With a beautiful Labor Day weekend looming just beyond my Friday deadline, I thought I'd celebrate by dipping into the SF Weekly mailbag. Labor Day weekend, after all, is about not laboring, and the easiest columns to write consist of letters and answers. Thankfully, a column last month describing dog-walking activists battling with native-plant advocates produced enough mail to last into next year.
I began with a note from one Michael Mooney, a kindly park ranger who says he doesn't ordinarily agree with SF Weekly.
Dear Matt Davis,
Thank you very much for your article about the Natural Areas Program (NAP). Although I have rarely agreed with your perspective in many of your columns that I have read, I believe you have described the NAP debate about as accurately as possible. Your writing ability really impresses me. It is obvious that some people and some media are trying to cater to the very well organized dog people at the expense of us environmentalists. I am happy to see that you and SF Weekly are brave enough to tell it like it is.
As with any letter praising my valor, I double-checked the top of Mr. Mooney's note to make sure he had sent it to the right person. He had not. The letter was actually addressed to Matt Davis, which happens to be the name of a comedian in Southern California. I forwarded Mooney's letter to Davis, who'll be performing at LuLu's Beehive in North Hollywood on Sept. 13.
Dear Mr. Mooney,
I am not sure what the requirements are for being a park ranger, but I am going to look into it, as your views frighten me.
What is it about NAPS that you want to debate? I, for one, would not be able to keep my sanity and strong work ethic without a good afternoon nap a couple of times a week. Don't forget that Sunday afternoon nap after you read the newspaper. Or perhaps you would want to debate that we have newspapers, or perhaps even outlaw Sunday afternoons altogether?
Then you go on to insult the dog people. Now, naps is one thing, but this has gone way to far. The dog people are good people. This is 2002. Haven't we had enough of this racial profiling? Just because they are half human and half dog doesn't mean you should insult them. Yes, they are very well organized; you would be too if you had the disadvantage of eating from dog bowls and sleeping outside. It's time you woke up, Mr. Mooney.
Do they allow communists to be park rangers? I am really going to look into this.
Matt B. Davis
Just one letter into a mailbag column and we were into a red-baiting, racial-profiling conflagration. It was enough to make me rethink my Labor Day week of leisure — particularly given that coasting columnists seem at risk in these hard economic times. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter, for one, was demoted last Wednesday from her years-old op-ed-page perch to the Sunday Insight section. A group calling itself the Media Alliance posted “Save Stephanie Salter's Column!” fliers about town, and Wednesday the Alliance gathered a group of people outside the Chronicle entrance to protest.
The lunchtime demonstration, which was attended by sign-carrying priests, union leaders, NOW women's rights activists — 125 58-year-old white liberals in all — struck me as a wonderful idea. I have long believed in university-style tenure for newspaper columnists. How can editorialists possibly enjoy true freedom of speech, I've always thought, without counting on guaranteed lifetime job security? I felt even more encouraged upon encountering Dan Stone, 58, a temporary office worker who was passing out “Save Stephanie Salter's Column!” fliers on the southwest corner of Fifth and Mission, across the street from the protesters. I asked Stone why he was doing this.
“The powers that be didn't like what Stephanie Salter had to say,” Stone said, as he pressed leaflets into the hands of passers-by. “I think it's censorship, pure and simple.”
Delighted at finding a fellow traveler, I pressed further.
“Would you be interested in protesting in front of SF Weekly if they canceled my column?” I asked, dreaming of tenure-based job security and decades of leisurely letters columns.
“I don't know you. I don't know what you write. I don't care about what SF Weekly writes,” Stone explained.
I excused myself politely, crossed the street, and watched Salter emerge from the Chronicle building into the cheering crowd and then weep a few minutes. I asked burly Chronicle technology columnist Henry Norr, who had been chanting pro-Salter slogans along with the rest of the crowd, whether he thought this might be the beginning of a successful tenure-for-columnists movement.
“I doubt it,” he said. “It's an interesting idea, though.”
Norr covered lots of “interesting ideas” during the dot-com splat. I paid him heed, abandoned my tenure-for-columnists idea, and wandered off to lunch.
My desire for job security, and the concomitant leisurely Labor Day weekends, will have to wait for an economic recovery, I realized. Yet this prospect seems remoter by the day. The advertising business, which sustains column writing, leisurely and otherwise, and traditionally serves as a barometer for the rest of the economy, is in a historically hideous slump. America is starting to look a little bit like Japan did after its own bubble economy collapsed 13 year ago, precipitating that country's near-permanent state of economic malaise.
Clearly, I needed a seer, a person who could illustrate for me the shape of future Labor Day weekends, someone who could show whether we'll be swimming in pink slips or floating on the crest of another boom. I found Ricardo Olguin, a 38-year-old bricklayer whose wife and children still live in his hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, a smallish city in Mexico's central high plains. Olguin has worked four years in the U.S., most recently as a janitor at Yahoo!, the Internet portal. Olguin was fired Aug. 12, he says, in reprisal for working with union representatives who wish to organize Yahoo!'s contractor, Team Services Inc., one of Silicon Valley's largest nonunion janitorial employers. [page]
“My hope, more than anything, is to obtain some security for my family,” Olguin says. “I'd like to have a good wage and be treated fairly. Someday, I don't know when, I'd like to bring my wife and kids here. But that's just a dream now.”
While some journalists might write about Olguin's plight out of sympathy — he was, after all, making about $7 an hour, working late, feeling abused by Team Services bosses, who he said insulted him at every opportunity — I actually spoke with the former janitor for my own selfish reasons.
Olguin's fate is intertwined with the fate of the rest of the Bay Area. That's because in the long run, his quest to earn better wages for service workers could actually create an economic boost for the rest of us as well.
While much of the past decade's talk of a “new economy” of free-floating horizontal entrepreneurial network-to-market synergies was so much balderdash, there was a novel economic trend afoot: The midcentury expansion of the American working middle class was sputtering. Our bubble boom had been accompanied by a widening gap between blue- and white-collar workers. The hordes of service workers ringing up the dot-com workers' Jolt sodas and cleaning their floors were making a pittance. In the past 25 years the average real income of the poorest fifth of families fell 21 percent, while the richest fifth's rose 30 percent. In Silicon Valley, start-up companies such as Yahoo! abandoned the traditional practice of hiring in-house employees to do their cleaning, a job that 10 years ago typically paid $14 an hour. They cut costs by hiring nonunion contractors; pay at Team Services starts at $6.50 an hour, the company's attorney told me.
Now that the bogus rhetoric surrounding the phony late-1990s tech boom has been discredited, it's time to look at a way that Silicon Valley companies actually inhibited Bay Area economic development.
During the same period that personal computers were causing Americans to fancy themselves amid an economic revolution, the countries of the former Soviet Union really were creating “new economies.” Looking back, researchers now believe that the closer these countries came to reproducing the economic inequality of Silicon Valley, the less likely they were to build a successful free-market system.
Economic star-performer Poland, for example, managed to grow at an average 2.8 percent during the 1990s. Russia, meanwhile, shrank by more than a third during the same period. The difference? The biggest one was the countries' comparative level of inequality. In Russia, inequality increased by 75 percent; in Poland, it rose barely at all, according to a recent IMF paper. Current research into economic growth says that in countries around the world, small-scale entrepreneurial activity and broad investment in education and health care are the main engines of growth. Concentrating wealth in a few hands, à la Silicon Valley, limits the number of people involved in those activities.
“Thus the concentration of wealth in a few hands is detrimental,” NYU economist Michael P. Kean and IMF researcher Eswar S. Prasad write in a paper published last year. “High levels of inequality could prevent the middle class from becoming large, and there are important sociopolitical reasons for thinking that the size of the middle class matters for the success of transition.”
In California we have a wonderful opportunity to re-create the midcentury middle-class expansion that turned the United States into the world's most successful economy. The sorts of jobs that the Service Employees International Union are attempting to unionize in Silicon Valley aren't ones that can scoot off to India at the drop of a hat. Executives simply can't send Silicon Valley office buildings to Bangalore to get cleaned, no matter how badly they want to. The amount of money a Yahoo! would have to cough up to pay its janitors a decent wage represents such a small portion of the company's cost of doing business that it's not even worth mentioning. Ideally, service workers of every stripe would be on their way to becoming the next blue-collar middle class.
If those workers could earn a middle-class wage, and entertain the hope of raising a family, and of saving their money to start a small business, and of agitating in their community for better schools, we'd all be better off. Most of America's millionaires aren't dot-com investors, after all: They're the ones who've opened dry-cleaning businesses, gas stations, bakeries, beer distributorships. For people earning $6.50 an hour on the Peninsula, that dream of contributing to California growth is out of reach.
A couple of weeks ago, Olguin and a union representative went to the Yahoo! headquarters wishing to speak with the company's president, Jeffrey Mallett, about Olguin's firing by Team Services.
“I wanted to ask him if he thought it was fair that his janitorial firm had fired me for trying to organize into a union,” Olguin says. “They sent six guards to throw us out.”
Yahoo! for its part had a spokesman send me the following statement:
“This situation is about the Service Employees International Union's attempt to organize employees of our janitorial contractor, Team Services, Inc. We have been assured by Team Services that they will comply with the established legal procedures if their employees want to make the choice to have union representation.”
Team Services counsel Ann L. Butler, in her company's defense, made the laughable suggestion that paying janitors $6.50 an hour is actually good for the economy.
“We're seeing the death throes of Silicon Valley. Twenty-four percent more people are leaving Silicon Valley. We're no longer able to support the working class. We've got to look at the economy. When you go to a company and say, 'Here's what we will do your services for,' do you think they're going to take the more expensive company because they're union?” she asked rhetorically. [page]
Actually, companies such as Yahoo! will continue contracting out as many services as they can to union-busting contractors, unless their Web-surfing customers complain. If Yahoo! users are anything like me, and wish they weren't in the midst of an economic slump with no guaranteed end, they might just start using a different search engine, at least until the company hires union janitors.
If we don't do something, and our great nation, state, and region continue to backslide, and economic inequality worsens instead of getting better, impoverished local residents may be reduced to sleeping outside. Some may even drink water from plastic bowls. We'll be no better than dog people.