Outside the Gates: Unions Versus Big Tech

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Google's Mountain View campus is a sprawling checkerboard of manicured lawns and fountains around a cluster of sleek, blocky buildings. A small fleet of yellow and green bikes provides employees with an easy form of transportation along the winding streets and paths, and many of them lay scattered in various corners of the Googleplex. Buses pull in each day, squiring employees from their high-priced apartments in San Francisco. During lunch breaks people take yoga classes, enjoy concierge services, drink artisanal coffees, and wander around wearing the latest line of Google Glasswear. A squadron of part-time security guards forms a human moat around the buildings, protecting the machinery inside.

It's that latter group that Samuel Kehinde worries about whenever he visits Google. A tall, lanky Nigerian with a seemingly indefatigable work ethic — his cellphone rings nonstop on the drive from Oakland to Mountain View, and he always answers — Kehinde worked as a security guard himself after immigrating to the U.S. in 2003, and spent two years guarding food stalls at the Public Market in Emeryville. "We did not have a union, so we had no benefits, no vacation, and I only made $9 an hour," Kehinde says, citing the host of factors that led him to join the Service Employees International Union. After successfully unionizing his peers at the Public Market, he quit to work for the SEIU full time.

Now Kehinde coordinates various security worker campaigns for the SEIU, many of which have proved successful. Thus far, 13 companies have joined in San Francisco and the East Bay, including AlliedBarton, which serves Alta Bates Summit and the Southland Mall, and ABM, which serves Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco. Kehinde helped negotiate contracts at Kaiser hospital and at Oracle's Pleasanton campus.

But he and other SEIU representatives haven't gotten any Silicon Valley companies to sign on, yet. So while Securitas Security Services has several union sites in the East Bay and San Francisco, its guards at Facebook aren't unionized. The same goes for Andrews International, which contracts with Oracle. Guards at the Pleasanton campus have union representation; their counterparts at the company's Redwood City headquarters do not.

In June, the SEIU ramped up its campaigns to organize security workers in the tech sector, on the heels of successful contract negotiations in San Francisco and the East Bay. They'd set their sights specifically on employees of Security Industry Specialists Inc., a Culver City company that holds contracts with three of the "Big 5" tech companies on the Peninsula: Apple, Google, and eBay.

Union organizers accuse SIS of unfair union-busting tactics and poor labor policies. They say it keeps the vast majority of its workers on a part-time or "flex" system that prevents them from earning enough money to support their families, let alone rent an apartment in Silicon Valley. Organizers contend that because the company doesn't provide health benefits to most of its workers, it's forcing them to rely on public clinics or state-issued Medi-Cal. So in a roundabout way, the richest tech companies in the world are outsourcing their health care obligations to taxpayers.

Kevin O'Donnell, who directs communications for SEIU, says that many employees on the Apple and Google contracts have to live in single room occupancy hotels in San Jose, because they can't afford housing. Others shack up with their parents. He knows of middle-aged security workers who still need roommates.

"Our organizers have heard all sorts of housing horror stories," he says. "You can only imagine that would happen in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, combined with wages we see as low as $9 an hour. When you take those low wages, and the high price of housing, you're going to get people who live in subsidized housing, or who are couch-surfing."

In other words, the same nickel-and-dime tactics that journalist Barbara Ehrenreich exposed, and other big-box retailers, is being replicated by the world's greatest innovators. Labor advocates say it's created a yawning and increasingly fretful class disparity in Silicon Valley and beyond. The wealth created by tech companies has raised property values enormously in both San Francisco and the surrounding Peninsula areas. A guard's $17,000-$19,000 annual salary won't pay for a one-bedroom in Menlo Park, or Palo Alto, or Mountain View, so most guards have to live in East Palo Alto or San Jose. In 2012, average apartment rental rates on the Peninsula hovered just below $2,000 a month, while median household income dropped below $100,000, according to the Silicon Valley index. Contract workers have an added cost burden of commuting to work, and they don't get to take the charter buses.

The union believes that Apple and Google have the power to change this system simply by ordering the security company, SIS, to treat its employees better: Because SIS is desperate to keep those lucrative contracts, it will abide by any rules the tech giants set, union members argue. For its part, SIS has vigorously opposed the union, raising questions about its motivations and claiming it merely wants to have a wide sphere of influence in Silicon Valley. Although SIS spokesmen didn't want to comment on the record, they've provided a rebuttal on the company's website. They claim that the SEIU is targeting tech companies directly because it's failed to get workers to sign on.

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