On the wild frontier of Silicon Valley’s gold rush, rebellion is stirring beneath the surface. In the cafeterias and shuttle vans of Technotopia, workers on the margins of the tech boom are organizing—and the labor momentum is going viral.
Five hundred workers just voted to unionize at Facebook’s cafeteria contractor, Flagship, which represents some 10 percent of the total food-service workforce in Silicon Valley. The victory builds on other recent union wins at Intel and Google for cafeteria and custodial staff—vibrant organizing campaigns, led by UNITE HERE and the Teamsters, that combined with grassroots community outreach to establish solid union contracts in the bottom tiers of the freewheeling tech sector. Activists are demanding fair hours and wages, as well as secure benefits, union rights, and other basic entitlements for the front-line workers of the world’s leading tech brands.
Beyond workplace campaigns, UNITE HERE’s organizing with subcontracted cafeteria staff might uplift labor standards for food-service workers across the region, while galvanizing a community that includes women of color, immigrant workers, and budding community activists. Alongside these union eateries are the newly unionized shuttle-bus drivers, who are pushing back against an increasingly deregulated driver-for-hire workforce. Facebook’s shuttle-bus drivers recently negotiated a contract raising hourly wages by about 50 percent to $27.50, plus health benefits and five weeks of paid vacation.
Cafeteria workers embody the extreme inequalities of Big Tech’s economic dominion. Dining-hall servers generally earn less than $700 a week, and sink about two-thirds of each paycheck into monthly rent (median rent in Silicon Valley costs nearly $1,800). Whether they’re at Intel’s pasta bar or the local drive-through, food-service jobs mire workers in poverty and perpetuate racial segregation through poverty pay, erratic schedules, and unsafe working conditions.
Degrading labor conditions have eroded the area’s community fabric over the years, according to an analysis by Silicon Valley Rising, and median family incomes sank by about 20 percent from 2000 to 2010. In contrast to the exploding salaries of tech professionals, one in three contract workers faces long-term underemployment and unaffordable housing costs, according to the organization’s community-labor coalition. Meanwhile, their children attend underfunded schools, and homeless encampments have mushroomed alongside gleaming high-rises. Gentrification is shattering working-class ethnic neighborhoods as professionals move in, yet overall job growth has largely stalled since the end of the first dot-com bubble. And as urban infrastructure erodes, CEOs are driven to work by commuter-shuttle drivers who can barely afford the bus fare to work.
Dan Gretz, a security officer, reflected on how the volatile economy was making his neighborhood unlivable. He was earning $24 an hour, and then:
A new security firm took over my building and dropped my pay to $14 overnight. I cut back on expenses as much as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I had to refinance my car twice. I added debt to credit cards. I just finished going through bankruptcy, and my fiancé and I can’t afford to live together anymore.
Silicon Valley’s wealth gap might seem insurmountable, but labor groups are pushing tech giants to take the lead and raise the bar for their struggling contract workers. Samuel Rasheed II, a cook at Facebook, says the union victory affirms to him “that I have the support of my other coworkers and we can continue to work here and build a foundation for future employees and for our children.” By organizing, he adds, “we showed that we can be one and we have more power as one instead of individually.”
And while the federal government rolls back labor regulations and social spending, it will take all the mass mobilization they can muster. Despite the Bay Area’s cultural liberalism, racial and gender stratification shape the region’s income inequality. Blacks and Latinos make up the majority of low-wage earners in the tech sector, and, although Silicon Valley’s blue-collar workers are more diverse in race and gender than the white-male technorati, their communities suffer doubly from inequality as they face both unlivable wages and racial barriers. That’s why groups like Silicon Valley Rising increasingly tie labor struggles to structural discrimination in their cross-cutting demands for affordable housing, immigrants’ rights, and closing the wealth gap.
A combination of political pressure and labor mobilization have also promoted some key progressive legislative reforms. San Jose’s Opportunity to Work initiative, for example, establishes standards for stable hours and sustainable schedules that encourage local firms to hire full-time as opposed to part-time workers. Meanwhile, city minimum-wage initiatives in San Jose, Cupertino, and other tech-boom towns have put workers on track to reach a $15 hourly wage years ahead of the state’s 2022 phase-in deadline.
While Facebook’s bosses envision the future in terms of technological advancement, Rasheed sees personal fulfillment: He hopes his union job will anchor his family here, so that his children have the opportunity to grow up surrounded by good schools and burgeoning tech-career opportunities.
We all want to continue to be able to live here.… Once I heard my coworkers’ stories and how they wanted to provide for their families and not have to struggle as much as they do…and not have to worry about paying for healthcare, or paying for transportation…it gave me a sense that when I joined that I wasn’t alone.… If we’re all in it together, and we all set a certain standard of what we want as one, then it’s going to be a lot easier for those coming behind us, it’ll be a lot easier for us, and it’ll be a lot easier for people in other places.
Big Tech’s rank and file are launching a platform of their own: a bridge of solidarity over the Valley’s steep social divides.