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Outside the Gates: Unions Versus Big Tech 

Wednesday, Jul 3 2013
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A former SIS employee who asked to remain anonymous says he's heard other workers express fear of retribution from the security company. But the former guard also admits he wouldn't have gone out of his way to change his own working conditions. "For me it was just extra money," he says. "Did I hear rumbles about 'I need more hours,' that sort of thing? Sure. But legally I'm not sure if [SIS] violated any laws."

Labor activists also blame an ethos that, they say, is endemic to Silicon Valley. The tech sector is nearly devoid of any union culture at all. Well-paid executives and engineers have little incentive to unionize since they already receive so many benefits, and would only gain the added burden of union dues. Yet their attitudes trickle down to the lower-paid employees.

"There's an idea that's been promoted by the industry of being cutting-edge, new age, and progressive, and that the need to engage in collective action is somehow anachronistic," Ruiz says. "But that doesn't apply here. A fair share of the wealth that's created isn't making its way down to workers."


The union has a living example of this disparity in the form of a soft-spoken, bespectacled 24-year-old named Manny Cardenas. He first joined the union in 2010, two years before landing a job at the Googleplex. Cardenas worked for a company called AlliedBarton, which posted him outside various tech companies by the San Jose Airport. A friend from a rival security company introduced him to a union rep, and Cardenas began attending meetings out of curiosity.

Soon he would become an unlikely poster child.

Cardenas, who lives with his parents and young daughter in North San Jose, has worked in the security industry for seven years. He took a part-time "flex" gig at Google last summer, clocking up to 40 hours a week at $16 an hour, enough to pay for groceries and gas, but not quite enough to support his 4-year-old daughter. Cardenas still uses his dad's health insurance, and his daughter is signed to Medi-Cal.

Cardenas says he spent the bulk of his job casing Google's campus and preventing concertgoers at Shoreline Amphitheater from using the parking lots. It certainly wasn't a cakewalk, he says. Standing and patrolling for eight hours a day can be taxing. Writing up incident reports requires vigilance and attention to detail. Sometimes the work was easy, but "easy" didn't translate into guaranteed hours, health insurance, yearly raises, help paying for uniforms (Cardenas says he still has to buy his own boots and borrow jackets from Google), or safeguards against firing without cause — all protections that Cardenas hopes to get if his fellow workers ever vote the union in. At present, the only way for SIS employees to protest a wrongful termination is to file a complaint in court, and many have done just that.

Over the past three years, civil judges in Santa Clara and Alameda counties have seen a spate of lawsuits from SIS employees, some of which led to settlements; others are pending. Although SIS acknowledges it's had to settle some court complaints of wrongful termination or wage and hour violations, it deems them a cost of doing business.

For many union organizers, the goal of shielding workers against a capricious employer trumps that of raising hourly wages, especially since SIS pays better than other security companies, at $16-$20 an hour. Guards in California earned an average hourly wage of $13.33 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most that contract with Silicon Valley tech companies pay similar wages. Facebook's contractor Securitas wouldn't disclose its pay rates, nor would Twitter's unionized contractor, ABM. Genentech contracts with a firm called Guardsmark, which starts employees at $13.25 an hour. Security guards at Oracle's Redwood Shores headquarters, who work for Andrews International, earn about $12-$13 an hour plus options for minimal healthcare, which is too costly for most of them, according to a union spokesman. The SEIU has tried, unsuccessfully, to organize them, too.

Yet the issue that rankles union organizers isn't hourly pay, or even the fact that many workers are kept part time (a charge that an SIS representative denied, though he didn't have statistics to show the ratio of part-time to full-time workers). What angers the union more is the security company's public resistance to the union's attempts to organize its workers. SIS even goes so far as to include a "Union" page on its website that essentially serves to indict the SEIU.

"For three years, the SEIU has undertaken an aggressive campaign of lies and distortions against SIS," the page says. "For its part, SIS rarely has responded. This web page represents our effort to give our employees and the public the other side of the story — the side the SEIU does not want you to know about." The page includes links to various wage documents that show SIS scoring higher than other security companies, and to a resignation letter from an employee who cited "outside union harassment" as one of his reasons for quitting.

The rival smear campaigns haven't done anything to boost SIS' s reputation in the Valley, but it also hasn't helped the SEIU rally workers. After three years the union organizers haven't earned much ground-level support, save for a few signatures on online petitions, and a few workers who show up to meetings. (Cardenas was the only one willing to speak on the record.) Even with backing from local politicians, such as San Jose City Councilman Ash Kalra, who cameoed at a recent union protest outside Google's quarterly shareholder meeting, the union still has the cast of a left-wing fringe movement.

When about a dozen union organizers picketed outside the shareholder meeting in identical purple shirts, banging drums and chanting protest jingles, their target audience seemed visibly uncomfortable. Well-dressed attendees appraised the spectacle as though it were put on for entertainment; security guards fidgeted and looked the other way.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
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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