the tech economy

Silicon Valley, Meet Organized Labor

San Francisco, United States. 25th June 2014 -- A woman pickets with a 'Google: be a new hope' sign during a 'Star Wars' themed protest outside Moscone West during the Google I/O conference opening keynote. -- A Star Wars themed 'Don't be evil' protest was held outside Moscone West as the Google I/O conference opened. People protested on issues of eviction and Google buses, wages for security guards working at Google and taxation.
It’s about to get messy. Photo: Steve Rhodes / Demotix/Corbis

Tech companies and labor unions have never been friends. Whether union protectionism has made it tech’s enemy or, as historians have written, tech’s executive class was opposed to unions from the beginning, the fact remains that the Teamsters and other labor groups have never had much of a foothold in Silicon Valley.

But that’s about to change. Silicon Valley’s newest labor challenge is coming from the tech underclass — the blue-collar workers who cook, drive, and clean for all those coddled engineers, and who are getting tired of watching the incredible spoils of the tech boom pass them by.

This week, the Times reported that the Teamsters are attempting to organize bus drivers at Facebook. These drivers aren’t actually Facebook employees — they’re hired through an outside firm called Loop Transportation. But organizers are hoping that by appealing directly to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, they’ll convince Facebook to either use a unionized contractor instead of Loop, or pressure Loop to let its drivers organize.

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,” the union reps’ letter to Zuckerberg read. “This is reminiscent of a time when noblemen were driven around in their coaches by their servants.”

If successful, the Teamsters won’t stop at Facebook. They’ll continue down the peninsula to Google, Apple, and other large tech companies who employ drivers from similar third-party companies. “We hope there will be a domino effect,” Teamsters official Rome Aloise told the Times.

Silicon Valley might not seem like the most obvious target for labor organizers, given the lavish perks and high pay that many tech companies offer their employees. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently, Google bus drivers make something like $18.75 an hour, and a Facebook driver who spoke to the Times made $20.80 an hour — hardly poverty-line wages, even in the land of $4 toast. And some tech companies have been known to give contract employees the use of their employee gyms and cafeterias, even though they’re not strictly required to.

So, what do the bus drivers want? Well, for starters, a better schedule. As of now, most Silicon Valley shuttle drivers are paid only for the time they spend actually driving people to and from work in the mornings and evenings. For many, there’s a five- or six-hour chunk in the middle of the day during which they simply wait in their empty buses, or in nearby lounges provided by the tech companies. Drivers aren’t paid for these waiting periods, and the gaps aren’t big enough to take on a second job, meaning that for many, it’s simply wasted time. Tech companies would never allow inefficiencies like these to persist among their salaried employees, but they’re de rigueur for contractors.

This isn’t the first time tech workers have tried to organize. In 1992, a group of mainly Latina women went on strike against Silicon Valley chip manufacturer Versatronex, citing unfair wages and few benefits. And in 2008, contract janitors serving Yahoo, Google, and other tech firms walked out after a contract dispute. Some of these strikes have succeeded in limited ways, but none have had far-reaching effects, leading some labor experts to conclude that the tech industry is simply un-organizable.

But I disagree. I think Facebook’s bus drivers are smart to insist on union representation now, for several reasons:

First, it’s not 2008 anymore. Before the tech boom, 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, and the tech buses have become an important flashpoint for anti-gentrification protesters. Facebook’s bus drivers have more organizing tools at their disposal than 2008’s protesters did — including Facebook itself. And a sort of blue-collar resistance movement already exists within the tech world, which could give the drivers some natural allies.

Second, a high-profile labor dispute could hurt Facebook’s image, which in turn could affect its ability to recruit the people whose talents really matter to them. Software engineers in Silicon Valley aren’t amoral office grunts — they care about the politics of the companies they work for, and they don’t want to work for exploitative corporations, no matter how good the pay is. Labor unions could seize on the liberal guilt of tech workers by turning working conditions for drivers into an ethical litmus test. Facebook’s competitors might even use it as a recruiting pitch — work for LinkedIn, the company that treats its support staff fairly! — and in today’s cutthroat tech labor market, there’s no way Mark Zuckerberg will allow a highly paid iOS developer to slip through his hands because he thinks Facebook stiffs its drivers.

Third, tech companies can afford to shell out. As The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, Bay Area start-ups are flush with cash, and are spending record amounts on employee salaries and office space, along with recruiting and retention perks. (One CEO cited in the article built a custom MMA fighting ring for his workers.) Facebook can’t make the argument that pressuring Loop to allow collective bargaining by drivers (or using a contractor whose workers are already unionized) would materially hurt its business. And in comparison to the billions of dollars it’s already spending keeping its full-time employees happy, even a substantial pay bump for contract drivers would barely move the needle.

How much does a labor protest like this ultimately cost Google? Photo: Steve Rhodes / Demotix/Corbis

Already, we’re seeing some movements toward fairer working conditions for the tech underclass. Google, for example, announced last week that it was putting more than 200 of its security guards on its payroll, rather than hiring them through a contracting firm. Now those guards will be eligible for steady pay and the same benefits as regular Google employees, and it’s likely they’ll be less inclined to unionize as a result.

Mark Zuckerberg should follow Google’s example. As many CEOs before him could attest, it’s easier to solve labor rumblings when they’re small and relatively contained. It may turn out to be cheaper to give bus drivers what they want now than to let them become full-fledged antagonists.