Wednesday, December 7

‘Ready to claim their power’: Apple, Amazon facing emboldened labour movement after key inroads

Union organizers say the movement gaining momentum at big tech companies is just the beginning

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The labour movement is gaining momentum at big tech companies, with an Apple Inc. store voting to unionize Friday and unrest spreading through Inc. distribution sites in Southern California. Organizers say it’s just the beginning.

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Long seen as invulnerable to unions, Apple saw its staff in Oklahoma City vote overwhelmingly to join the Communications Workers of America, becoming the second store to unionize among the company’s roughly 270 US outlets. Amazon workers, meanwhile, walked off the job Friday in San Bernardino, California — the kind of workplace mobilization that used to be all but unheard of at the e-retailer, but became increasingly common during the pandemic.

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Amazon faces an important test on Tuesday when the US National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to tally votes for an election at a warehouse near Albany, New York.

Labour activists are taking the fight to other tech giants as well. A CWA affiliate organizing at Google filed the latest in a series of NLRB complaints this month accusing the Alphabet Inc. unit of violating the rights of its subcontracted staff. But the unionization at Apple’s stores — with their gleaming designs and prominent locations — could become one of the most high-profile symbols of labour inroads in the tech world.

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“For decades, the modern retail industry has been entirely immune to even the most tentative unionizing impulse,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labour historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Now that is changing.”

Apple, the world’s most valuable company, has been increasing pay and adding new benefits in the face of the unionization efforts. In May, Apple boosted its national minimum retail wage to US$22 an hour. Just this past week, the company announced a suite of new benefits, but told its unionized employees they wouldn’t be receiving the perks without negotiating first.

An employee cleans iPhones at an Apple Store in San Francisco.
An employee cleans iPhones at an Apple Store in San Francisco. Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The CWA, which represents workers in industries ranging from media and tech to airlines and health care, alleged that Apple also held a slew of anti-union meetings in the run-up to the election. Management threatened staff, the CWA said in a complaint with the NLRB, and said that organizing would be futile.

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But when the NLRB counted ballots Friday night, it wasn’t close: Fifty-six workers supported the union, with 32 voting against it. The CWA is now poised to negotiate on behalf of the staff, whose store is located in Oklahoma City’s upscale Penn Square Mall. The first Apple store to unionize was in Towson, Maryland, last June, and those workers helped advise the Oklahoma City location on how to handle the election.

In response to Friday’s vote, Apple said it believed that an “open, direct and collaborative relationship” with employees was the best way to serve customers and the workers themselves.

“We’re proud to provide our team members with strong compensation and exceptional benefits,” the Cupertino, California-based company said. “Since 2018, we’ve increased our starting rates in the US by 45 per cent and we’ve made many significant enhancements to our industry-leading benefits, including new educational and family support programs.”

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The company has made its opposition to unions clear. Apple warned against putting “another organization in the middle of our relationship” in a spring video message to employees. In that address, senior vice president Deirdre O’Brien described a union as “an organization that doesn’t have a deep understanding of Apple or our business, and most importantly, one that I do not believe shares our commitment to you.”

Money is no match for workers who are ready to claim their power

Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer, CWA

The CWA describes Apple’s response as intimidation, comparing it to moves by Starbucks Corp. and Amazon to push back on unionization.

“Workers are seeing these tactics for what they are — desperate attempts to prevent them from having a real say in their working conditions,” CWA secretary-treasurer Sara Steffens said in a statement. “Money is no match for workers who are ready to claim their power.”

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Apple retail workers will continue to organize across the country, she said, “especially after this momentous victory.” It’s not clear which Apple store could be next to attempt an election. A vote at a store in Atlanta was scrapped, with the union claiming that pressure from Apple prevented a fair election. Locations in New York City also could be key battlegrounds.

Wage push

At Amazon, management is contending with union campaigns around the country. In recent days, workers at a warehouse in Moreno Valley, California — about 20 miles from the San Bernardino site — filed paperwork to join the upstart Amazon Labor Union.

Workers at a Staten Island warehouse in New York voted in April to join the union, but the company is seeking to overturn the results. The union lost a subsequent election at a smaller facility nearby.

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In this file photo taken on April 24, 2022, Amazon Labor Union leader Christian Smalls speaks during a rally.
In this file photo taken on April 24, 2022, Amazon Labor Union leader Christian Smalls speaks during a rally. Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Dozens of workers at the San Bernardino facility — an air hub — participated in the one-day strike Friday, demanding better working conditions and raises of US$5 per hour. Carrying signs and chanting “living wages now,” they marched in front of the facility, which employs more than 1,500 people. Many of the workers at the site load and unload cargo planes.

Workers said they gave Amazon an Oct. 10 deadline to increase starting wages to about US$22 per hour. Daniel Rivera, 28, who participated in the strike, said he received a US$1 per hour raise in September that pushed his hourly earnings to US $18.50.

“Even with the dollar raise, it’s not a livable wage for us,” he said. Amazon workers at facilities near Atlanta and Chicago staged similar protests earlier in the week demanding better pay.

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Amazon said wages at its US facilities range from US$16 to US$26 an hour depending on position and location. Employee benefits include medical coverage and 401(k) retirement plans, the company said in a statement.

“While we are always listening and working on ways to improve the experience, we’re proud to offer compensation packages that not only include great pay, but also provide comprehensive benefits for regular full-time employees,” spokeswoman Mary Kate Paradis said Friday.

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Tech companies aren’t the only ones facing an emboldened labour movement. At Starbucks, union activists turned an initial victory in Buffalo, New York, into hundreds of successful votes around the country — illustrating just how galvanizing a win can be. The labour movement also has scored victories at Trader Joe’s and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., other chains that had seemed off-limits before.

Those wins represent landmark events for the long-shrinking US labour movement, even if securing actual collective bargaining agreements may be months or years from happening.

Patrick Hart, a leader in the Apple campaign in Oklahoma City, said he’s now eager to advise other company stores on how to organize.

“I want this to become a labour movement,” he said. “We’re going to be that catalyst for people.”



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