Unions to Picket Big Tech Today

Categories: Labor, Tech

It's become sexy to talk about Silicon Valley in stark social class terms. George Packer steered the conversation in an epic New Yorker article, waxing nostalgic about orchards and Eichler homes even as he documented the dissolute lifestyles of today's newly minted tech elite. Shortly thereafter, Salon writer Andrew Leonard was chiding the Valley's innovators for their enormous affluence, and calling for a Marxist revolution.

Nowhere are the battle lines more firmly drawn than in labor disputes between big tech companies and the hourly wage workers who scrub their dishes, or sweep their floors, or guard the doors of their giant office complexes.

Most of these employees dwell in a giant shadow economy of sub-contractors. They're not actually on the tech company payroll, rather they're employed by an outside firm that specializes in whatever service they provide. The system, while convenient, makes it easy for heads of big companies to ignore their lowest-paid workforce.

And because many of these sub-contractors don't embrace the progressive credos that undergird companies like Google and Apple, they often shaft workers on wages and benefits, or discourage their employees from unionizing. As a result, the same companies that turn engineers into millionaires sometimes exploit a whole class of hourly employees -- often without knowing it.

That type of profiteering runs rampant in the security industry, according to representatives of the Service Employees International Union. They've waged an aggressive campaign at various Silicon Valley tech companies this year, starting with Google and Apple -- which both contract with a firm called Security Industry Specialists -- and moving over to lesser-known Telecom plants that don't have quite the same sex appeal, although they occasionally provide better stories.

SEIU's latest target is the Chinese company Huawei Technologies, which contracts with a security firm called Universal Protection Service. They say Universal has a penchant for buying up smaller firms to get their juicy contracts -- a strategy it pursued to commandeer the San Diego North County Transit District, for example -- and that as it expands, it tries to cut corners. Usually that falls on the security officers, says SEIU spokesman Peter Feng, citing examples of employees who've had to take pay cuts, or who never received proper training because the company didn't put its money there.

On August 20, SEIU filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board's regional office in Oakland, alleging that a Universal employee named Frank Luna had been unfairly terminated because he asked to switch from a graveyard to a day shift, and because he helped deliver a union petition to managers. The Labor Board has promised to investigate the charge, but in the meantime, union representatives are using their complaint as ammo for a difficult campaign. They'll picket today at 10 a.m. in front of Cisco Towers in Santa Clara, with various civic leaders on hand to discuss the charge at hand, and union-busting in general.

"Luna, like many security officers in Silicon Valley, is representative of a group of residents who are being priced out of the region by growing economic inequality," the SEIU wrote in its press materials, playing off the spate of anti-gentrification screeds that bubbled through the blogosphere in recent months.

We're waiting to get comment from Universal.

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