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Silicon Valley's Champions of the Forgotten

A coalition of unions is bringing underappreciated service workers out of the shadows.


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Jiovanny Martinez can recall the moment he first thought of unionizing. The security officer had been working at Facebook’s Menlo Park campus for six months when he and his colleagues were prohibited from sitting down during their eight-hour shift. “That’s realistically what started it,” Martinez says.

Martinez, a 30-year-old security worker, has been a contract officer for Facebook for two years. He and his wife, a fellow officer at Facebook, are San Jose natives who are feeling their grip on financial security slipping away. Martinez makes $18 per hour, which is on the higher end of security guard wages. (The average in the Bay Area is $15 an hour, and the pay rate can fall as low as $12.50 at non-tech sites.) But a competitive wage isn’t a livable one for the Martinezes, who are raising two young daughters, pay out of pocket for health insurance, and each receive just three sick days a year.

So in January, Martinez and his coworkers joined Service Employees International Union–United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), which represents 45,000 uniformed men and women and is part of Silicon Valley Rising (SVR), a coalition of 16 labor, faith, and community organizations. The groups share a common goal: addressing rising inequality in the Bay Area, fueled chiefly by the tech industry. In 2016, SVR secured working-condition improvements that included up to 25 paid days off and as much as 50 percent in raises for shuttle bus drivers at large tech firms. Now it’s trying to do the same for security officers.

“What happens to a human being when they stand for four hours at a time, eight hours a day, five days a week? It really does wreck the body,” says Sanjay Garla, the vice president of SEIU-USWW. The fight has evolved over the past year. First, the officers reached an agreement with their employers—which include Allied Universal, Securitas, G4S, and Cypress Security—that allowed them to negotiate their contracts directly with their clients, among them Google and Facebook. Then began the current phase: negotiating with tech firms for better pay, more time off , and a less expensive or free health insurance plan.

For the workers SVR speaks for, livable wages and fair contracts aren’t just workplace issues, Garla says, but also matters of racial justice. In 2014, Working Partnerships USA, a labor campaign strategy organization working alongside SVR, found that 13 percent of Bay Area tech companies’ security workers were black and 28 percent were Latino; 74 percent of the groundskeepers were Latino, as were 69 percent of the janitors. Google’s and Facebook’s payroll employees, like coders and managers, were only 1 percent black and 2 and 3 percent Latino, respectively. “This is a workforce that is predominantly people of color,” Garla says, “and if we’re going to heal institutionalized racism, we’ve got to look in our own backyards and figure out what we’re doing.”

New contracts haven’t been signed yet, but organizers are keeping up the pressure. On October 19 in downtown San Jose, a group of SVR organizations presented a list of demands to Google, including those relating to security officers. The next week, factory employees at Tesla rallied after layoffs that were rumored to be in retaliation for the unionization drive. “Sadly, I’m not surprised this is the way [tech companies are] conducting themselves,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, deputy executive director of Working Partnerships USA.

Still, organizers are hopeful that the tech industry’s purported commitment to diversity will make theirs a winning fight. Says Fernandez, “Those working people need to be a part of the prosperity that’s being created in the region.”

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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