Blue-Collar Unions Fear Widespread Layoffs in Silicon Valley

Laid-off cafeteria workers will lead a protest outside Verizon Media CEO's San Francisco house on Tuesday following the release of a report on how Silicon Valley's cafeteria workers, janitors, and security guards have fared during the pandemic.
November 17, 2020, 3:56pm
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Photo by Erin Lubin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In September, 120 cafeteria workers and baristas who work at Yahoo's corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale, California were laid off by their employer, a subcontractor called Eurest—stranding them without paychecks or health insurance in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Tuesday, dozens of those workers will protest outside the San Francisco home of the Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan, and drop off letters demanding an extension of their healthcare coverage and pay (Verizon Media owns Yahoo). Though these workers are technically not employed by  Verizon Media, the decision to lay off the cafeteria workers was ultimately made by the company, which like most Silicon Valley tech companies contracts out its blue-collar labor. 

"I want the engineers and people who made this decision to put themselves in our shoes," Alma Cardenas, one of the laid off baristas who helped organize Tuesday's protest and worked at the campus for six years until her termination in September, told Motherboard in Spanish. "I am a single mom  who supports my two daughters, and my mother in Guadalajara. It's not fair for them to kick us out while they make billions of dollars. For them, what we make is nothing."

The action outside Gowrappan's house comes days after the labor campaign Silicon Valley Rising released a report about how the contracted shuttle bus drivers, janitors, cooks, and baristas at the world's largest tech companies have fared during the pandemic while white collar employees have been working from home. As the report explains, Google and Facebook committed early in the pandemic to paying and providing their unionized service workers health insurance—despite shutting down or limiting access to their corporate campuses. This agreement largely set the course for tech companies around Silicon Valley who followed suit and kept their workers on payroll. 

But it's unclear how long this will last. In recent weeks, according to a SEIU United Service Workers West spokesperson, Oracle and Samsung have started terminating contracted union janitors. Lyft laid 63 contracted janitors via text message in September. In March and April, Tesla laid off roughly 280 contracted janitors and shuttle bus drivers, leaving many without health care. The impacts of these layoffs disproportionately affect Black and brown workers. According to the report, 63 percent of unionized tech service workers in Silicon Valley are either Black or Latinx. The numbers are highest in janitorial and cafeteria work. Meanwhile just four percent of Silicon Valley software developers are Black or Latinx.

These recent layoffs have translated into widespread fear among the 14,000 unionized service workers who serve Silicon Valley tech companies. According to the report, tech service workers worry that other companies could soon follow in the footsteps of Yahoo/Verizon Media. 

"I’m worried about getting laid off. That fear is always there. You never know what's going to happen," Marcial Delgado, a single father of three kids, who has worked as a line cook at Nvidia's corporate campus in Santa Clara, California for the past 20 years, told Motherboard. 

These fears are in part pacified by the fact that many of Silicon Valley's blue-collar tech workers have unionized in the first place. Since 2015, more than 9,000 blue-collar tech workers in Silicon Valley have unionized, according to the report. Last year, 2,300 Google cafeteria workers at campuses around Silicon Valley voted to form a union. In 2017, around 500 cafeteria workers at Facebook's Menlo Park offices unionized with Unite Here Local 19, and thousands of security guards at Facebook, Cisco and other tech companies voted to join SEIU United Service Workers West. An earlier wave of unionization in Silicon Valley organized by SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign in the 1990s brought some 5,000 tech industry janitors in the Silicon Valley under union contracts, according to the report. 

Liliana Morales, a prep cook originally from Acapulco, Mexico who prepared sandwiches and salads for tech employees at Facebook's corporate offices for six years, said her working conditions drastically improved after workers unionized with Unite Here Local 19 in 2017. The union negotiated a five-year contract with her employer Flagship Facilities Services that included $4.75 per hour raises, health insurance, and a pension plan. 

"Things are much better. The union fights for us. We have better wages in every department. Before we didn’t have health insurance but now we do," said Morales, who lives in East Palo Alto with her three kids and husband. "I make $22 an hour but it's still a struggle in this area because the rent has gotten so high over the past few years. It's difficult for our family. We have everything we need but we cannot save money or spend time with our family on vacation. It's just rent, food, and gasoline."

Many newly unionized workers, who were previously denied health insurance and pension plans, received substantial raises and medical and dental benefits. Union contracts for Silicon Valley security guards, cafeteria workers, and janitors in the tech industry cover 6,500 families and provide 12,000 workers access to healthcare, according to the Silicon Valley Rising report. 

"We've been looking at tech service workers in Silicon Valley for several years," said Louise Auerhahn, the author of the new report and director of economic and workforce policy at Silicon Valley Rising, told Motherboard. "Our major finding has been that there's very strong occupational segregation in Silicon Valley. Black and Latinx and immigrant women do the majority of the physical work for tech companies but aren't actually employed by them. In recent years, many of those workers have been organizing and it's been very successful in lifting up the voices of contractors in Silicon Valley."

Meanwhile, many of the blue-collar tech workers who've already lost their jobs are facing the pandemic without healthcare and are on the verge of homelessness.

"When my daughters were little, we lived on the streets," Cardenas, the recently laid off Verizon-Yahoo barista who protested on Tuesday, told Motherboard. "The thing that terrifies me the most now is to have to live on the streets again when I can no longer pay my rent. I know lots of people [in Silicon Valley] who are living out of their cars right now."