The tech industry loves to celebrate its propensity for “disruption,” upending all of our old traditions to create better, more efficient ways of doing things. Less often trumpeted is the industry’s creation of a new underclass of blue-collar workers — the janitors, cooks, drivers and security guards who keep the sprawling tech campuses running smoothly but see almost none of the industry’s booming profits. And while tech’s aversion to organized labor has kept most of these workers from organizing, Silicon Valley may soon have to confront a growing unionized blue-collar workforce.
Facebook’s shuttle bus drivers are no exception. They ferry the social media giant’s employees from San Francisco and Oakland out to Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park every day and can’t afford to live where they work.
The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reported last week that the company’s shuttle bus drivers are looking to unionize with the Teamsters, seeking reasonable work hours and a living wage.
Unlike the working at its office, described by Business Insider as “easily one of the coolest places to work right now,” driving a bus for Facebook isn’t glamorous. The hourly wage at first seems reasonable: Loop Transportation, Facebook’s shuttle bus contractor, claims that most drivers make between $18 and $20 an hour. But the conditions of work make that wage unlivable in San Francisco, where the cost of living has risen drastically over the course of the last few years.
And drivers’ split-shift schedule is especially arduous, keeping them from taking on a second job. They start their workday before 6 a.m. and end close to 10 p.m., but there’s no work between about 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., and drivers only get paid while driving. Cliff Doi, a 55-year-old Facebook driver who spoke to the Times, said that driving a few hours home then turning around and returning to work was not viable for him.
Jeff Leonoudakis, president of Loop Transportation, told the Times that his company had set up a lounge for the drivers with reclining chairs, big screen TVs and bunk beds. Doi clarified that the lounge was in a trailer, there were no bunk beds and the reclining chairs were “less than ideal” for napping.
Not to mention these drivers spend their days driving around in the most prominent symbol of tech-driven gentrification in the Bay Area. Tech company buses have become a rallying point for anti-gentrification protesters as local housing advocacy groups have organized demonstrations and sometimes blocked the buses from making their routes.
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, the Teamsters’ union rep Rome Aloise wrote,
“While your employees earn extraordinary wages … these drivers can’t afford to support a family, send their children to school, or, least of all, afford to even dream of buying a house anywhere near where they work. … This is reminiscent of a time when noblemen were driven around in their coaches by their servants.”
If successful with Facebook’s drivers, the Teamsters hope to make their way down the Valley to Google, Apple and others. Aloise hopes to see a domino effect. “If we get Facebook [drivers] a good contract,” he told the Times, “others will fall.”
Kevin Roose, a tech writer at New York Magazine, notes that, though union drives have in the past been unsuccessful in tech, now’s the time for them to go for it.
“Before the tech boom,” he argues, “bus drivers making $20 an hour wouldn’t have gotten much sympathy from struggling Bay Area residents. Now, though, San Francisco is enmeshed in a culture war over housing prices and income inequality.” Organizing workers can build off the momentum of an anti-gentrification movement that’s already in full swing to fight for their own rights.
And a highly publicized labor dispute wouldn’t look good for Facebook. “[T]here’s no way Mark Zuckerburg will allow a highly paid iOS developer to slip through his hands because he thinks Facebook stiffs its drivers.” Though perhaps he gives Zuckerburg too much credit, and attributes too much “liberal guilt” to tech workers: If Uber provides any indication of tech’s attitudes towards drivers, they may be less likely to budge than Roose thinks.
Paying drivers a fair wage would be the easiest, and perhaps least substantial, way for tech to present itself as more friendly to labor. It’s not forgoing tax loopholes, and it’s not halting gentrification in the Bay Area in a material way. But if drivers can win a living wage and reasonable hours, and help pave the way for the rest of tech’s service workers, it’s a good start.