Workers say companies are taking a tougher line on union organizers

Gemma White stands outside the Apple Store at the Country Club Plaza Shopping Center in Kansas City, Mo. , on May 11, 2023. (Dominick Williams / The New York Times)

After working for more than seven years at an Apple Store in Kansas City, Missouri, Gemma White has run into a problem.

Last year, she said, managers penalized her for signing in late several times over the previous several weeks. Then, in February, Apple fired her after she missed an in-store meeting because she was sick but failed to notify managers soon enough, according to Watt.

She was at least the fifth Apple employee to be fired by the store since this fall, and all of them have been active in union organizing there. The terminations came after two other Apple Stores voted to unionize.

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“It took us time to realize they didn’t fire us just for time and show,” said White, who is part of an accusation filed with the National Labor Relations Board in March accusing Apple of unfair labor practices.

Apple said it did not punish or fire any workers in retaliation for union activity. “We strongly deny these allegations and look forward to providing the NLRB with a full set of facts,” a company spokesperson said.

A pattern of similar worker accusations – and corporate denials – has emerged at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and REI as retail workers have sought to unionize in the past two years.

At first, employers faced organized campaigning with criticism of unions and other means of disinformation. At Starbucks, there have been staffing and management changes at the local level, and senior executives have been dispatched. But workers say that in each case, after union efforts succeeded in one or two stores, companies became more aggressive.

Some labor relations experts say companies’ progressive profiles may help explain why they chose to back off in the first place.

“You espouse these values ​​but you say that this other organization claiming the same values” — the union — “isn’t good for your workforce,” said David Pryzbylski, a Barnes & Thornburg labor attorney who represents the employers. “This puts you in a bit of trouble.”

Once the union wins some elections, Przebylski said, “it will pull out all the hurdles.”

In some cases, the apparent escalation of corporate resistance coincided with a slowdown in union campaigning. At Starbucks, filings for union elections fell to less than 10 in August, from about 70 five months ago, and no Apple store has filed for union elections since November.

At Starbucks, the company illegally fired seven employees in the Buffalo, New York, area last year, shortly after the union won two elections there, according to a ruling by a federal administrative judge.

The Trader Joe’s store in Louisville, Kentucky, which was the company’s third to unionize, said Connor Hovey, a worker involved in organizing, fired two employees who were supportive of the union’s campaign and formally disciplined several others. Documents shared by Hovey show the company citing a variety of issues, such as dress code violations, delays, and excessively long breaks.

And ahead of a recent union election at REI near Cleveland, management sought to exclude certain classes of workers from voting, according to the retail, wholesale, and department store union. She said the chain, a co-operative that sells recreational equipment, had not offered such a challenge in two previous elections, where workers voted to unionize. (The union said the company backed out after workers walked out at the Cleveland-area store, and the store voted to unionize in March.)

Jess Raimundo, a spokesman for United Food and Business Workers, which is also seeking to unionize REI stores, said the co-op formally disciplined one employee in Durham, North Carolina, and placed another on leave and subsequently fired from his workplace. It happened after workers ran for union elections last month.

Starbucks, which is appealing the ruling regarding Buffalo-area employees, said the firings and discipline had nothing to do with union organizing. A Trader Joe’s spokesperson said the company never punished an employee for seeking to unionize, but that union efforts did not relieve the employee of the responsibilities of the job.

An REI spokesperson said the co-operation sought to exclude certain categories of workers near Cleveland because it believed their duties made them ineligible to unionize, and that it reached agreement on the issue independently of the strike. The spokesperson said two Durham employees had been disciplined for violating company policies, not union activity.

Across companies, the shift has been such that some organizers look back on the early days of their union campaigns with an eerie measure of nostalgia.

“Thinking about it, I wondered why they didn’t fight so hard in our store,” said Maeg Yosef, a worker and organizer at Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts who became the company’s first store to unionize last year. “They were like, ‘Oops, you win,’ and it’s a testament to us. It was really hard, but relatively easy compared to the things they could have done.”

The battle at Apple followed a similar path. The company made no secret of its suspicions of unionization when workers at a US department store first filed for elections in April 2022 in Atlanta. Managers asserted that employees could receive fewer promotions and less flexible hours if they unionized, and the company distributed a video of the head of retail questioning the wisdom of putting “another organization in the middle of our relationship.”

Apple’s response has been similar in two other union campaigns. But although the union withdrew its electoral file in Atlanta, the unions won the election in both of the following instances—first in Towson, Maryland, in June, and then in Oklahoma City in October.

According to the workers, the company became more aggressive once the union organizers had inroads. As employees in Oklahoma City filed for union elections in September, managers at the Kansas City store disciplined several who supported unions over issues of tardiness or absences for which other workers were not penalized, union supporters said.

Terminations began before the end of the year. D’lite Xiong, a union supporter who started a Kansas City store in 2021 and uses gender-neutral pronouns, said he was told he was fired just before Halloween. The Xiong went on leave to buy time to appeal the decision, but they were officially let go upon their return in January.

“It just didn’t make sense to me — I recently got a promotion,” said Xiong, who speculated that the company discovered its role in union organizing after it sought to recruit co-workers. “I have been commended for doing an amazing job.”

Communications Workers of America, which represents Apple workers in Oklahoma and supported workers seeking to unionize at the Kansas City store, filed a charge of unfair labor practice against the company over its firings in March.

John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University and an expert on anti-union campaigning, said companies often consider the potential dissatisfaction of customers, investors and even corporate white-collar employees when calibrating their response to a union campaign.

“Something is so menacing to the idea that you might be about to lose them,” Logan said of the company’s employees.

But even these considerations, he said, tend to fade once the campaign gains momentum: “The overriding priority is ‘we have to crush this.'”

This year, more than 70 Starbucks employees put their names in a petition calling for the company to remain neutral in union elections and to “respect federal labor laws.” The National Labor Relations Board issued dozens of complaints against the company accusing it of illegal behavior, which the company denied.

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, was quick to respond to such accusations while testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in March, telling a senator, “I have offended you by designating me or Starbucks as a union attacker.” “.

In late April, the Works Council issued a complaint accusing the company of failing to bargain in good faith in more than 100 stores.

A company spokesperson attributed the delay to the union, including its insistence that the sessions be broadcast using video chat software, which could make it difficult to discuss sensitive topics.

Apple also seems intent on pointing out that it is not anti-labor. This year, the company agreed to evaluate its labor practices in the United States to comply with its human rights policy. The company has reached tentative agreements with the union at its Towson store on a handful of issues, such as a commitment that workers in the store will receive any improvements in 401(k) benefits that non-union retail workers at the company may receive.

However, despite these gestures, there has been little progress on most of the union’s non-economic priorities, such as grievance procedures, and the company has pursued broad contractual provisions that could significantly weaken the union. For example, under a proposed management rights provision obtained by The New York Times, Apple would have ample scope to use non-union workers and contractors to do work performed by union members, potentially curtailing union membership. Business negotiations typically begin with non-economic issues before moving on to issues such as wages and paid vacation.

Apple has not commented on contract negotiations, but workers in Oklahoma City have described their initial negotiation sessions as “very productive.”

Apple’s preferred management rights clause was “as strong and firm as you can make it,” said Przebylski, the attorney representing the employers, though he said it was not unusual for companies to seek such broad rights in their first contract.

Workers expressed frustration with the breadth of management’s proposal. “Everyone from the union sitting at the table hasn’t seen one in a long time,” said Kevin Gallagher, who serves on the negotiating committee in Towson. “They basically wanted to keep all the rights because there was no union.”

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