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Apple hires anti-union lawyers in escalating union fight

Apple hires anti-union lawyers in escalating union fight


The move signals the company’s plans to oppose retail workers unionizing with the Communications Workers of America

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Apple is working with anti-union lawyers at Littler Mendelson in an escalating fight with retail workers in Atlanta who have filed for a union election. Though the company has not publicly stated its stance on Apple Stores unionizing, the move sends a strong signal that it plans to oppose workers organizing for better pay and working conditions. 

Littler is currently representing Starbucks in its efforts to fight off worker organizing. It previously helped McDonald’s avoid responsibility in a 2014 case that alleged the company, as a joint employer, violated labor laws by retaliating against workers who participated in the Fight for $15 campaign. 

“From the start I’ve thought unionization was a good thing,” said one current retail employee who asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak publicly about the company. “Pay is so unequal at the stores — there are people who’ve been in roles for less time making more than people who’ve worked in those same roles for years. They position themselves as a company that’s open to feedback but nobody acts on it. With a union backing the employees, they’ll be more pressure on them to actually act on it.”

Last week, Apple retail workers at the Cumberland Mall in Atlanta filed for a union election. The employees are unionizing with the Communications Workers of America. The move set off a firestorm of organizing activity at Apple Stores across the country.

“I think they’re panicking.”

“By retaining the notorious union busting firm Littler Mendelson, Apple’s management is showing that they intend to try to prevent their employees from exercising their right to join a union by running the same playbook as other large corporations,” said CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens. “The workers at Starbucks, another Littler client, aren’t falling for it and neither will the workers at Apple.”

Littler is open about its tactics to help companies avoid unions. In a handbook on worker organizing obtained by The Verge, the firm instructs companies on what they can and cannot do to dissuade workers from organizing, including telling employees to vote “no” and prohibiting the distribution of pro-union literature if it creates a “litter problem” when pamphlets are not thrown away correctly. 

The handbook explains that companies can ban union organizing during work hours. “Although working time is defined by the [National Labor Relations] Board to exclude meal and break periods, it is not necessary to specifically include this definition in a written policy so long as the term working time is used,” it reads. 

One worker at an Apple store in New York said the company has held captive audience meetings — a tactic commonly used to spread anti-union messaging during work hours. “There’s a lot of misinformation that’s been spread trying to scare the masses,” the worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job security, said. “I think they’re panicking.” 

The union fight comes after a difficult two years for retail staff who’ve had to contend with COVID-19 outbreaks and mental health crises exacerbated by heavy workloads. 

Littler also helps companies identify union activity. A handbook section on “recognizing subtle signs of union activity,” reads, “A considerable increase in the number of employee group conversations and the tendency for discussions to stop suddenly when a supervisor approaches may indicate that a union drive is in progress.” It adds, “Every work location has one or more employees who command the respect and trust of their coworkers. When those dynamics suddenly change and a new leader appears, he or she may be the primary union organizer in the company. The new leader may be the one who made the first union contact, or perhaps someone the union planted in the facility to organize the employees.”

Apple declined to comment on its relationship with Littler. In a statement, Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy said, “We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple. We are pleased to offer very strong compensation and benefits for full time and part time employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits.”