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Outside the Gates: Unions Versus Big Tech 

Wednesday, Jul 3 2013
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That happened to Ford in the 1930s. The company's troubles began after it tried to integrate its supply chain all the way from the Brazilian rubber plantations (to make tires) to the final car. That made it fall behind the smaller and more flexible GM.

Competition also keeps costs down. If SIS were beholden to union demands, then it might have to throw more money at its workforce: The security company would no longer have the flexibility to underbid its competitors. Since Apple and Google's bottom line is economic, rather than altruistic, they'd logically just switch to another contractor, says Bloom.

But Field insists that Apple and Google shouldn't be stymied by economics. He points to a more innocent era when Silicon Valley was still quilted with orchards, Apple was still a glimmer in someone's eye, and David Packard, the young co-founder of a promising new technology company, told a crowd of grizzled CEOs that HP's commitment was "as much to their employees, their families, and the communities in which they did business as it was to their shareholders.

In the decades since, corporate culture in the Valley has shifted toward mass-producing and selling gadgets. "Maybe," Field suggests, "there ought to be a broader attitudinal change in society."

He disagrees with the idea that consumers would have to pay more for products to accommodate fair wages for workers. He says that while wages have stagnated since the 1970s, corporate profits have ballooned, and tech companies have enough cash to support their lowest-paid employees.

He argues too that the contract efficiency model comes at great cost: It creates a permanent but ever-changing supply line of workers who don't have benefits, and probably don't have a lot of job loyalty as a result, says Oakland labor lawyer Antonio Ruiz, who works with the SEIU. And one thing that nobody wants at the world's biggest information hubs is a jilted group of security guards. Ruiz and other labor pundits believe that turnover itself is a security risk, and that it profoundly affects the public interest.

"Turnover is especially problematic in an industry that requires familiarity with the location and with the patterns of people coming in and out," he says.

That's as important in the world of information systems as it is in San Francisco's Financial District, where workers are deputized to guard big banks. But they're in a much better situation, Ruiz says. "They've got collective bargaining agreements, better wages, and enhanced training opportunities."

Stanford law professor Gould agrees that from a common-sense standpoint, workers who lack union protections tend to turn over more frequently, creating a less reliable workforce. And in the case of security, that would, in turn, leave a company more vulnerable to breaches.

But no one has done an empirical study correlating union practices with security break-ins, and Anthony Riedel of the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (which openly opposes the SEIU) says it's never come up in any of his cases. He believes the SEIU's claims are purely hypothetical.

What union organizers do have at their disposal is evidence that non-union companies have higher turnover — up to 300 percent per year for low-bid contractors, according to a report released in 2010. Union representatives argue that since the entry barriers for security officers are low, a "revolving door" contractor puts company assets and operations at risk. A current employee and a former employee both say people were quitting all the time, but the security company says its turnover actually isn't that high compared to the rest of the industry: Last year it was 27 percent, according to company spokesman Tom Seltz.

Riedel remains dubious of the revolving door argument. "The [union] makes a lot of claims," he writes in an e-mail. "But their primary motivation is more union dues."

He and other skeptics have been hammering that argument home for years. They accuse the SEIU of viewing security guards as a revenue source, since its workers earn higher hourly wages than their counterparts in other industries. That translates into more union dues that the SEIU can then funnel into political campaigns.

Riedel says that since California is not a "right-to-work" state, workers represented by unions are obligated to pay dues whether they want the union or not. "If you're in a bargaining unit that the SEIU has monopoly control over, then you have to pay for representation," he says, adding that workers often get tricked into paying for the union's political activities as well, because they have a limited period to opt out. Since the SEIU stands to gain money every time it organizes a workforce, it has good reason to persevere — even when the chips are down.

Stanford economics professor Bloom says he's suspicious of a union's motives any time it tries to organize a domestic labor force, which already has federal minimum wage laws and labor protections at its disposal, rather than trying to change working conditions abroad. "Usually the unions are doing this to raise their own salaries at the expense of the customer (or user)..." Bloom writes.

O'Donnell counters that since a union is a social and political organization, rather than a business, the "monopoly" analogy isn't fair. "The mission of a labor union is to build the middle class," he says. "Obviously we're going to try to do that as far and wide as possible."

Yet skepticism over the union's motives might explain why the workers themselves don't seem to be interested in changing their lot, either. Many declined to comment for this article. Union organizers pin their complacency on a culture of fear that seems to be part of the company's strategy, according to Field.

"The security officers are not free to talk with organizers at all," he explains, drawing from his own and others' experiences trying to recruit on campus grounds. "They're required to inform superiors immediately if anyone has made contact with them. The tactics are very heavy-handed."

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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