Silicon Valley’s Labor Uprising

Unions are spreading like wildfire through tech’s low-wage workforce

s.e. smith September 7, 2015

Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gabriel Cár­de­nas, 27, works in the ware­hous­es of Google Express — Google’s same-day and overnight online shop­ping and deliv­ery ser­vice — load­ing and unload­ing trucks. The some­times suf­fo­cat­ing­ly hot ware­house in Palo Alto, Calif., is a far cry from the beau­ti­ful­ly appoint­ed Google cam­pus in near­by Moun­tain View, with its radi­ant cool­ing system. 

'When you go up against a Goliath like that, you’ve got to have a lot of Davids.”'

But Cárdenas doesn’t work for Google. He works for Adec­co, a staffing com­pa­ny that pro­vides con­tract labor to Google and oth­er tech firms. He’s part of the teem­ing sup­port work­force of jan­i­tors, bus dri­vers, food ser­vice work­ers, secu­ri­ty guards and oth­er low-paid work­ers who keep Sil­i­con Val­ley run­ning. Though they report to work every day along­side coders, devel­op­ers and oth­er mid-lev­el staff, they are cut out of the famous­ly high salaries and ben­e­fits of the tech elite. The wage dif­fer­en­tial is about much more than a dif­fer­ence in skill sets or qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Rely­ing on out­side staffing firms saves tech com­pa­nies mon­ey, as they don’t need to give sub-con­tract­ed work­ers access to the same ben­e­fits (such as health care and paid leave) that direct employ­ees receive. Staffing agen­cies offer low bids and make work­ers pay the price in lim­it­ed — or nonex­is­tent — benefits. 

Employ­ees of staffing com­pa­nies are start­ing to revolt, how­ev­er, ush­er­ing in what may be a new era of high­er labor stan­dards in the famous tech hub. These work­ers are orga­niz­ing, vot­ing for union mem­ber­ship and the pow­er of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, and pub­licly expos­ing their work­ing con­di­tions — namecheck­ing the com­pa­nies that con­tract their ser­vices — in the hopes of stir­ring up pop­u­lar sup­port. Adec­co” may not mean any­thing to the aver­age con­sumer, but Google” cer­tain­ly does — and many Google cus­tomers care about cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty. If work­ers suc­ceed, they could have a huge influ­ence on new­er tech hubs like New York and Chicago.

Val­ley of plen­ty, for a few

Sil­i­con Val­ley stretch­es across 1,854 square miles of for­mer fruit trees and includes some of the most high­ly val­ued land — and com­pa­nies — in the Unit­ed States. Apple is worth $1 tril­lion; Google $383 bil­lion; Face­book $250 bil­lion. Tech pro­fes­sion­als at such com­pa­nies make a mean annu­al wage of $112,610, accord­ing to 2014 sur­vey by tech­nol­o­gy-career web­site Dice​.com.

Sup­port work­ers say they want the slice they’ve earned of this high­ly prof­itable pie. Cárdenas got the idea to orga­nize his cowork­ers dur­ing a fall 2014 soci­ol­o­gy course at Ever­green Val­ley Col­lege in San Jose, where he is earn­ing his asso­ciate degree. Describ­ing labor con­fronta­tions with employ­ers, instruc­tor Frank Espinoza told Cárdenas, When you go up against a Goliath like that, you’ve got to have a lot of Davids.” The mes­sage that work­ers have tremen­dous pow­er in num­bers had a pro­found influ­ence on Cárdenas. He began talk­ing to fel­low Adec­co employ­ees at Google Express about whether they need­ed a union. There were numer­ous labor issues at the ware­house: a two-year lim­it on employ­ment; dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions, like cracked floors and dam­aged elec­tri­cal sys­tems; the sti­fling heat; low hourly wages of $13 to $14.

Adec­co respond­ed to the rum­blings in the work­force with a com­bi­na­tion of paci­fi­ca­tion — ven­ti­la­tion was improved, Cárdenas says — and union-bust­ing. Team­sters Vice Pres­i­dent Rome Aloise tells In These Times that the com­pa­ny brought in Jack­son Lewis, the noto­ri­ous anti-union law firm, and used every trick in the book to scare and intim­i­date the work­ers.” Cárdenas and Aloise say lawyers walked the floor and man­agers pulled work­ers aside or held lengthy cap­tive audi­ence” meet­ings to preach the pit­falls of union­iza­tion. Iron­i­cal­ly, Adec­co also sus­pend­ed Cárdenas for a day and a half on charges that he was bul­ly­ing cowork­ers in the course of his labor orga­niz­ing, which he denies. (Aloise tells In These Times that the Team­sters will be fil­ing an NLRB com­plaint on behalf of Cárdenas, along with two employ­ees who believe their fir­ings were retaliatory.)

Asked for com­ment on work­ers’ claims of labor prob­lems and union-bust­ing, an Adec­co spokesper­son said, There have been a num­ber of false claims made through­out this elec­tion process; we’re not able to com­ment on active legal mat­ters but objec­tions were filed with the NLRB around the elec­tion process. … We will ful­ly coop­er­ate with the NLRB’s inves­ti­ga­tion and the upcom­ing hear­ing.” She added that the com­pa­ny is sup­port­ive of any direc­tion freely cho­sen by our asso­ciates” but believe[s] that our asso­ciates are bet­ter off direct­ly deal­ing with us as their employ­er rather than involv­ing a union.”

Appar­ent­ly, work­ers didn’t share that belief. Adec­co employ­ees vot­ed on August 21 to join the Team­sters, yet anoth­er mile­stone in what might be con­sid­ered tech’s come­up­pance — the moment when labor orga­niz­ing spread like wild­fire across Sil­i­con Valley.

The first major stir­rings began in May 2014, when ven­er­a­ble civ­il rights orga­niz­er Jesse Jack­son launched a cam­paign focus­ing on racial and class dis­par­i­ties in the Val­ley with a bang, ral­ly­ing for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions for secu­ri­ty guards at the offices of semi­con­duc­tor man­u­fac­tur­er Broad­com. In Sep­tem­ber 2014, secu­ri­ty guards mobbed an Apple store to chant, Apple, Apple, you’re no good, treat your work­ers like you should.” Unite Here pro­test­ers gath­ered at Intel’s San­ta Clara offices in Novem­ber 2014 to hold the firm account­able for unfair treat­ment of food ser­vice work­ers employed by a cater­ing com­pa­ny. In a Decem­ber 2014 protest, Jack­son led a crowd of secu­ri­ty guards and food ser­vice work­ers — the major­i­ty of whom, like oth­er con­tract work­ers, were peo­ple of col­or — in a ral­ly at Apple’s Bay Area cam­pus in an Apple dodges tax­es, we pay the price” chant.

The Team­sters have seen four union vic­to­ries in 2015: the ware­house work­ers at Google Express, waste dis­pos­al work­ers at Genen­tech, and work­ers at two trans­porta­tion com­pa­nies that col­lec­tive­ly serve Apple, Genen­tech, Yahoo, eBay, Zyn­ga, Ever­note and Amtrak. These are the dri­vers of the infa­mous sym­bols of Sil­i­con Valley’s bur­geon­ing class war: the elite pri­vate bus­es from San Fran­cis­co and envi­rons to Sil­i­con Val­ley. (In recent years, the bus­es, which are exclu­sive to tech employ­ees, have attract­ed con­sid­er­able con­tro- ver­sy over their use of city bus stops.) Accord­ing to Aloise, the new con­tracts cov­er more than 200 dri­vers and guar­an­tee wages of rough­ly $60,000 and afford­able health insurance.

In addi­tion to the Team­sters and Unite Here, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) has begun orga­niz­ing work­ers with the help of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Coun­cil. SEIU cam­paigns are under­way at two of the largest Sil­i­con Val­ley secu­ri­ty staffing com­pa­nies, Uni­ver­sal Pro­tec­tion Ser­vice and Secu­ri­ty Indus­try Specialists.

Nor­man Meeks is a Uni­ver­sal Pro­tec­tion Ser­vice guard who is work­ing with SEIU to orga­nize his cowork­ers. Guards, he says, make $10 to $12 an hour with no ben­e­fits, except an option to buy into an expen­sive health insur­ance plan. Like the oth­er work­ers keep­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley afloat, they earn these near-min­i­mum wages while work­ing in the third-most expen­sive loca­tion in the country.

A tale of two valleys

Hous­ing costs are shoot­ing up in the Bay Area; San Jose’s rents, for exam­ple, rose 12 per­cent in 2014 alone. Even far-flung and once-afford­able regions of the Bay Area, like Rich­mond and Wal­nut Creek, are grow­ing too expen­sive for many work­ing-class peo­ple. Plan Bay Area, a region­al devel­op­ment plan, found that Sil­i­con Val­ley jan­i­tors earn an aver­age of $25,000 a year and spend more than half on hous­ing and tran­sit. Union­iz­ing and nego­ti­at­ing for bet­ter pay, Aloise says, may enable some work­ers to afford to live in Sil­i­con Val­ley and build lives in the com­mu­ni­ties where they work.

Sil­i­con Valley’s income gap also falls along stark racial lines, which is one rea­son Jesse Jack­son has become involved in labor orga­niz­ing there. Derec­ka Mehrens of com­mu­ni­ty-labor coali­tion Work­ing Part­ner­ships USA describes the sit­u­a­tion as one of occu­pa­tion­al seg­re­ga­tion.” Black and Lati­no work­ers are heav­i­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed among pro­gram­mers and oth­er top-paid tech per­son­nel, and they’re heav­i­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed on the flip side of the coin: that is, the peo­ple who dri­ve these staffers to work, clean up after them, feed them in lav­ish cor­po­rate cafe­te­rias, and keep them safe. White and Asian work­ers account for 21 per­cent of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff in Sil­i­con Val­ley, but 91 per­cent of per­son­nel at Google, accord­ing to sta­tis­tics the com­pa­ny released in 2014 — a good barom­e­ter for the indus­try as a whole, as many tech firms are reluc­tant to dis­close diver­si­ty data.

The tech indus­try defends itself by argu­ing that it needs to attract skilled coders. With an abun­dance of jobs to choose from, pro­gram­mers are enticed by com­pa­nies with the best pack­ages, includ­ing famous perks like Google’s in-house mas­sage therapists. 

But notably, the pro­gram­ming labor force is start­ing to grow, thanks to numer­ous tech train­ing pro­grams and the for­eign work­ers brought in on H‑1B visas (who are often under-paid and housed in cramped com­pa­ny quar­ters while they churn out code). Already, soft­ware engi­neers write the bulk of new code, while a large pool of pro­gram­mers act more like assem­bly line work­ers, snap­ping togeth­er lines of pre-exist­ing code. Wages in some sec­tors of soft­ware devel­op­ment are start­ing to fall as a result of a flood­ed labor mar­ket and a trend of hir­ing fresh, younger work­ers who cost less than their expe­ri­enced coun­ter­parts. The infa­mous bro­gram­mers of Sil­i­con Val­ley, in oth­er words, may want to con­sid­er whether they should be look- ing into union peti­tions of their own. 

Real employ­ees, please stand up

See­ing the writ­ing on the wall, some high-pro­file tech com­pa­nies are tak- ing steps to improve stan­dards for the work­ers they hire through staffing agen­cies. In May, per­haps feel­ing the heat from the Fight for 15 move­ment, Face­book announced that it would be man­dat­ing a $15 min­i­mum wage and var­i­ous ben­e­fits at con­trac­tors and ven­dors that per­form a sub­stan­tial amount of work” for Face­book. Oth­er com­pa­nies are bring­ing for­mer­ly sub-con­tract­ed employ­ees in-house, as Google did in Octo­ber 2014 with its secu­ri­ty ser­vices and Apple did in March 2015 with its secu­ri­ty guards. 

But rely­ing on tech firms to vol­un­tar­i­ly pro­mote bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions is unwise, says Derec­ka Mehrens of Work­ing Part­ner­ships USA. Once sup­port work­ers are moved in-house, tech com­pa­nies aren’t oblig­ed to meet the terms of the union con­tracts nego­ti­at­ed with staffing firms, and it’s van­ish­ing­ly rare for tech firms them­selves to be unionized.

Labor lawyer Moshe Mar­vit also notes that vol­un­tary ini­tia­tives like Facebook’s don’t include an over­sight mech­a­nism. Indeed, Face­book has yet to give details on whether it has imple­ment­ed its plan. Unions pro­vide more sure­ty; work­ers have a con­tract and a sys­tem for report­ing vio­la­tions and fil­ing grievances. 

An NLRB rul­ing in late August may intro­duce such over­sight mech­a­nisms, whether tech firms like it or not. In Brown­ing-Fer­ris, the NLRB clar­i­fied its stan­dard for whether two com­pa­nies con­sti­tute joint employ­ers.” Pre­vi­ous­ly, staffing firms and their clients were only con­sid­ered joint employ­ers if clients exer­cised a degree of con­trol over work­ers, such as requir­ing back­ground checks or set­ting hours. Now, the NLRB says, if a client could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly exer­cise con­trol — even if it doesn’t — it’s con­sid­ered a joint employer.

Mar­vit believes this rul­ing could have a huge impact on Sil­i­con Val­ley. Now, com­pa­nies can­not look the oth­er way on wages and work­ing con­di­tions, and when sub­con­tract­ed work­ers union­ize, staffing agen­cies and the firms that use them both have to come to the bar­gain­ing table.

As union cam­paigns pro­lif­er­ate, the ware­hous­es, break­rooms and clean­ing clos­ets of Sil­i­con Val­ley could be the breed­ing grounds for some­thing larg­er. Sil­i­con Val­ley is the stan­dard-set­ter in one of the few boom­ing sec­tors of the econ­o­my. The region is a test case for how prof­its are shared in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Will a huge­ly lucra­tive indus­try dis­trib­ute the wealth to the many who make its suc­cess pos­si­ble, from star vision­ar­ies to jan­i­tors, or will it con­tin­ue to con­cen­trate its prof­its in the hands of the few? 

s.e. smith is an essay­ist, jour­nal­ist and activist is on social issues who has writ­ten for The Guardian, Bitch Mag­a­zine, Alter­Net, Jezebel, Salon, the Sun­dance Chan­nel blog, Long­shot Mag­a­zine, Glob­al Com­ment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Repro­duc­tive Health Real­i­ty Check. Fol­low @sesmithwrites.
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