MELBOURNE, Australia — Dozens of Apple workers in Australia walked off the job on Tuesday after negotiations over pay and working conditions stalled, the latest crack in the armor of the tech giant as it contends with a burgeoning unionization movement in the United States and Europe.
The action itself is small. About 150 retail workers, out of the company’s nearly 4,000 Australian employees, voted to strike for an hour. Then, starting on Wednesday, they will refuse to do a variety of work, including installing screen protectors, repairing AirPods and handling deliveries.
But the strike is symbolically significant. After years of labor harmony, Apple retail workers in the United States have overcome resistance from the company to mobilize in a pandemic-era wave of employee unrest, part of a broader flourishing of labor organizing at retailers, restaurants and tech companies.
In June, a store in Towson, Md., became Apple’s first U.S. outlet to unionize, with employees saying they wanted a greater voice over compensation, scheduling and career advancement. That same month, an Apple store in Britain was unionized for the first time. A second U.S. store, in Oklahoma City, voted to unionize on Friday, and union leaders say workers at more than two dozen other stores in the country have expressed interest in unionizing.
Outside an Apple store in the Australian state of Queensland on Tuesday, about two dozen workers waved a banner saying, “Give workers what they deserve,” and chanting “union power” and “Apple power.” In New South Wales, workers marched through a shopping mall containing an Apple store while holding signs saying, “Give us our weekends” and “Above record profits, below minimum conditions.”
Union leaders in Australia, where strikes in the retail sector are rare, said they had been energized by the American labor activity.
The strike is “an important example of unions establishing a presence in an industry or workplace setting like a tech giant where that just hasn’t happened before, here or in the U.S.,” said Anthony Forsyth, a workplace law professor at R.M.I.T. University in Melbourne.
It is noteworthy that in Australia “there is a union that’s pushing Apple a lot harder and getting a little further,” he added, “than what’s happening in the U.S.”
In Australia, Apple offered workers a minimum wage that is 17 percent above the industry minimum, amounting to hourly pay of at least $17.35 (27.64 Australian dollars).
The three unions involved in negotiations have opposed the deal and accused Apple of attempting to rush the agreement to a vote.
The deal would equate to a “real wage cut” because of inflation, according to one of the unions, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. It also accused Apple of obstructing union organizers when they sought to survey workers in preparation for negotiations, a tactic common in the United States but less so in Australia.
Although all three unions are negotiating with Apple, only the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union has decided to strike, after its members voted in favor of the action last week.
The union is demanding a minimum hourly wage of 31 Australian dollars, in line with what U.S. employees receive. It is also seeking guarantees that workers will receive two consecutive days off per week, as well as the right for part-time workers to have set working days and times.
Employees have little say over when they’re scheduled to work, which makes it difficult to have a life outside the job, said Josh Cullinan, the union’s national secretary.
Apple has rejected the claim that it tried to rush an agreement through. It says its part-time workers are able to specify four days or more of availability a week and are given two weeks’ notice for schedules.
A spokesman for the company said in an emailed statement that Apple was “proud to reward our valued team members in Australia with strong compensation and exceptional benefits.”
“Apple is among the highest-paying employers in Australia,” the statement continued, “and we’ve made many significant enhancements to our industry-leading benefits, including new educational and health and wellness programs.”
In the United States, Apple has tried to beat back the uprising at its stores by raising pay and telling workers that unionizing will result in fewer promotions and inflexible hours. Labor leaders said Apple’s efforts had contributed to the recent suspension of a planned union vote in Atlanta.
The National Labor Relations Board has also issued a complaint saying Apple interrogated retail workers and prevented them from posting union materials in the break room, as they were entitled to do.
The U.S. action has been a significant factor in how negotiations have played out in Australia, said Mr. Cullinan, the union secretary, adding that it had “influenced and encouraged and excited” Australian workers.
He said he believed that Apple had tried to rush through a new agreement in an attempt to “lock in conditions and lock out unions” and head off any potential further union mobilization.
“We think it’s being driven by that experience in America and a deep fear of workers’ taking back a tiny amount of power in their workplace,” he said.
Mr. Cullinan acknowledged that the number of striking workers was modest, but noted that of the three unions involved, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union represented the largest number of Apple workers. The action will have symbolic resonance, he added, because it is “the biggest of its sort in Apple’s history in Australia.”
The union’s members have also voted in favor of striking for 24 hours if Apple tries to take the agreement to a vote without the union’s approval.
In Australia, the unionization of Apple workers has been a relatively recent development. When the company’s last agreement with employees was negotiated, in 2014, there was no union involvement. What has changed since then is the creation of a new union, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union.
The retail sector in Australia has never been a labor stronghold, said Andrew Stewart, an employment law expert at the University of Adelaide, both because of the insecure, casual nature of the work force and because of the tactics of the union that has historically dominated the sector, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. That union focused on being able to reach agreements with employers, sometimes at the cost of achieving the best outcomes for workers, according to critics.
The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union was founded in 2016 over discontentment with the larger union, positioning itself as a more activist and militant alternative. Because Australia aims to avoid having multiple unions in the same sectors, the new union was set up as an unregistered trade union. While it is still able to bargain on behalf of employees and organize strikes, it does not have the same extensive rights and obligations of registered trade unions.
The challenge for unions contending with multinational corporations is twofold, Professor Stewart said. On a local level in Australia, they have to buck a trend of declining union interest and membership. On a global level, they also need to “find methods of trying to work across borders to develop an effective collective voice,” he said.
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