Silicon Valley is a place of immense wealth—and punishing poverty. Long before Donald Trump became president, the subcontracted workers who provide critical services to tech companies throughout the Valley faced a litany of challenges: low wages, high housing prices, racial discrimination, and hostile immigration authorities, among others. Now they’re dealing with Trump, who threatens to make all of their existing problems worse, and add many more to the list.
We spoke to Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of Silicon Valley Rising, about organizing Silicon Valley’s tech-service workforce and how it fits into the fight against Trump. We talked about the power of collective action, and its potential not only to improve the lives of workers but also to produce meaningful political change.
What is Silicon Valley Rising, when was it founded, and what kind of work does it do?
Silicon Valley Rising is a campaign to inspire the tech sector to build an inclusive middle class here in its home region. In 2014, it was becoming clear that the economy was bouncing back from the recession in a major way—but our communities weren’t. One in three working households were making too little to get by.
We held a big community meeting that spring with low-wage workers, housing advocates, clergy, immigrant leaders, and unions. Everybody brought their piece of the puzzle to try to put together a solution.
We realized that moment was a lot like all the other moments we’ve seen the Silicon Valley economy boom. There are a lot of patterns, like subcontracting, that allow the industry to do really well at the same time that many of its workers and neighbors aren’t. We knew it divided along racial lines. We needed to tell the story of how this could be possible.
This was at the same time when tech was getting a lot of scrutiny for not having enough diversity in its workforce. Which was funny because we were talking to plenty of African Americans and Latinos working for tech—the security officers, the janitors, the cafeteria workers, the folks driving the Google bus. But they don’t show up in the diversity numbers because they don’t work directly for the tech companies. They work for subcontractors.
So we published a report that summer saying that tech’s real diversity problem is occupational segregation: You’ve got white and Asian workers directly employed by the tech companies earning six figures, and you’ve got black and brown workers on the exact same campuses employed by subcontractors, earning barely more than minimum wage.
We had one cafeteria worker who was living with her three kids in one bedroom of her ex-mother-in-law’s house because that was all they could afford. She reached the breaking point when her kids wanted a Christmas tree but they couldn’t have one because there was literally nowhere to put it in that one room. So they moved out to the Central Valley. Rent was cheaper, but that left her commuting four hours a day to her job and never seeing her kids.