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Apple Atlanta Workers Drop Bid for Union Vote Next Week, Claiming Intimidation

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(Bloomberg) -- The labor group trying to organize Apple Inc. employees at an Atlanta store is withdrawing its request for an election, citing what it alleges are illegal union-busting tactics by the company.

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The Communications Workers of America said it took the step “because Apple’s repeated violations of the National Labor Relations Act have made a free and fair election impossible,” according to an emailed statement Friday. The labor group also cited Covid-19 infections among staff at the store, located at the city’s Cumberland Mall, which it said “have raised concerns about the ability of eligible employees to vote and the safety of in-person voting.”

“Apple has conducted a systematic, sophisticated campaign to intimidate them and interfere with their right to form a union,” the CWA said. Under NLRB rules, a union’s choice to withdraw from an election generally means the vote is canceled and the union would have to wait at least six months before petitioning again to represent the same group of workers.

The news represents a setback for the nascent efforts by several U.S. unions to organize Apple’s retail stores. In addition to the push in Georgia, workers at stores in New York, Maryland and Kentucky have announced campaigns. The CWA -- a group that won elections this year among Verizon Communications Inc. retail employees, Activision Blizzard Inc. quality-assurance testers and subcontracted Google Fiber staff -- has said it’s been hearing from numerous Apple workers around the country.

When asked about the move, Apple said it was “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,” the Cupertino, California-based company said.

In complaints filed last week with the National Labor Relations Board, the CWA accused Apple of violating federal labor law by forcing workers in Atlanta and New York City to attend “captive audience” meetings about unionization.

Existing precedent allows companies to hold such meetings, but the labor board’s current general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, views them as inherently coercive and illegal. And she’s pursuing cases that could change the precedent.

Abruzzo, a former CWA attorney, is also trying to resurrect an old doctrine requiring employers to negotiate with a labor group if they have no “good faith doubt” that most employees support the union.

In its statement Friday, the CWA said that it had the support of an “overwhelming majority” of the Atlanta store’s workers when it petitioned in April for an election.

In the weeks since employees announced their organizing efforts, Apple has moved to boost its pay and warned of potential negative consequences from unionization. In a recent video message, Apple retail chief Deirdre O’Brien told employees, “We have a relationship that is based on an open and collaborative and direct engagement.” She said she worried about “what it would mean to put another organization in the middle of our relationship.”

On Wednesday, the company told employees it would hike the minimum pay for its retail staff to $22.

The Apple store’s union organizing committee vowed to press on. “We’re going to reset and strengthen our union,” according to an email sent to workers Friday. “We can share our experience with other stores to help them really prepare for what’s coming their way.”

The Atlanta workers had been slated to vote June 2 through June 4 in what would have been the first NLRB election at an Apple store. Major unions have sometimes been wary of such elections, because of the leeway federal law provides companies to aggressively campaign against organizing. But in recent months, unions pulled off stunning wins at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse and dozens of Starbucks Corp. cafes across the country, emboldening workers and organizers elsewhere.

“We are dedicated to our work and to supporting each other,” Atlanta employee Derrick Bowles said in a statement shared by the union. “We are on this journey together. We want to create a truly democratic union that aligns with Apple’s public values.”

(Updates with union email in 13th paragraph.)

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