Rep. Ro Khanna on Tuesday gathered a candid round table to discuss the treatment of contract workers in tech, but notably absent from the conversation were any of Silicon Valley’s major employers.
That’s not for lack of trying, according to Khanna, the second-term Democrat whose district encompasses Silicon Valley. His office invited about 20 major tech companies to join the talk, but each shied away. He declined to name each company invited, but said those on the list were generally the biggest players in the Valley.
“I think there’s an apprehension to engage,” Khanna said, acknowledging the heat that tech giants are facing both locally for exacerbating the Bay Area’s housing shortage and traffic congestion and in Washington over things like privacy, bias and antitrust concerns.
That’s also what Catherine Bracy, executive director and co-founder of Tech Equity Collaborative, said she hears frequently from tech companies.
“I think there’s just a lot of fear and risk aversion, which is not particularly strategic, but you know, this is just where their heads are at right now,” she said during a panel discussion Tuesday. “They’re coming from a very defensive place because they do feel — rightly or wrongly — under attack for all these various issues. Coming into a public forum where there’s press and feeling like they’re kind of on the spot for these things, I think, is why they’re not here today.”
The talk at the University of California Santa Cruz’s Santa Clara campus, moderated by Khanna and Ben Field, executive director of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, included testimony by several contract workers who operate buses, prepare food and work as security officers at local tech companies, as well as a panel with labor and union leaders.
The discussion focused on far-reaching issues like pay disparities and the region’s affordability crisis, but also collective bargaining and a perceived lack of respect for contract laborers, who said they want to feel heard and appreciated by the companies where they show up to work each day.
“It’s not just about the money or the benefits, it’s the working conditions that we have,” said Rosie Silva, a bus operator in the Valley who declined to name the company she is working for. “We all want to be equal. We don’t want to be harassed or feel pressured doing our job.”
Two other workers who showed up Tuesday spoke about the benefits of being part of a union, which they said improved working conditions. But each stressed that companies still have a long way to go, pointing to unpredictable hours as well as low and stagnant wages that push some contractors to live far away from work and leave some sleeping in their cars during the week.
Pushing for change
Notably, the workers driving the buses, serving the food and patrolling the rolling campuses of Silicon Valley generally aren’t employed directly by the major tech companies, but work for companies that compete for service contracts with the tech titans.
Mac Young, a security officer posted at one of Google’s campuses, said he gets paid far below a living wage for Silicon Valley at $18.75. His pay rate increased when he and other security officers unionized, but it still didn’t cover rent increases, he said.
“I’m 58 and I want a house. I want to retire and I’m not going to do like my daddy and my forefathers, where they worked until they dropped,” he said. “We don’t need that in Silicon Valley when we have the fifth largest economy in the world.”
In pushing for change, Sarah McDermott, political director for the UniteHere! Local 19 union, said Tuesday service contractors “will follow the tech companies’ lead when it comes to treatment of workers.”
“In our work, what we’ve found is that when the tech companies says ‘We want the service workers to have a voice on the job, we want them to be able to decide if they want a union without fear of intimidation,’ things go very smoothly,” she said.
Some groups — like the SEIU-USWW, a local union for service workers — are challenging tech companies and property owners to also think hard about service contracts.
“If you have janitors working in your building, we want you to partner with us to commit that every single building that you have in the state of California is going to be cleaned by a responsible contractor,” Jane Martin, political coordinator for SEIU-USWW, said during the panel Tuesday.
Some tech gets on board
One bright spot in the panel was recognition for companies that have started to respond to contractor and labor concerns.
“Tech is not monolithic,” Field said. “We have made some progress with some companies while we’ve made no progress with others.”
Menlo Park-based Facebook, for instance, stood out throughout the panel for its commitment to increase wages for its contract workers. San Jose-based Cisco Systems got several honorable mentions. On the ‘no progress’ end of the spectrum sits Cupertino-based Apple Inc., Field said in an interview after the event, noting that he hasn’t seen any progress between the iPhone maker and its contract workers.
“The nuance of this conversation almost suggests that… there could be value in an alliance for tech at a time when tech needs more allies,” Khanna said Tuesday. “I think had they come, they would have been pleasantly surprised.”
Contact Janice Bitters at email@example.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.