San Francisco Protesters Take Aim at Twitter’s Tax Breaks

Julia Wong

More than 400 San Francisco city workers, many dressed as Cupid, marched in protest of Twitter's 'sweetheart' tax break last Wednesday.

Last Wednes­day, more than 400 San Fran­cis­co city employ­ees — many dressed as Cupid with wings and gold­en head­dress­es — marched from the city’s Depart­ment of Human Resources to Twit­ter head­quar­ters a few blocks away. The pro­test­ers were mem­bers of Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union Local 1021, which is cur­rent­ly nego­ti­at­ing with the city over con­tracts cov­er­ing more than 13,000 work­ers. As the work­ers chant­ed, Twit­ter, you’re no good. Pay your tax­es like you should,” they left a Valen­tine of sorts on the company’s doorstep at Ninth and Mar­ket streets. 

We, the under­signed, the work­ers and res­i­dents of San Fran­cis­co, ask that Twit­ter and oth­er cor­po­ra­tions do the right thing and end their tax breaks and sweet­heart deals,” read the pro­test­ers’ card.

Like the pri­vate bus­es that trans­port tech work­ers from San Fran­cis­co to cor­po­rate cam­pus­es in Sil­i­con Val­ley, Twitter’s head­quar­ters have become a sym­bol of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­place­ment for hous­ing activists and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions in the city. On Nov. 7, 2013 — the same day the com­pa­ny held its Ini­tial Pub­lic Offer­ing on the New York Stock Exchange — local groups held a #ThrownOut­ByTwit­ter day of protest in down­town San Fran­cis­co to draw atten­tion to what they see as the tech industry’s con­tri­bu­tion to the city’s grow­ing class divide. San Fran­cis­co should be try­ing to advo­cate for all its res­i­dents, activists feel — not just the ones with start­up funding. 

Now, the SEIU, the largest pub­lic sec­tor union in San Fran­cis­co, is tak­ing renewed aim at Twit­ter over the major tax break it received from City Hall in 2011

At the time, the cor­po­ra­tion — which employs thou­sands of work­ers, many of them city res­i­dents — was threat­en­ing to leave San Fran­cis­co for the sub­urbs in order to avoid pay­ing the city’s pay­roll tax. Faced with the prospect of los­ing a major employ­er, the city agreed to estab­lish a six-year pay­roll tax exclu­sion area around Twitter’s offices in the Cen­tral Market/​Tenderloin neigh­bor­hood. In the three years since, the so-called Twit­ter tax break” has drawn numer­ous tech com­pa­nies to the area, though Twit­ter is by far the largest ben­e­fi­cia­ry. Accord­ing to an analy­sis by the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, San Fran­cis­co will lose $56 mil­lion on Twit­ter alone over the six-year life of the tax break — far above the city’s orig­i­nal esti­mate of $22 million.

That’s a fig­ure that doesn’t sit well with city work­ers, who have accept­ed con­ces­sions in their past two con­tracts due to the reces­sion. This fis­cal year, the city is fac­ing a $69 mil­lion pro­ject­ed bud­get deficit, a short­fall that SEIU claims would dis­ap­pear if the city would stop mak­ing what the union calls sweet­heart deals” with tech com­pa­nies. Accord­ing to union offi­cials, the tax breaks for the Cen­tral Mar­ket tech com­pa­nies could total tens of mil­lions of dol­lars this year. Add to that the $6 mil­lion tax break the near­by Zyn­ga received in 2011 and the $500 mil­lion in fines San Fran­cis­co chose not to levy against Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies whose pri­vate shut­tles ille­gal­ly use pub­lic bus stops, and the frus­tra­tion felt by work­ers like Lar­ry Brad­shaw, a para­medic and vice pres­i­dent of Local 1021, begins to become more clear.

If we made the tech cor­po­ra­tions that are not pay­ing their tax­es pay their tax­es, we would have more mon­ey in the city bud­get and we could rebuild the social safe­ty net that we’ve seen being erod­ed for the last four or five years,” Brad­shaw said in an inter­view with Truthout Wednes­day. Twit­ter is emblem­at­ic of the whole prob­lem with giv­ing tax breaks to these large cor­po­ra­tions. The oth­er cor­po­ra­tions are on our tar­get list as well, but we’re start­ing with Twit­ter today.”

But Susan Gard, spokesper­son for the city’s Depart­ment of Human Resources, which is respon­si­ble for bar­gain­ing with SEIU 1021, says in an email to In These Times, I don’t think you can say nego­ti­a­tions will be impact­ed by Twit­ter (or any oth­er) tax breaks.” Despite the bud­get deficit, Gard main­tains the city is in a much bet­ter finan­cial sit­u­a­tion this year, in part due to con­ces­sions from SEIU 1021 and oth­er labor orga­ni­za­tions in past contracts.

Though the state of the city’s finances will be a part of the dis­cus­sion, we’re not try­ing to bal­ance the bud­get at the nego­ti­a­tion table,” she says. She claims the city will not be seek­ing eco­nom­ic con­ces­sions; instead, its focus will be on stream­lin­ing work rules.”

City work­ers, how­ev­er, are not con­vinced. Karen Jou­bert, a 17-year city employ­ee and vice pres­i­dent of rep­re­sen­ta­tion with the union, says in recent con­tracts, work­ers made the dif­fi­cult deci­sion to accept fur­loughs, increased con­tri­bu­tions to pen­sions, wage freezes and lay­offs. Hun­dreds of work­ers were also tem­porar­i­ly reas­signed to clas­si­fi­ca­tions with low­er rates of pay. This time around, now that nego­ti­a­tions have start­ed again, Jou­bert says, We’re real­ly con­cerned about health­care.” Although no pro­pos­al has been made yet, Jou­bert and the union believe the city wants to increase the cost of cov­er­age for employ­ees with families.

And for work­ers like Brad­shaw and Jou­bert, the priv­i­lege gap in San Fran­cis­co doesn’t end with tax breaks. Brad­shaw also points to the cost of liv­ing increase that has accom­pa­nied the tech boom. City work­ers have fall­en behind since the Great Reces­sion. Our wages have not kept up with the cost of liv­ing, and with the arrival of big tech in San Fran­cis­co, many of our mem­bers are unable to afford to live in the city. Every year, more and more of our mem­bers are being forced to leave the city they love,” he told Truthout. Twit­ter did not respond to requests for comment.

The Twit­ter action was just the lat­est of SEIU 1021’s efforts to fight what union mem­bers see as tech’s gen­tri­fy­ing effects on their home­town. In Decem­ber, the local orga­nized a protest at the down­town head­quar­ters of Sales­force, where May­or Ed Lee was hold­ing an invi­ta­tion-only meet­ing with tech CEOs. Work­ers felt the meet­ing itself was indica­tive of major com­pa­nies’ spe­cial access to the city’s higher-ups.

And the union isn’t going to stop the fight any­time soon. As a pub­lic sec­tor union and pro­gres­sive stake­hold­er, 1021 is real­ly posi­tioned well to be at the fore­front of this issue,” Chris Daly, the local’s polit­i­cal direc­tor and a for­mer mem­ber of San Francisco’s Board of Super­vi­sors, tells In These Times.

Accord­ing to Daly, SEIU 1021 also plans to sup­port an anti-spec­u­la­tion tax aimed at min­i­miz­ing the preda­to­ry prac­tice of buy­ing real estate in the hopes of reselling soon there­after at a high­er price, which hous­ing activists blame for the rash of evic­tions San Fran­cis­co has seen over the past few years. In addi­tion, the local says it’s ready­ing a legal chal­lenge to the deal reached by tech com­pa­nies and the San Fran­cis­co Munic­i­pal Trans­porta­tion Agency to charge tech shut­tles just $1 per stop for the use of pub­lic bus stops, which oppo­nents say harms the city’s envi­ron­ment and has a dis­crim­i­na­to­ry impact on low-income communities.

Anoth­er idea local offi­cials are dis­cussing with SEIU Inter­na­tion­al lead­ers is invest­ing the 1021’s reserves in com­mu­ni­ty land trusts to cre­ate afford­able hous­ing in San Fran­cis­co or Oak­land. The con­cept may sound rad­i­cal, but it has a long his­to­ry in San Fran­cis­co, where the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union built a coop­er­a­tive hous­ing project for low-income work­ers in 1963.

San Francisco’s afford­abil­i­ty cri­sis is also of increas­ing con­cern to many of San Francisco’s oth­er labor unions, which are see­ing grow­ing num­bers of mem­bers pushed out of the city by out-of-con­trol hous­ing costs and ram­pant evic­tions. In turn, they say, work­ers do not have the time or resources to stand up for their rights. 

Mike Casey, the pres­i­dent of UNITE HERE Local 2, the hotel and restau­rant work­ers’ union in San Fran­cis­co, has been voic­ing con­cerns about the impacts of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­place­ment on the pol­i­tics of protest” for at least a year. Ear­li­er this month, at a grass­roots ten­ant con­ven­tion orga­nized by the San Fran­cis­co Anti-Dis­place­ment Coali­tion, Casey warned, When our work­ers have to trav­el an hour and a half to get home, they can’t afford to come back and be on the streets.” 

With dis­place­ment threat­en­ing the polit­i­cal pow­er of unions and the diver­si­ty of the city, SEIU 1021’s cur­rent strug­gle goes beyond a sim­ple con­tract bat­tle. On the same day as the ten­ant con­ven­tion, labor and com­mu­ni­ty coali­tion Jobs With Jus­tice orga­nized a spe­cial meet­ing of union mem­bers. About six­ty staffers, elect­ed lead­ers, and rank-and-file mem­bers from var­i­ous locals gath­ered to dis­cuss the effects of the hous­ing cri­sis on their mem­ber­ships and strate­gize about ways labor can fight to main­tain San Francisco’s sta­tus as a union town.”

As one union mem­ber at the meet­ing put it, If we don’t fight now, in two years, none of us will be here.” 

Julia Car­rie Wong is a free­lance jour­nal­ist liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @juliacarriew or email her at julia.carrie.wong [at] gmail​.com.
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