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Apple posts internal memo affirming employees' right to discuss pay

 The move comes after months of advocacy by workers.
Image: Apple CEO Tim Cook during an event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 10, 2019.
Apple CEO Tim Cook during an event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 10, 2019.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Following months of internal controversy about how much workers make at one of the highest valued companies in the world, Apple has announced that employees have the right to discuss working conditions and pay, according to a staff memo obtained by NBC News.

Since 2016, Apple has said its workers in the United States receive equal pay for equal work. But it quietly shut down attempts by workers to validate this claim, according to two current and former employees.

Now, according to the memo, Apple is telling staff they have the right to discuss their wages and air their concerns externally, a major shift for the famously secretive tech giant. 

The note was posted on Apple’s internal people site, to which the company’s 80,000 hourly and salaried employees in the U.S. have access.

“Our policies do not restrict employees from speaking freely about their wages, hours, or working conditions,” the memo reads. “We encourage any employee with concerns to raise them in the way they feel most comfortable, internally or externally, including through their manager, any Apple manager, People Support, People Business Partner, or Business Conduct.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

The language affirms a right given to private sector employees under the National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to organize and discuss their hours and wages.

The memo echoes language in Apple’s business conduct policy, which says that nothing in the rule “should be interpreted as being restrictive of your right to speak freely about your wages, hours, or working conditions.”

Apple declined to add similar language to its employment agreements when asked by a group of activists and shareholders earlier this year. The company said the language was already covered by its business conduct policy, according to the tech activist Ifeoma Ozoma

The memo is a win for Apple organizers like Cher Scarlett, who said in a National Labor Relations Board charge that the company has restricted their ability to discuss pay and working conditions by shutting down informal pay surveys and blocking a pay equity Slack channel.

Since August, there have been eight unfair labor practices charges filed against Apple on issues ranging from unlawful discharge to harassment. One of these charges has been dismissed.

Image: Apple employee Cher Scarlett.
Apple employee Cher Scarlett.Courtesy Cher Scarlett

The NLRB, the federal agency that oversees U.S. labor law, is investigating the remaining seven charges. If it finds any to be credible, it can force Apple to post a notice much like the one published today, affirming workers have the right to speak out.

“This is a win for workers because it shows that Apple knows they would have lost had this been adjudicated,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “But it also underscores how little the law deters unfair labor practices, and how little workers can get when their rights to organize are violated.”

​​For months, Apple workers have been pushing back at the lack of transparency about how much people earn.

Apple’s diversity and inclusion page states: “Globally, employees of all genders earn the same when engaging in similar work with comparable experience and performance.” But employees who conducted informal pay surveys found possible wage gaps, and asked Apple to explore them further. They say the company has not done so.

The company also shut down three employee-run pay equity surveys, citing rules against collecting personally identifying information and hosting surveys on the company’s corporate account.

In September, Scarlett, an Apple software engineer, filed an NLRB charge against the company, alleging that it retaliated against workers for engaging in protected activity when they tried to discuss their pay. She recently settled with Apple and asked the NLRB to withdraw her charge.

“Cher and other courageous employees helped bring pay equity and transparency issues to light at Apple," her attorney Aleksandr L. Felstiner said. "As a result, conversations between employees in different parts of the company are happening in ways and at scale they hadn’t happened before. We hope that crucial organizing work will continue.” 

Scarlett said she could not speak about the details of her settlement. She also could not comment on whether she plans to continue organizing with #AppleToo, an advocacy group she helped found.

Janneke Parrish, one of the group’s co-founders, was fired from Apple in October after deleting files from her work phone during an internal investigation into leaks. She has also filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company, alleging that it retaliated against her for organizing. 

Parrish said she sees the latest Apple memo as a major victory for employees.

“What we have been saying for months is that workers have rights, and that our voices deserve to be heard,” she said. “Apple has made numerous attempts to stop us from using our voices and discussing working conditions and pay. This statement shows that we have a legal right to speak. It also shows the power of workers’ voices in unison. When we work together and speak together, even the biggest companies have to hear us.”