Congratulations to Apple CEO Tim Cook as the company’s stock crossed the $500 a-share price today for the first time.

That bullish news removes some of the sting from a petition asking Apple to put an end to “i-slavery” at its China plants. The petition had more than 250K signees. It was delivered to the manager of Apple's spanking new Grand Central retail show-piece last week.

tim cookApple, which says it has audited every final assembly factory in its supply chain since 2006, has now stepped up that effort in announcing that the Fair Labor Assn. will conduct special audits at its Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Cook today stressed that Apple believes “workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment.” The FLA team is to interview thousands of employees about working conditions, hours and relationship with management. Dormitories also will be inspected.

Apple’s boffo performance on Wall Street is an accomplishment. Emerging as the best-in-class employer when it comes to workers’ rights would be a bigger achievement. Others would follow.

Cook speaks at the Goldman Sachs technology and Internet conference tomorrow. How about delivering a corporate Valentine’s Day to its workers?

Better still, how about bringing some of the high-tech manufacturing jobs back to America? Alexander Cockburn, in the Feb. 20 issue of The Nation, wrote that Apple was building computers during the mid-90s in Elk Grove, Calif. They cost $22 each to make compared to $5 in China. That’s not a huge spread on a computer that sells for $1,500.

The PR goodwill associated with returning to the U.S. would be a priceless windfall for Apple.

C’mon Tim, “Think different.”