In East San Jose’s Mayfair Neighborhood, a young Cesar Chavez first started mobilizing farmworkers to get them better wages and working conditions. The area was then known as Sal Si Puedes, meaning “get out if you can.”
It was the 1950s, and Chavez often drove a bus to the fields in Santa Clara County and brought back the fruit pickers to Mayfair’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to talk about labor organizing and voting.
It was no coincidence that a new labor campaign was launched at the same church in February. This time the issue is the low wages of service workers who clean, cook and stand guard at the sprawling campuses of Silicon Valley’s tech giants.
Called Silicon Valley Rising, this coalition of labor unions, faith leaders and community-based organizations is orchestrating a campaign to raise families out of poverty by pushing for a livable wage, affordable housing and corporate responsibility. They are now highlighting the plight of service workers, the majority of which are immigrants.
Longtime South Bay labor activist Bob Brownstein says Silicon Valley Rising has symbolic parallels to the farmworkers movement.
“The grape strike wasn’t just about grapes,” he says, referring to the 1965 Delano Grape Strike, when workers walked off farms demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage. “It was about the plight of the agricultural workers.”
Today “the struggles of security guards and cafeteria workers and shuttle drivers — it’s not just about them. It’s about a much larger low-wage sector that’s trapped in Silicon Valley,” he says.
The campaign has resulted in hundreds of cooks, shuttle drivers, groundskeepers and maintenance workers staging nearly monthly demonstrations for higher wages and better benefits in front of high-profile tech companies and contractors’ offices.
In June, dozens of workers rallied outside the Capitol in Sacramento in support of wage and labor bills.
“We want corporations to hire responsible contractors,” says Rebeca Armendariz, a spokeswoman for SEIU United Service Workers West. “We want them held accountable for following labor law. For not ripping off their workers, for paying them honest and fair wages.”
Wage demands for service workers isn’t a new issue. Twenty-five years ago, janitors in Santa Clara County mobilized for better wages and benefits in the “Justice for Janitors Campaign.” San Jose’s Cisco Systems Inc. was a major target, and the company eventually agreed to a union contract providing descent pay and benefits.
But today’s organizers feel this labor movement is more broadly based, and that the volatile debate about growing income inequality is helping its cause. This campaign “is being viewed as a much larger problem because the level of inequality in the Silicon Valley — actually, the country — has gone rogue,” says Brownstein. “It’s no longer sustainable.”
Last month, a new study calculated the income gap between the top and bottom Bay Area households at more than a quarter-million dollars, 50 percent higher than the gap nationwide.
Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a research think tank that did the report, says the wage gap in this region is a stark situation for workers in the service sector.
“They make this economy hum and their wages have been stagnant,” he says. “There’s no growth in their wages over a period of decades.”
Silicon Valley Rising took two years to get organized. Father Jon Pedigo, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, is one of the leaders who worked to hammer out a shared strategy for the campaign. He says extensive groundwork had to be laid down.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s all get on board and do this together.’ It was really through some meetings of getting people to listen, to talk to each other and kind of trust each other,” he says.
The campaign is intended to focus attention on workers such as 33-year-old Maria, a cafeteria worker at Sunnyvale-based Yahoo. She doesn’t want to use her real name for fear of losing her job with Bon Appetit, the Palo Alto-based company Yahoo contracts with for food services. A single mother, she lives in a tiny trailer not far from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
“I get paid $12 an hour, and it is hard work for $12,” she says.
After she pays for her trailer space — $700 a month — and other bills, she says she has barely $400 for food and to support her 15-year-old and 10-year-old daughters.
Her older daughter says her mother doesn’t have the time to participate in Rising Silicon Valley activities, but hopes the organizing will pay off in her workplace.
“She feels if she keeps working there, she’ll get paid more so she does have hope,” she says.
Asked for comment on this story, both Yahoo and Bon Appetit emailed identical statements that said their contractors’ wages and benefits compare favorably with those across the food service industry.
After the radio story aired on KQED and this blog post was published, a Yahoo spokeswoman emailed another statement that said there was a misunderstanding in sending the same statement as Bon Appetit. The spokeswoman said “fairness is a guiding principle at Yahoo and we are looking into this matter with Bon Appetit.”
Silicon Valley companies are reluctant to discuss the issue of wages and their relationships with their service workers. And they refuse to discuss the recent labor agitation and organizing.
But they have to be aware of the increased activism. In February, for example, shuttle bus drivers for Yahoo, Apple, Genentech, eBay and Zynga voted to joined the Teamsters union.
And tech corporations have made a number of policy changes impacting service workers.
In March, Mountain View-based Google gave pay raises to its shuttle drivers, who did not join the Teamsters. Also in March, Cupertino-based Apple brought contract security workers onto its payroll.
Menlo Park-based Facebook in May said its contractors with more than 25 employees must pay them at least $15 an hour and provide sick leave and vacation.
Lori Goler of Facebook says the social media company increased wages and benefits because it was the right thing to do.
“We’ve really been working on it awhile, and it sort of came from us and our thinking about what’s important to us and our business and our community,” she says.
This is Part 1 of two-part series on activists taking on tech companies over the wages of service workers. Part 2 looks at how Silicon Valley corporations are responding.