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Outside the Gates: Unions Versus Big Tech 

Wednesday, Jul 3 2013
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That suggests the security company's scare tactics have worked, Field says. But it also shows how difficult it is for people to wrap their heads around the idea of an invisible, malevolent contractor, and figure out how Apple and Google fit into the equation.

Tech CEOs at Apple and Google are also generally unaware of working conditions for any group not on their payroll. Field says that despite months of petition drives and letter-writing campaigns, both Tim Cook, of Apple, and Eric Schmidt, of Google, seemed flummoxed when he confronted them over their security contracts. Over the past three years that the union has waged its campaign, he's shown up to shareholder meetings at both Apple and Google, and urged them to address the issue. He appealed to Cook by comparing security guards in the Silicon Valley to workers at the FoxConn factories in China, which generated a major public outcry against Apple.

"Apple has sought to improve its contracting practices in the wake of public controversies related to Foxconn..." Field said during the meeting, reading from a prepared statement. "However, right here at Apple headquarters, Apple is using a security contractor, Security Industry Specialists, Inc., with a history of treating its workers unfairly."

The FoxConn reference was enough to send Cook on a rambling explanation about Apple's efforts to improve factory conditions overseas, Field recalls. But he ducked the part about helping workers at home, claiming to have no knowledge about SIS or its operations. "He said he was not aware of the issues, and that he would look into it," Field says.

Google's executive chairman Schmidt seemed a little more receptive when Field tried the same tactic at the company's shareholder meeting in June; although like Cook, he claimed to have no insight about SIS' s practices. As always, Field prefaced his question with a statement — this one was about Google's "Don't Be Evil" credo, and how it should extend to the company's bottom tier.

"I told him SIS had demonstrated that it was a company that was not behaving in a way that's consistent with Google's highest aspirations for itself," Field says. "Google holds itself up as a company that tries to do the right thing... so it should change its practice of working with low-road contractors like SIS."

He says that Schmidt agreed, and also promised to look into it. Field hopes he'll follow through.

In truth, changes in Silicon Valley's security practices may be a long time coming, especially if the union can't drum up enough worker support to win, or even hold, a union election. SIS representatives claim that because the union failed to placate its desired audience, it decided to go through a back door instead — by targeting the companies themselves. Union organizers believe that if they lobby hard enough, and rally enough public support, they'll force Apple and Google to set conditions for its contractors. They hope that SIS in turn will bow to the new rules, lest it lose three of its most high-profile clients. They also hope the public will hold rich tech titans to a higher ethical standard than other companies.

"The federal minimum wage is seven bucks and change," Ruiz says. "And in the state of California it isn't that much more. But when you're talking about Silicon Valley and the cost of living, it's just so out of line."

Many consumers might find that argument persuasive on a gut level. The question is whether they'd be willing to pick up the tab, should Apple and Google sign on. Someone will ultimately have to pay that cost, Gould says. Either tech companies will have to reduce their labor force (or profit margin) overall, or consumers would have to agree to pay a higher sticker price for their iPhones and Android gadgets. So in the end, it's less a question of whether Apple and Google value high pay and health benefits than whether the rest of us share those values, as well.

As for the union, even after buying up BART ads, leafleting at the tech campuses, posting online petitions, targeting Google employees with precision ads on Facebook, and purchasing ad space on the company's own search engine, it still doesn't appear to have a critical mass among workers.

But Cardenas remains a steadfast presence at most Googleplex union protests, recognizable for his small stature and blocky glasses, and for the mop of black hair that he now keeps below SIS's earlobe-regulation length. He showed up to the shareholders meeting, and to the June 20 protest at which SEIU workers whipped out a petition and demanded to see Google CEO Larry Page. (Google denied their request, but an employee agreed to accept the petition on the company's behalf.)

Cardenas can only hope that his lot will eventually improve. He still has a young daughter to feed, and he still relies on the state for health insurance.

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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