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Michael Theriault headshot

By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer

I serve now not just as Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, but as President of Iron Workers Local 377. The local’s jurisdiction extends from Big Sur to the Oregon line through coastal and neighboring counties, and includes Silicon Valley.

And so I now deal with issues well beyond San Francisco. Local newspapers, radio, and television have reported on a dispute between the Iron Workers and Apple over employment in the construction of its new headquarters in Cupertino. The reports have quoted me. The story will probably have advanced further by the time this edition of Organized Labor reaches mailboxes, but the issues in it are worth discussing even now and in relation to the City.

Apple instituted a policy barring workers with prior felony convictions or pending felony charges from the project. We understand that project owners have legitimate security needs. We believe that a blanket prohibition such as Apple’s is wrong, however. Individuals who have done their time after a felony conviction must be able to work. All of us benefit from this; the individual becomes a productive member of society and taxpayer, and the chances that he or she will offend again drop radically. Any exclusion of workers from employment must result from identifiable security needs.

In meetings with the general contractor and lower-level Apple officials, the Iron Workers asked what exactly Apple’s concerns were, so that we could help craft a policy that addressed them. Our representatives did not receive a real answer. We wrote in January of this year, then, to Apple’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, to ask that the policy be changed.

As of early April he had not responded. A member of the local offered to put us in touch with a contact in the Chronicle. We accepted. A flurry of stories and columns resulted.

Within days Apple said that it had rescinded the policy, that it believed in second chances, and that workers in the construction of the project would now be evaluated on a “case by case basis.”

While we we were pleased to hear that Apple believed in rehabilitation, we still do not know by what criteria the “case by case basis” will be decided. We continue to ask Apple to define the connection between its security needs and its policy, so that we avoid unnecessary exclusion of workers.

Sources have said that in practice the policy was applied only to those with convictions in the last seven years, and that pending charges were reviewed individually. While the number of workers who as a consequence of this policy actually lost jobs they already held is low – the reports have said five, and we have no reason to doubt them – its effects extend well beyond them.

Anyone who has worked through a union dispatch system knows that no one will waste a place on the out-of-work list on a call likely to result in a quick trip back to the hall. We can only guess how many of our members declined calls to work on the Apple project once they knew of the policy. We can be certain some did.

It is also early in the project, with some trades not yet on site or there with only a sliver of their eventual presence. Without a genuine change in the policy we can be even more certain that its exclusionary effects will spread.

More damaging still is the precedent the policy sets for our employment elsewhere. If Apple can without any solid basis exclude ex-felons from employment in construction of its facilities, why should not other owners? Apple itself cites the precedent of Intel, to which it attributes a similar policy. If so, Intel was no more justified than Apple, and Apple has given us all the more reason to contest the policy; we cannot accept its further spread.

Although the policy’s effects span all across our memberships, the African-American and Latino communities may be most affected, because they face incarceration at a rate out of proportion to their share of the population. These are also the communities least represented in the tech workforce. If they are to benefit from the industry, in the short term it will be through employment in services such as construction. If they face exclusion here, too, then Apple – and tech so far as it follows Apple’s lead – has not just failed to address its problems with diversity, it has amplified them.

I have spoken and written elsewhere about the value of the tech industry to the Trades. It has almost always used union workers in its construction here. But we in turn have provided value to it, not just in the quality and productivity of our work, but in defending it from its detractors and advocating for its projects. We have had a kind of social contract with it.

That contract is broken, however, if Tech unjustifiably excludes portions of our membership. If a tech company divides us, if it does not serve our members equally and through them their communities, it will not just be unworthy of our support, it will deserve our opposition.

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