America’s largest tech companies are facing mounting pressure from organized labor to provide greater support to local service workers — and it appears to be working.
Last week, Google announced it was winding down its contract with security guard contractor SIS and would instead hire 200 security officers directly, making them eligible for the same benefits as other Googlers. The decision preempted a campaign by California’s largest service union to organize the guards.
The drivers who ferry the area’s tech workers to their jobs appear to be next. On Oct. 2, Teamsters Union Local 853 submitted a letter to Facebook and Loop Transportation notifying them that their drivers were planning to form a union to improve their working conditions. The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse was the first to report the letter.
"This is reminiscent of a time when nobleman were driven around in their coaches by their servants," 853 principal officer and secretary treasurer Rome Aloise wrote.
Derecka Mehrens, the executive director of Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA), a San Jose-based community group focused on labor issues, said there are active organizing campaigns underway for other drivers in the area, although she declined to say which firms were being targeted.
The wage gap between salaried tech workers and the men and women who make their offices run have never been more apparent. A recent study from WPUSA shows tech workers can make up to 5.5-times as much as the lowest-paid service-sector worker.
Mehrens points to the success of janitors’ organizing campaign in the mid-90’s as an example of a group of service workers successfully bargaining for higher benefits.
“We know it works,” she told Fusion. “Workers have to do a lot of work to make it a public issue. These companies are not unaware of the conditions, there just hasn’t been pressure to do anything.”
The region's relationship with its unions was strained considerably last year after Bay Area Rapid Transit workers twice went on strike for four days, snarling traffic before an agreement was reached following the deaths of two individuals struck by by management-run trains. An initiative to ban further strikes was defeated. The unions ultimately won a four-year contract that includes a 15.4 percent pay raise and an increase in payments for medical benefits.
853’s Aloise told Fusion Tuesday that the union has not received a reply from Facebook or Loop Transportation, also known as SFO Shuttle, to the letter. Facebook declined to comment to Fusion. Loop representatives did not return repeated requests for comment.
The main issue for the Facebook drivers is their schedule. Many of them end up on the road or stranded in Menlo Park, where Facebook’s headquarters is located, for 13 hours at a time because of split shifts — working early in the mornings and late at night to ferry Facebook workers. Many workers live too far away from Menlo Park to return home, and are unable to find other ways to make more productive use of their time.
Aloise said that once 853 is recognized as the drivers’ representatives, they will begin bargaining with Loop — but that it will ultimately be up to Facebook to meet the drivers’ demands, since they hire Loop. While they can earn up to $20 an hour, Aloise said the average driver operates at a $16-an-hour rate.
“They’re to going to be able to fluff their way out,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Loop deploys buses for other megatech firms.
Hiring a union would almost certainly entail cost increases for Facebook, Aloise acknowledged. But tech company drivers everywhere are facing the same pressure as the social networking site's. So any attempt to hire another set of drivers likely wouldn't succeed for long.
“If they think that they wouldn’t have this problem with another company, if another one comes in, they’re still going to have a problem,” Aloise said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.