After Google and Facebook labor wins, Silicon Valley government contractors under fire

Oct 13, 2014, 10:10pm PDT Updated: Oct 14, 2014, 7:14am PDT

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Phil Ashley

Following recent workers' rights victories at Silicon Valley tech companies like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., labor advocates are pursuing a range of reforms for workers employed by county contractors.

Economic Development Reporter- Silicon Valley Business Journal
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Drivers of Facebook's Inc.'s famous shuttle buses are strategizing with Teamsters. Google Inc. is abandoning an often-maligned security contractor to hire 200 of its own guards.

Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, chalks those two recent high-profile actions up to effective organization of workers who personify Silicon Valley's growing income gap.

"We've been working to up the pressure on high tech and get high-tech companies to use responsible contractors," Field told me. “The recent attention about occupational segregation at high-tech companies has hit those companies hard."

But Field and allied labor advocates are by no means content with rankling the reputations of multibillion-dollar tech companies. Up next for labor advocates bent on making a dent in their priority list while the economy is hot: Raising wages and improving benefits for the roughly 16,000 workers who are contracted, directly or indirectly, by Santa Clara County each year.

"It’s going to be a cutting-edge living wage policy that sets an example for the rest of the country," Field said.

On Tuesday, San Jose labor think tank Working Partnerships USA will release a new report detailing reforms the groups are after: pay of $15-$19 an hour; paid sick days; better health and retirement benefits; more predictable hours; more full-time work; better recruitment of underrepresented groups and stronger anti-retaliation laws.

"What we want to do is start to redefine what a quality job is," said Working Partnerships USA Executive Director Derecka Mehrens. "A quality job is not just about a wage rate."

She added that Santa Clara County contractors — who collect about $2 billion annually selling the government goods and services ranging from office supplies to ambulance transport — are a natural place to start. (An updated list of Santa Clara County's largest private contractors was unavailable at the time of publication.)

Still, many of the issues at hand, from a strong reliance on part-time labor to better wages, are also major areas of conflict for other private sector companies — especially Silicon Valley-bred sharing economy companies. Should the county decide to move forward on the living wage policy, one big question is if or when similar reforms might be pursued for workers not employed by taxpayer money.

The new Working Partnerships report did detail several disparities in the benefits currently earned among all Silicon Valley workers. About 28 percent of all jobs pay less than the living wage labor advocates hope to enact. Roughly 35 percent of Santa Clara County jobs don't offer paid sick days, and the proportion jumps to 52 percent among Latino workers.

And there is precedent for wider-reaching action. Just last week, Working Partnerships and allied groups helped convince Google's hometown of Mountain View to commit to formally pursuing a $15 an hour minimum wage.

“Should the tech industry have a different living wage standard than the retail sector? Probably," Mehrens said. "That’s sort of the next generation of this."

Lauren Hepler is the economic development reporter at the Silicon Valley Business Journal.


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