The recent efforts by workers at Apple and Amazon to make resounding attempts to organize represent a sort of deviation from the norm for a sector that has not faced trade unions in a long time.
“The technology industry as a whole has been opposed to unions from the beginning,” said Thomas A. Kochan, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and a member of the teaching staff at the MIT Institute for Labor and Employment Research. “Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM; “Choose a big computer company, they’re not all unions,” he said.
He described the recent pressure from workers to unite as “unprecedented”.
Warehouse and retail employees at both companies are at the forefront of union efforts. Last month, for example, New York City warehouse workers voted to create the first U.S.-recognized union in Amazon’s 27-year history, with former employee Chris Smalls leading a successful campaign that surprised both the company and workers’ leaders.
The vote showed that employees at JFK8 in Staten Island chose to join the Amazon Labor Union in an effort to improve pay and working conditions, generating enthusiasm among labor activists for the resurgent labor movement in the United States
Amazon tried to undo the result, and continues to oppose union efforts within its workforce. On Monday, employees at the second facility in New York, warehouse LDJ5, voted against unificationa failure for the organizers, who hoped to gain momentum after the early success.
Amazon is clear in its position: “Our employees have a choice whether to join a union or not,” an Amazon spokesman said in a statement. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue to make Amazon a great place to work. “
Apple, the world’s most valuable company, also faces a union. Atlanta retailers signed a petition with the National Labor Council (NLRB) last month to hold union elections, the first group of Apple workers to do so. A similar move is planned at the company’s Grand Central Store in New York, where employees are looking for a minimum pay of $ 30 per hour and improvements in working conditions.
According to a Deputy report, employees at several other stores also intend to merge; only yesterday workers at the Apple Store in Maryland have launched a union initiative.
Apple is clearly resisting these moves, reportedly hires lawyers from Littler Mendelsonwhich has helped companies like Starbucks deter reunification in the past.
Apple declined to comment on the effort, but noted existing employee benefits, including a $ 20 minimum wage: “We are happy to have amazing members of the retail team and deeply appreciate everything they bring to Apple,” the spokesman said. “We are happy to offer very strong compensation and allowances for full-time and part-time employees, including health care, fee reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual share subsidies and many other benefits.
Labor has been growing in the United States in recent months, especially at Starbucks, where workers in more than 200 stores are uniting across the country. Although overall union membership has been steadily declining for decades, from 20% of employees in 1983 to 10.3% now, according to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – attitudes towards organized labor are rising, with approval ratings at their highest level since 1965, according to a recent Gallup study.
Although there are long-standing concerns about pay and conditions, Kochan said the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst for what is happening now. “There is strong, accumulated frustration among many workers over the lack of wage growth over the years,” Kochan said. “The pandemic has just accelerated and crystallized many of these disappointments.
One continuing factor is the tight labor market, which provides greater bargaining power for workers, he said. At the same time, many companies have seen profits rise during the pandemic, especially among technology companies, leading to calls to share the benefits with all workers.
Along with store and warehouse workers, employee activism has grown among corporate office workers at several major technology companies in recent years, including unrest among Apple employees on a variety of topics, such as the alleged gender pay gap. and hybrid workplace plansand Alphabet, Google’s parent company, where a minority union was formed last year to represent full-time and contract staff.
A small group of quality assurance workers at video game maker Activision Blizzard, recently acquired by Microsoft, also formed a union to protest the termination of temporary workers’ contracts.
Companies that oppose union pressure run the risk of backlash from workers who may feel the companies are being unfair, said Brian Crop, a senior vice president and analyst at Gartner.
“The bigger problem for companies like Amazon and Apple is public perception,” Crop said. “One of the big changes we’ve seen in the last few years is the feeling that [businesses] they must treat their employees fairly, “he said.
Any harsh union reaction could lead to a boycott of service customers or a move to competitors in protest. “This is actually a greater risk than the cost of increasing the salaries of employees in places that can come together,” Krop said.
It is unclear what impact Apple and Amazon’s recent efforts will have on the wider movement of technology workers. Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse represents only a small fraction of the millions of companies in the United States, while Apple’s stores in Atlanta and Grand Central are just two of more than 270 nationwide.
“Although there is certainly a lot of talk, the number of employees is still relatively small [attempting to unionize] at this point, “said Crop. However, he notes that even a small number are remarkable.
“It was zero a few years ago,” he said.
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