Union efforts at Google and Apple are the shape of labor to come

September 10, 2021, 8:06 PM UTC
In 2018, Google workers staged a walkout over sexual harassment claims.
Mason Trinca—Getty Images

One would be hard-pressed to name many employers with stronger reputations over the past two decades than Apple or Google.

The two iconic brands placed third (Apple) and ninth (Google parent company, Alphabet) in the latest Fortune 500 rankings. Google has been a frequent fixture on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list, and was even in the top spot in 2017, and Apple has topped Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies list every year since 2007.

But both have seen a contingent of workers organize and announce a union this year, in hopes of creating a better workplace, and in response to allegations of unethical managerial behavior. The Alphabet Workers Union made its announcement in January, in the wake of the firing of an A.I. ethics researcher. Apple workers announced theirs in August, calling themselves Apple Too.

“It’s time to think different,” the Apple Too home page says, a nod to the company’s famous marketing slogan. Many current and former Apple employees have shared their experiences using the #AppleToo hashtag.

The goal of these organizing efforts is to give employees a voice in major company decisions around workplace equity, the clients they work with, return-to-office plans, and to hold managers and executives to account.

“When we press for accountability and redress to the persistent injustices we witness or experience in our workplace, we are faced with a pattern of isolation, degradation, and gaslighting,” the Apple Too website said. 

They described this as “a reality faced disproportionately by our Black, Indigenous, and other colleagues from minoritized racial, gender, and historically marginalized groups of people.”

The Alphabet Workers Union is not seeking certification through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), instead hoping to use its collective power to advocate for a better workplace. The Apple organizing group has not yet made a decision on its exact next steps on this front.

Though labor organizing has come up at Apple in the past, the latest effort was sparked by a controversial hire in May, followed by the announcement that employees would be required to come into the office three days a week, a concession from CEO Tim Cook after initially resisting a continuation of remote work. Apple employees banded together to advocate for a more flexible remote-work policy.

Through her involvement in these two efforts, Apple software engineer Cher Scarlett learned that hundreds of current and former colleagues had experiences of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. In many cases internal leadership, including HR, was not willing to take action to fix these problems.

“I didn’t recognize how worried people were to say how they feel about workplace issues,” Scarlett told Fortune. She added that she started getting reported to company security for leaking data.

Apple leadership also closed down Slack channels and told employees not to speak with Scarlett or engage in any of the pay transparency surveys that were being circulated by her and other worker groups.

Scarlett said she likes her job and has liked working at Apple, but the situation reminds her of Blizzard, the gaming company she worked at previously that is embroiled in its own reckoning around toxic work culture.

“It feels like a reckless display of unchecked power, like they actually think that they’re untouchable, that they can say these things to employees and that it doesn’t matter that it’s illegal because they’re Apple,” Scarlett said. “That’s how it feels as an employee who’s trying to help other employees exercise their rights and get help.”

The NLRB is now investigating two charges against Apple, including one filed by Scarlett, who has been on paid administrative leave since August, according to Reuters

“I don’t think it’s any one individual. I think it’s a machine at work,” Scarlett said.

Amazon, another major company that has seen a big union push, also caught the attention of the Biden administration with its suppression tactics. An NLRB officer recently recommended a re-vote of a union election in Alabama due to tampering by Amazon. Google, a division of Alphabet, is also clashing with the NLRB around its employees’ right to protest the company’s choice of clients, with Google claiming that they do not have that right.

“A reasonable case can be made that we may be looking at a more extended period where workers have greater power,” Arindrajit Dube, a labor economist and professor at the University of Massachusetts, told the Guardian.

In addition to a Labor Department under Joe Biden that might be stricter than that of any previous administration, workers appear to be more aware of their right to organize and more willing to use that right than ever before in recent history. The fact that this is happening at leading tech companies should be an eye opener for board and C-suite leaders.

“The time has come for a permanent transition in the way organizations treat their most valuable resource, the people,” Victoria Grady, a management professor at George Mason University, told Fortune. “My suggestion to leadership, at all levels, is not to wait until the employees establish a movement that requires a reaction but instead proactively create an organization that represents the new ‘normal’ for the future.”

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