(Bloomberg) — Comments by Apple Inc. executives and policies imposed on employees have been deemed illegal by US National Labor Relations Board prosecutors, who say they violate workers’ rights.
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The NLRB general counsel’s office has determined that “various work rules, handbook rules, and confidentiality rules” imposed by the tech giant “tend to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees” from exercising their rights to collective action, spokesperson Kayla Blado said Monday.
In addition, she said, the agency “found merit to a charge alleging statements and conduct by Apple — including high-level executives — also violated the National Labor Relations Act.” Unless Apple settles, the board’s regional director will issue a complaint against the Cupertino, California-based company, Blado said in an email.
The agency’s investigations stemmed from cases brought in 2021 by former employees Ashley Gjovik and Cher Scarlett. Scarlett accused the company of maintaining work rules that “prohibit employees from discussing wages, hours, or other terms or conditions of employment.” Gjovik’s filings alleged that an email Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook sent pledging to punish leakers, as well as a set of policies in Apple’s employee handbook, violated federal law.
Gjovik cited policies restricting staff from disclosing “business information,” talking to reporters, revealing co-workers’ compensation or posting impolite tweets.
In his all-staff email, sent in September 2021, Cook wrote that “people who leak confidential information do not belong here.” Cook’s message said that Apple was “doing everything in our power to identify those who leaked” and that it didn’t “tolerate disclosures of confidential information, whether it’s product IP or the details of a confidential meeting.”
His email followed media reports about a companywide internal meeting the prior week at which management fielded questions about topics such as pay equity and Texas’ anti-abortion law.
Apple didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday on the NLRB’s finding.
At a hearing earlier this month, company attorney Jason Stanevich said, “Apple fosters an open and inclusive work environment whereby employees are not just permitted, but encouraged, to share their feelings and thoughts on a range of issues, from social justice topics to pay equity to anything else that they feel is an important cause to promote in the workplace.”
US labor law protects workers’ rights to communicate with one another and engage in collective action about workplace issues. Complaints issued by NLRB prosecutors are reviewed by administrative law judges, whose rulings can be appealed to labor board members in Washington — and, from there, to federal court. The agency lacks the ability to impose punitive damages or hold executives personally liable for violations, but can order companies to change workplace policies.
Apple, the world’s most valuable company, has faced an unusual wave of public dissent in recent years among its white collar staff, as well as unprecedented organizing campaigns by retail employees, who voted to unionize last year in Maryland and Oklahoma. NLRB prosecutors in recent months have also found merit in claims that Apple illegally coerced workers at its retail stores in Atlanta and New York City, where some employees were seeking to unionize. The company has denied wrongdoing.
Gjovik, a senior engineering program manager, was fired by Apple in September 2021 after filing complaints with several state and federal agencies. In documents shared by Gjovik, Apple claimed she was terminated for violating policies such as the disclosure of confidential product information.
Gjovik has said that her disclosures were legally protected and that she was fired in retaliation for her prior complaints, which alleged that — after voicing fears about workplace health hazards — she was harassed, humiliated and asked not to tell co-workers about her concerns.
“My hope is that for the first time Apple is told by the government that this culture of secrecy is not OK,” Gjovik said Monday. “I also hope that this sends shockwaves through other corporations that even Apple can be held accountable.”
(Updates with additional NLRB comment starting in second paragraph)
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