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Outside the Gates: Unions Versus Big Tech 

Wednesday, Jul 3 2013
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"Unquestionably they have that rhetoric, and they spend a lot of money to develop that sort of image," O'Donnell says. "In some sense security officers are asking them to live up to it."

For many consumers that rhetoric seems borderline evangelical. Tech companies have promised — in their advertising slogans, on their websites, through their lobbying groups on Capital Hill — that they're out to change the world. Google vowed to make all information accessible and useful; Apple turned enlightenment into a sales pitch by running images of Einstein and Gandhi in its "Think Different" commercial series. And we've held them to it, says South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Ben Field, noting the media storm that precipitated over working conditions at Apple's supplier factories in China. To hear that the "thought leader" of corporations had engaged in exploitative labor practices felt almost like a personal betrayal to Apple devotees.

In February, Apple hired an international panel to audit conditions for 1.2 million workers at those Chinese factories, and ordered its Taiwanese supplier, Foxconn, to strengthen union elections. Media outlets interpreted that as a public mea culpa, while consumers breathed a collective sigh of relief. After all, tech companies don't just make our gadgets; they shape our values.

And yet industry practices back home show no signs of changing.

Since increasing their campaign efforts a few months ago, union representatives have posted ads on Bay Area BART trains with such alarmist slogans as "Google: Don't Be Evil, Use a Responsible Contractor." They've appealed to city council members in San Jose, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Boards, and placed several harshly worded ads on the search engine itself. They've used tech companies' own "precision" ad techniques to target Google employees on Facebook.

And, day after day, they've driven down to Apple's campus in Cupertino and the Googleplex in Mountain View, trying to catch up with security guards as they walk to and from work, and attempting to reach the company's high-up executives through any back door they can find. Kehinde and more than a dozen other organizers stood outside a recent Google shareholders meeting at the Googleplex with signs and leaflets in tow, accosting the Valley gentry as they disembarked from a line of charter buses.

Yet for all those efforts, their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. The National Labor Relations Board dismissed the union's claim that the security company had sent a mole to a union meeting, saying that although the claim had merit, it wasn't worth the trouble of launching a full investigation because SIS hadn't shown a pattern of such breaches.

Union representatives blame a standard tech company practice of contracting out all those services to outside companies, which leaves the Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world at much greater remove from the people who sweep their floors or protect them from burglars. It also creates a built-in incentive for the contractors to cut costs, by keeping workers part time, without benefits, O'Donnell says, because of competitive bidding. To top it off, the fractured structure makes all of these companies particularly resistant to a union campaign. It's hard to organize workers who rotate from campus to campus, and answer to a boss at some headquarters far away. It's also hard to hold big tech companies accountable for a labor force they don't directly employ.

Field explains that the practice of contracting hourly services out is de rigeur at most large Silicon Valley companies. "Big companies outsource a lot of things," he says. "Their security, their janitorial services, their food workers. They have a lot of temp workers helping do clerical work, as well." Indeed, two companies called ABM and Brilliant General Maintenance (whose workers are unionized) handle janitorial work at Apple and Google. Palo Alto catering company Bon Appetit holds the contract for Google's cafeteria, as well as the other large cafeterias in Mountain View.

Although spokespeople from Apple, Google, Twitter, and Facebook didn't answer requests for comment on their labor practices, Field speculates that their rationale is mostly about convenience — a company whose main concern is building search engines or social networks doesn't want to concern itself with training in an-house staff of hourly employees. Many of these services require specialized training and expertise, and a whole infrastructure around them, which would be hard for a company to build on its own, says Stanford labor law professor William B. Gould.

"There's a real tradition of specialized companies providing this kind of work," Gould says, indicating that a company like SIS has its own recruitment process, its own uniforms, its own handbook, and its own built-in chain of command, all of which would be a huge headache for Apple or Google to replicate. "When someone else has done it already," Gould says, "they provide a service and an efficiency that [the big companies] don't otherwise have."

Yet Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom explains that contracting allows tech companies to stay nimble, and that it wouldn't make any sense for them to do everything in-house, or limit themselves to the one or two contractors with unionized security workers (Kehinde says that no security workers are unionized in Silicon Valley, anyway.) "From a personal viewpoint it's like having a house contractor you signed up to for the rest of your life," Bloom writes in an e-mail. "When you wanted new work done they would likely give you a very high bid, safe in the knowledge you had no alternative. If instead you had a favorite contractor, but said when you wanted to do new work you were getting in multiple bids, it would keep them on their toes."

Moreover, Apple and Google's duty to keep products affordable for consumers far outstrips their obligation to unions. If they prioritized worker rights, or tried to keep tabs on working conditions by doing everything in-house, our gadgets could be ridiculously expensive. An iPhone 5 would cost a lot more than $199.99, he says, just to absorb the added cost of bureaucracy. "Contracting out like this is very natural — firms do this all the time across countries and industries. ... Without [contracting], firms grow too large and can get dragged down by bureaucratic inefficiency."

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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