On a warm afternoon in late February, 200 people filed into the social hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, set back from a busy street on San Jose’s eastside. The large crowd was excited and boisterous—the event has been months in the making—with people calling out loud greetings to each other in Spanish and English. During a quiet moment, Chava Bustamante stepped up to the podium. A longtime union organizer, he now runs a group called LUNA—Latinos United for a New America—whose logo was emblazoned across his bright yellow shirt. “Make a mental note of today,” he told the group. “When we look back, we’re going to say, ‘I was part of this historic moment.’”
The moment he was referring to was the launch of Silicon Valley Rising. Born in the heart of a booming tech empire, this broad coalition of labor, community and faith groups hopes to use that boom to benefit, instead of displace, the working poor. Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino is just a dozen miles away. Facebook is further down the highway, in Menlo Park. But those tech companies are only one side of the valley, with their sleek gadgets and social networks and, above all, enormous wealth. This modest social hall, with its cracked ceiling tiles and twice-a-week food service to the hungry, was a reminder that out here, in the center of all that is new and shiny, the age-old problem of poverty persists.
A group of young Latinas stepped forward to share their vision for the future: a Silicon Valley where tents are only used for camping, not as shelters of last resort; where workers are no longer invisible and disposable; where paychecks cover the cost of housing and food. These dreams sound basic, but they are ambitious. Rents in San Jose increased 13 percent last year, to a median that now exceeds $3,000 a month. Until recently the city was home to “the Jungle,” reported to be the largest homeless encampment in the nation. A 2015 report from the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies found that three in ten Silicon Valley residents don’t earn enough to support themselves; this includes many of tech’s invisible workers—the security officers, shuttle drivers, janitors, cooks and landscapers—who are supporting an industry that is pricing them out.
“Things are definitely getting worse,” said Michael Johnson, during an interview several days later. Johnson is an officer with Universal Protection Service, a large security contractor that the union seeks to organize. He has spent a decade guarding tech offices for a handful of security companies, and has seen his pay remain flat—as he puts it, “not a whole lot more than the minimum wage”—and benefits disappear. He lives in a rented room, depending on donated food from a friend, a fellow guard whose worksite has catered meals. He places the blame squarely on the high–tech companies, who have forced contractors to cut costs to win bids.
“We’ve participated in their success,” he said of the tech industry. “Why can’t we participate in their prosperity?”