sexual harassment and military contracts have fueled the organizing in recent years.
Tech companies have turned to playbooks typical of more traditionally unionized industries to fight back. A National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, 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 in the past had said employer-led discussions about the drawbacks if unions do not violate workers’ rights to choose what to listen to. But the board has recently changed its view after a wave of appointees 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 of Apple 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 Communication Workers of America labor group aiding the workers in those areas. The momentum, “it’s just beginning honestly,” Civick says.
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.”