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How Google and Silicon Valley Screw Their Non-Elite Workers

Silicon Valley’s biggest firms outsource blue-collar and service jobs to subcontractors, who bid low by scrimping on labor standards.

Photo Credit: Flickr (cc)


Silicon Valley sparks the imagination. Its wealth of tech jobs, flashy startups and new media goliaths seems to point toward a better future, beyond post-industrial doldrums and slack labor markets. Work on Google’s idyllic Mountain View campus hardly looks like work at all.  

But some Google employees are less equal than others. (Not everyone gets to ride the clown bikes.) Many of Silicon Valley’s blue-collar jobs are outsourced to subcontractors, a practice common with Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and other big tech firms. Usually the lowest bidder gets the contract, and in labor intensive industries such as security, food service, janitorial and landscaping the lower bids tend to come from firms with lower labor standards.

Security Industry Specialists, Inc (SIS) provides hundreds of security contractors to both Google and Apple. (SIS did not respond to interview requests or questions about the exact number of guards the two companies employ.) Tom Seltz, co-president of SIS, claims that the company offers $15 an hour for entry level employees, plus benefits for full-time workers: “We pay 80 percent of the healthcare premium, 100 percent of dental, and these employees have access to a 401k plan in which we match a portion of contributions.”

But according to SIS employees, everyone starts as part-time and must work their way to a full-time position. Part-timers have no health or retirement benefits, no paid sick leave and no vacation. The hours are unpredictable because the company calls them about a day in advance to dispense shifts. Turnover at SIS is high, partly due to draconian disciplinary measures that make it difficult to advance to a full-time position. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is trying to organize the guards, estimates that only 20 percent of SIS’s employees are full-time.

“Supervisors—they didn’t treat us like people,” says Manny Cardenas, the only guard to publicly endorse the unionization drive. “We got fired for small things. Zero tolerance. One guard, he told a janitor what time it was and because he used his cell phone to check the time he was fired.” 

Cardenas reports that none of his peers have joined the cause. “My co-workers keep changing [referring to high turnover],” says Cardenas, who spoke at a pro-union rally outside the Google shareholders’ meeting on Thursday, June 6. “And they know that they’ll be fired, if they are getting fired for little things like cell phone to tell the time—they know something might happen.”

What that something is seems pretty clear. Since going public with his support for a union in January, Cardenas has only received one call for a shift. He hasn’t officially been fired by SIS, but the result is pretty much the same. (A charge that SIS illegally interfered in the organization drive by spying on worker meetings “may have merit,” according to William Baudler, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, who dismissed the complaint “because the conduct at issue here is isolated.”)

The union attempting to organize Silicon Valley’s approximately 3,000 guards is SEIU-USWW (United Service Workers West), which represents the janitorial staff in many of the same buildings. The rally outside the shareholders’ meeting attracted between 40 and 50 people, including two San Jose councilmembers. Community groups addressed Google in an open letter released on the same day: “We urge you to find a more responsible security contractor, a company whose workers can have full-time hours, decent benefits and the fundamental freedom to form a union—without management interference.”

“The leaders in the market are Apple and Google and where they go, the others follow,” says Renee Asher, spokesperson for SEIU. “We want Apple and Google to sit down with us, we want to partner with them, as they have partnered with us in the past about income inequality, the rise of part-time jobs, and the number of good jobs being replaced with bad ones."

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