The Washington (DC) man who posted an on-line petition calling for improved working conditions at Apple’s manufacturers in China has described himself as a consultant who is in love with Apple and its products, yet concerned about worker rights. His seeming-grassroots petition quickly gathered 250,000 signatures over two weeks, and led to a much-publicized hand-over of signatures to employees at seven Apple retail stores around the world. But in fact, Mark B. Shields, 36, is a professional communications strategist who has worked on major human rights campaigns at five companies over the past 12 years. He has plenty of paid experience expressing outrage and concern about a wide range of issues, according to his resumé. Now, Shields is a director at DC-based Spitfire Strategies, a consulting firm offering advice on strategic communications and campaign planning for a wide range of non-profits and foundations. Shields didn’t mention this affiliation or his previous work history to reporters when granting interviews about the Apple petition. Instead, Shields claims his petition was inspired by an episode of “This American Life” he heard on the radio, and denies any job client prompted his outrage.
The petition drive is reminescent of a tax protest that focused on Apple’s retail stores in May 2011. In that case, a former radio reporter claimed he was inspired to protest Apple’s off-shore financial holdings after his father sent him a magazine article. However, Carl Gibson started his own lobbying firm the same week the protest was begun, raising questions about his motives and the grassroots nature of the protest. Gibson’s US Uncut group made headlines for several weeks after protester with banners appeared at several Apple stores. However, the protest and Gibson soon faded away.
Shields posted his petition on January 26th at the Web site Change.org. He has previously signed petitions on that Web site against a Florida bill that would legalize the exploitation of persons with dwarfism, and a petition expressing support for Planned Parenthood and opposition to Susan G. Komen For the Cure.
Shields previously worked for the the National Park Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Red Cross. He held media relations, deputy director and director roles at those groups. His current employer, Spitfire Strategies, is located six blocks from the White House in Washington (DC). On one Web page, the firm is described as, “dedicated to helping nonprofits and foundations create and implement high impact communications programs to achieve their social change goals.”
In response to inquiries from IFO, Shields said he posted the petition “as a private citizen,” and that it had “nothing whatsoever to do with my professional life at Spitfire.” He said after hearing the radio broadcast of “This American Life,” he sat down to write a letter to Apple. But then a friend suggested he use Change.org to launch a petition drive instead.
In his Apple petition, Shields asked the company to take two steps. First, Shields asked that Apple “release a worker protection strategy for new product releases, which are the instances when injuries and suicides typically spike because of the incredible pressure to meet quotas timed to releases.” Shields told IFO that he doesn’t have figures to support his claim of injuries and suicides at Foxconn or other manufacturers, but based his remarks on the radio report that he heard.
Second, his petition asked Apple to publish the results of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) investigation that Apple had announced before the petition was posted. Shields asked that the names of suppliers and their violations be made public, “so that there is transparency around the monitoring effort.” A week after the petition signatures were handed in to Apple stores, Apple CEO TimCook said during an analyst conference that FLA’s audits would be posted on-line each month to create transparency. Cook did not mention Shields’ petition.
Shields urged Apple, “Please make these changes immediately, so that each of us can once again hold our heads high and say, ‘I’m a Mac person.'” He pointed out, “Your own ads say that ‘the people who think they are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.’ Please get to it.” The quote refers to a TV commercial that Apple aired in 1997.
In the aftermath of the petition, Shields appeared on several cable talk shows and in local TV news reports. He told reporters that he owns an iPhone, MacBook Pro, iPods and an Airport base station. He declined to comment on whether he would give up his iPhone for the cause of worker rights. But he hopes Apple will tackle the working conditions issue before he has to decide on an upgrade to the next iPhone model this year.
As the number of on-line petition signatures grew, the group SumOfUs.com took on the task of delivering a print-out of the signatures to select Apple stores. On February 9th, a handful of SumOfUs supporters lugged boxes of print-outs to stores in New York City, London, Sydney (Australia) and Washington (DC). Shields attended the hand-over at the Georgetown (DC) Apple store, accompanied by other Spitfire Strategies employees.
This week, SumOfUs announced that it will make a second delivery of signatures to Apple stores next Thursday, this time accompanied by a larger group of supporters.
“It’s heartening to see (Apple) taking action publicly,” Shields told IFO via email after Cook’s assurances, “and to know that Apple is hearing and acting on the concerns of their consumers.”
He noted that Apple has revolutionized how we listen to music, see movies and TV, and use technology in our lives. “Personally, I have no doubt that they have the creativity and the capitol to solve these problems and continue to be the thriving company that we Mac people have come to know and love,” Shields said.