After working for more than seven years at an Apple store in Kansas City, Mo., Gemma Wyatt ran into trouble.
Last year, she said, managers disciplined her for clocking in late a few times over the previous several weeks. Then, in February, Apple fired her after she missed a store meeting because she was sick but failed to notify managers soon enough, according to Ms. Wyatt.
She was at least the fifth Apple employee the store had fired since this fall, all of whom had been active in union organizing there. The terminations came after two other Apple stores voted to unionize.
“It took us time to realize they weren’t firing us just because of time and attendance,” said Ms. Wyatt, who is part of a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board in March accusing Apple of unfair labor practices.
Apple said it had not disciplined or fired any workers in retaliation for union activity. “We strongly deny these claims and look forward to providing the full set of facts to the N.L.R.B.,” a spokeswoman said.
A pattern of similar worker accusations — and corporate denials — has arisen at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and REI as retail workers have sought to form unions in the past two years.
Initially, the employers countered the organizing campaigns with criticism of unions and other means of dissuasion. At Starbucks, there were staffing and management changes at the local level, and top executives were dispatched. But in each case, after unionization efforts succeeded at one or two stores, workers say the companies became more aggressive.
Some labor relations experts say the companies’ progressive public profiles may help explain why they chose to hold back at the outset.
“You’re espousing these values but saying this other organization claiming the same values” — the union — “isn’t good for your work force,” said David Pryzbylski, a labor lawyer at Barnes & Thornburg who represents employers. “It puts you in a little bit of corner.”
Once the union wins a few elections, however, “you pull out all the stops,” Mr. Pryzbylski said.
In some cases, the apparent escalation of company pushback has coincided with a slowing down of the union campaigns. At Starbucks, filings for union elections fell below 10 in August, from about 70 five months earlier, and no Apple store has filed for a union election since November.
At Starbucks, the company unlawfully dismissed seven Buffalo-area employees last year, not long after the union won two elections there, according to a ruling by a federal administrative judge.
A Trader Joe’s store in Louisville, Ky., which was the third at the company to unionize, fired two employees who were supportive of the union campaign and has formally disciplined several more, according to Connor Hovey, a worker involved in the organizing. Documents shared by Mr. Hovey show the company citing a variety of issues, such as dress-code violations, tardiness and excessively long breaks.
And in advance of a recent union election at an REI near Cleveland, management sought to exclude certain categories of workers from voting, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. It said the chain, a co-op that sells recreational gear, had made no such challenge in two previous elections, in which workers voted to unionize. (The union said the company backed down after workers at the Cleveland-area store walked out, and the store voted to unionize in March.)
Jess Raimundo, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is also seeking to unionize REI stores, said the co-op formally disciplined one employee in Durham, N.C., and put another on leave and later fired him over a workplace action that took place after the workers filed for a union election last month.
Starbucks, which is appealing the ruling involving the Buffalo-area employees, has said the firings and discipline were unrelated to union organizing. A Trader Joe’s spokeswoman said the company had never disciplined an employee for seeking to unionize but that unionizing efforts didn’t exempt an employee from job responsibilities.
An REI spokeswoman said that the co-op sought to exclude certain categories of workers near Cleveland because it believed their duties made them ineligible to join a union, and that it had reached an agreement on the issue independent of the walkout. The spokeswoman said the two Durham employees had been disciplined for violations of company policies, not union activity.
Across the companies, the shift is such that some organizers look back on their union campaigns’ early days with an odd measure of nostalgia.
“Thinking about it, I wondered why they didn’t fight harder at our store,” said Maeg Yosef, a worker and organizer at a Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts that became the company’s first store to unionize last year. “They were like, ‘Oops, you won’ and certified us. It was really hard, but relatively easy compared to the things they could have done.”
The fight at Apple followed a similar trajectory. The company did not hide its suspicion of unions when workers at a U.S. store first filed for an election in April 2022, in Atlanta. Managers emphasized that employees could receive fewer promotions and less flexible hours if they unionized, and the company circulated a video of its head of retail questioning the wisdom of putting “another organization in the middle of our relationship.”
Apple’s response was similar in two other union campaigns. But unlike in Atlanta, where the union withdrew its election filing, unions went on to win elections in both subsequent cases — first in Towson, Md., in June, then in Oklahoma City in October.
According to workers, the company became more aggressive once union organizers made inroads. Around the time that employees in Oklahoma City filed for a union election in September, managers at the Kansas City store disciplined several who supported unionizing for issues related to tardiness or absences that other workers typically have not been punished for, union backers said.
Terminations began before the end of the year. D’lite Xiong, a union supporter who started at the Kansas City store in 2021 and uses gender-neutral pronouns, said they were told they were being fired just before Halloween. Mx. Xiong went on leave to buy time to appeal the decision, but was officially let go upon returning in January.
“It didn’t make sense to me — I had recently gotten promoted,” said Mx. Xiong, who speculated that the company discovered their role in union organizing after they sought to enlist co-workers. “I was praised for doing a great job.”
The Communications Workers of America, which represents Apple workers in Oklahoma and has supported workers seeking to unionize the Kansas City store, filed the unfair labor practice charge against the company over the firings in March.
John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who is an expert on anti-union campaigns, said companies often considered the potential dissatisfaction of customers, investors and even white-collar corporate employees when calibrating their response to a union campaign. “There’s something deeply threatening about the idea that you might be on the verge of losing them,” Mr. Logan said of corporate employees.
But even these considerations, he said, tend to fade once a campaign gains traction: “The overriding priority is, ‘We have to crush this.’”
Earlier this year, more than 70 Starbucks corporate employees placed their names on a petition calling on the company to stay neutral in union elections and to “respect federal labor laws.” The National Labor Relations Board has issued dozens of complaints against the company accusing it of illegal behavior, which the company denies.
Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive, was quick to push back against such accusations while testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in March, telling one senator, “I take offense with you categorizing me or Starbucks as a union-buster.”
In late April, the labor board issued a complaint accusing the company of failing to bargain in good faith at more than 100 stores.
A company spokesman attributed the delay to the union, including its insistence on broadcasting sessions using video-chat software, which could make it difficult to discuss sensitive topics.
Apple, too, appears intent on signaling that it is not hostile to labor. The company agreed this year to assess its U.S. labor practices for consistency with its human rights policy. And the company has reached tentative agreements with the union at its Towson store on a handful of issues, such as a commitment that workers at the store will receive any improvement in 401(k) benefits that nonunion retail workers at the company might receive.
Yet despite these gestures, there has been little progress on most of the union’s top noneconomic priorities, such as grievance procedures, and the company has sought broad contract provisions that could substantially weaken the union. For example, under a proposed a management-rights clause obtained by The New York Times, Apple would have wide latitude to use nonunion workers and contractors to do work performed by union members, which could shrink union membership. Labor negotiations typically start with noneconomic issues before moving to matters like wages and paid time off.
Apple did not comment on the contract negotiations, but the workers in Oklahoma City have characterized their initial bargaining sessions as “very productive.”
Mr. Pryzbylski, the lawyer who represents employers, said Apple’s preferred management-rights clause was “about as robust and aggressive as you can make it,” though he said it was not unusual for companies to seek such broad rights in their first contract.
Workers expressed frustration at the breadth of the management proposal. “Everyone from the union at the table had never seen one so long,” said Kevin Gallagher, who serves on the bargaining committee in Towson. “They basically wanted to maintain all the rights of not having a union.”
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