Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Apple whistleblower Ashley Gjøvik makes headway in labor dispute: if NLRB's finding of violation of federal law is upheld, Apple will have to fix policies nationwide

Big Tech labor issues are increasingly becoming relevant to the competition cases I comment on. I'm not going to become an expert in that field anytime soon, but when there are major developments that have a bearing on my priority topics, I may mention them. In December, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) labor union called Apple out on its astroturfing, and the same CWA has repeatedly declared itself in favor of Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard (as is AFL-CIO).

Bloomberg's Josh Eidelson broke the news of a finding by a U.S. government agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), that two of ex-Apple employee Ashley Gjøvik's ("Demanding Reform at Apple Inc." website, LinkedIn profile, Twitter profile) complaints have been deemed meritorious. As a result, Region 21 (Southern California) will--according to a January 30, 2023 email I've seen--"issue a Complaint, absent settlement, alleging various violations of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act regarding Apple rules/policies and various unlawful statements by Apple supervisors/managers." The case numbers for the "unfair labor practice charges" by Mrs. Gjøvik against Apple are 32-CA-284428 and 32-CA-284441.

Those "Apple supervisors/managers" include CEO Tim Cook, who in a September 2021 email wrote (as 9to5Mac has also reported) that "people who leak confidential information do not belong here" and that Apple was "doing everything in [its] power to identify those who leaked." That email was apparently provoked by a companywide internal discussion of sensitive topics such as pay equity and Texas' anti-abortion law. To be fair, it is Mr. Cook's duty as CEO to protect his company's secrets, and even though I take issue with some of his decisions (such as Apple's continued engagement in astroturfing), I don't think he knowingly and intentionally broke federal labor law. But he may have made the mistake of not distinguishing between leaks that are illegal (such as leaking Apple's source codes or customer data) and those that are perfectly above board, i.e., amount to legitimate whistleblowing.

Mrs. Gjøvik, who started following FOSS Patents on Twitter a while ago (and vice versa), has an interesting background. She's a lawyer by training (Santa Clara University and Oxford) and worked as a senior engineering proram manager at Apple, where she was in charge of pushing iOS updates, and previously in a similar role at Nike. Here's a YouTube interview with her that starts with what she was doing at Apple while things were going smoothly there:

In August 2021, The Verge reported that Apple had placed her "on indefinite administrative leave after she tweeted about sexism in the office." Apparently she took to Twitter only after exhausting all options to get certain issues addressed internally.

Two months later, Bloomberg reported on her complaint over Tim Cook's anti-leaking email.

In an email to reporters, Mrs. Gjøvik wrote that her NLRB charges "alleged Apple’s employee policies (including NDAs, a variety of policies posted on Apple’s intranet including about confidentiality & talking to the press, Apple’s Business Conduct policy, Apple’s surveillance policies, notices for departing employees, my employment contract, and an email sent to staff from Tim Cook in 2021) coercively silence Apple employees and chill them from engaging in protected activity through over-broad and vague terms, as well as through an implication of constant surveillance." To her knowledge, "this will be the first legal action taken against Apple by the US government about Apple’s employment processes at a national level."

Apple now has the opportunity to work out a settlement. Otherwise, the NLRB will start an adjudicative proceeding before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Ultimately, Apple may have to change its policies nationwide, and there is no reason to assume that Mrs. Gjøvik will content herself with anything less than fundamental improvements that will benefit those still working at Apple (and who will be recruited by Apple in the future).

There is also a charge that she filed with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), alleging that in October 2021 and December 2022, Apple omitted the NLRB investigation (which has now given rise to a formal complaint) from shareholder letters and SEC filings. Furthermore, she has "alleged to the SEC that Apple’s employee policies likely violate Rule 21F-17 (prohibiting or chilling employees from reporting securities law violations to the SEC)."

Cases are also pending with the U.S. Department of Labor's Whistleblower Protection Program, in which she "alleges Apple retaliated against [her] for protected conduct and in violation of three separate federal statutes: SOX, CERCLA (Superfunds), and OSHA." The cases were docketed in December 2021 (which they wouldn't have been if facially meritless) and are now pending a final decision.

Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Mrs. Gjøvik found out that due to her complaints and disclosure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "required an onsite inspection of [her] Apple office in 2021 where they identified a number of open safety concerns & have requested corrective actions." Interestingly, "Apple was notified of the inspections a few days before [she] was suddenly placed on leave." Apple wanted the EPA to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), but the EPA refused to do so.

Finally, there are some cases pending with the California Department of Labor, too.

The way I understand it, Mrs. Gjøvik opposes Apple's excessive secrecy. She alleges that "Apple has controlled and dominated over their workers through fear for nearly five decades" with a "Worldwide Loyalty Team" ensuring compliance and too many documents being designated as "Apple Confidential." Apparently, new employees are told that working at Apple is "like you work for the CIA."

Change may be coming now. Let's see whether the next step will be a settlement or, more likely, an ALJ ruling.