In “The other Silicon Valley,” Al Jazeera takes a look at how California’s tech boom affects the working class. This is part four of a seven-part series.
SAN FRANCISCO — The labor movement is carving a path straight through the heart of Silicon Valley. In early March, unions won two key victories in the area within days of one another. First, Apple bowed to pressure from the labor union SEIU-USWW and agreed to directly employ the security guards on its Cupertino, California, campus, instead of hiring the work out through a subcontractor. Then, Facebook shuttle drivers gained final approval for their union contract with Loop Transportation, the shuttle company that carries employees to and from Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters.
The Loop drivers are now members of Teamsters Local 853 — which just the previous month had also successfully organized drivers for Apple, Yahoo, eBay, and Evernote, among others. Sean Hinman, one of the recently unionized Facebook shuttle drivers, said he was glad to join the Teamsters, in part because the cost of living in the Silicon Valley area is so steep.
“If you’re asking me to work here, I’m asking for at least the bare minimum to give me something to survive on,” Hinman told Al Jazeera. “The bare minimum for a studio [apartment] here is $1,600" per month.
As in nearby San Francisco, housing costs are soaring in Silicon Valley, driven largely by the ongoing deluge of tech sector capital. Average wages are on the rise as well according to a recent study from Joint Venture Silicon Valley, but the income gap remains vast: Joint Venture found that jobs it classified as “high-skill, high wage” earned a median annual income of $118,651, compared to $26,847 for “low-skill, low-wage” jobs and $54,892 for jobs classified as “middle-skill, middle-wage.”
That disparity is both a challenge and an opportunity for the labor unions of California’s Bay Area. Silicon Valley’s largest companies have the available wealth to better compensate their low- and middle-wage workers. If regional labor unions compel the companies to do so, the unions may be able to significantly expand their membership — and power — in the process. That’s why unions have spent recent years pouring resources into local organizing efforts. Those efforts, along with a crucial assist from San Francisco's city council equivalent, the Board of Supervisors, are now beginning to pay dividends for the shuttle driver and security guard campaigns.
Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, said California unions are focusing on new organizing in large part because — while they’ve become very adept at winning electoral victories and fending off potential legislative attacks — “a lot of us are sick of being defensive."
The state's labor movement has been "very good at being the opposite of Wisconsin," Paulson said. Unions have traditionally been strong in Wisconsin, but over the past few years a state government has dealt a series of crushing blows to the labor movement, including passing a law restricting collective bargaining for public employees and a law that bans union shops. Labor in California has remained strong enough to make such attacks unlikely, but Paulson said he and others in the movement have tired of focusing so much on simply avoiding disaster.
“Over the last few years, some of us have just said, fuck that,” Paulson told Al Jazeera. “Let’s do what we want to do to fight for workers. And so the state federation of labor in particular decided that we are going to put our resources into organizing. Into real organizing, that is going to result in a collective bargaining agreement at some time or another, and people being in a labor union, and officially having a voice at work."
The California Labor Federation selected three particular campaigns on which to combine resources: The SEIU-USWW drive to organize Silicon Valley security officers, as well as a UFCW-backed campaign to organize workers at Walmart and a similar Teamster-driven campaign at food processing plants in California’s Central Valley. Every union in the federation is expected to contribute something to those three campaigns, regardless of whether the campaigns have anything to do with their immediate interests, Paulson said.
“Even school employees, we’re going to send them to the Walmart campaign,” he said. “We’re going to send them to food processing and help the Teamsters out in Central Valley. All of us central labor councils, we'll organize civil disobedience and actions outside of Google and Apple in order to reinforce organizing for security officers.”
After the security officers campaign began to pick up supporters and public attention, the labor movement started throwing itself behind other organizing drives in the Silicon Valley area, according to SEIU-USWW organizing director Sanjay Garla. The most prominent of those campaigns is the Teamsters’ effort to unionize shuttle drivers — but, Garla said, “there’s a lot of talk about how food-service workers are also part of this fight."
“Everyone sat down and said, ‘How do we back up these security officers that are going up against these major giants?’” he said. “It was really about supporting the security officers, and it’s turning into something more.”
Right now, the main focus of the security officers campaign is getting major companies to either directly employ their security officers, or to agree “to use contractors that have a track record of respecting the rights and the work that service workers do,” Garla said. In other words, SEIU-USWW is trying to make sure security work goes to contractors who compensate their employees relatively generously — and who are less likely to fight unionization. In addition to persuading Apple to directly employ its security guards, SEIU-USWW has successfully pressured Google to bring its officers in-house.
The Board of Supervisors Steps In
The Teamsters are taking a different approach. In addition to organizing workers at both Loop Transportation and fellow contractor Compass Transportation, the Teamsters have won an important legislative coup in San Francisco. Due to a resolution unanimously passed in late March by the Board of Supervisors, the city’s main transit authority now has a mandate to get directly involved in shuttle bus unionization campaigns.
Tech shuttle buses in San Francisco are privately operated, but they use public bus stops to pick up and drop off their passengers. For this the shuttle companies must obtain permits from the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA); the resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors asks the MTA to factor “labor harmony” into its deliberations when deciding whether to award such permits.
The resolution defines “labor harmony” vaguely, but reasons that the MTA has an interest in preventing any company facing labor unrest from utilizing public, or Muni, bus stops because of the likelihood that protests could “result in the disruption of the orderly operation of SFMTA buses.” Board of Supervisors member Scott Weiner, who sponsored the resolution, said explicitly that the resolution was developed in concert with the Teamsters and was intended to support organizing efforts.
“Obviously the Board can’t require any company to allow unionization, but what we can do as a city is say we want some showing of labor harmony,” he said. “Because if these shuttles are using our Muni bus stops, any kind of labor discord would disrupt not just the shuttle service but the Muni service and traffic generally."
The MTA is a quasi-independent agency, meaning the Board of Supervisors cannot directly dictate its policy, but Weiner said he is “cautiously optimistic that the MTA will be receptive to our request.” If it does, the MTA could withhold permits from shuttle companies that resist unionization. Doug Bloch, political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, said the legislation could also apply to a shuttle company locked in a contract dispute with its already unionized workforce.
“It leaves it up to the executive director of the MTA how to enforce it,” he said. "We, the Teamsters, aren’t telling them how to enforce it. But we are going to be telling them when there are companies we think they need to enforce it on."
In a response to a query regarding the labor harmony resolution, Loop Transportation CEO Jeff Leonoudakis said in a statement that his company has “a culture of always trying to get better and being good members of the community."
“We are committed to providing our drivers with the best possible working conditions, and we continue to explore ways to deliver one of the best wage and benefit packages in the Bay Area, including negotiating with our drivers who have union representation,” he said.