Teamster Tech Revolution


In a photo that appears on the pages of The New York Times in October 2014, Cliff Doi is thoughtfully looking out from behind the wheel of his bus. Perhaps Doi, who shuttles Facebook employees to and from work, is thinking about the changes that are to come.

Doi can now say that he was there at the very beginning—the beginning of the Teamster tech revolution.

“We were the first. Hopefully all Bay Area transportation companies will go union and if that happens that would be cool,” Doi said. “I’m hoping even more workers will join us and take a stand.”

Fast forward a year later, and Doi and his co-workers employed by Loop Transportation, the contractor for Facebook, are Teamsters benefiting from a groundbreaking agreement that includes significant wage increases, health care benefits and a long list of other improvements.

“We’re becoming the union for the tech industry,” said Rome Aloise, International Vice President, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 853 in San Leandro, Calif., and the man at the forefront of this innovative organizing effort. “We are living our vision of making sure that support workers, most often working for third-party contractors, are compensated fairly and in line with what these tech companies can afford, and that they are treated with dignity.”

“We lit a fuse,” said Rodney Smith, a Local 853 organizer. “As soon as we got a contract at Facebook, we started hearing from drivers at all of the shuttle companies wanting to become Teamsters.”

In less than a year, Teamster organizing in the tech industry has spread from Facebook to other global multi-billion dollar brands with household names, like Apple, Yahoo, Google, eBay and more. A new frontier for organizing has opened up in the highly successful tech world, uplifting lives and creating a brighter future for workers in a futuristic industry.

Thumbs Up at Facebook

Commuter shuttle drivers often start work before sunrise, and end their day after sunset, transporting tech company employees from their homes in trendy parts of San Francisco to sprawling office parks in locations like Cupertino and Mountain View—places where it’s cool to work, but not so cool to live.

Some estimates put the number of contract workers in Silicon Valley at 77,000. It is an industry with a disparity between billionaire executives, six-plus figure-earning techies and the low-wage workers who keep the cafeterias moving, the buses running and the floors clean. Seeking a living wage and a decent life, these low-wage workers are organizing. It’s a tech union revolution that is taking place in Silicon Valley, and Teamsters are leading the way.

In November 2014, 87 Facebook drivers, employed by Loop, became members of Local 853. In February 2015, they ratified an agreement that raised the average pay for workers, who live in one of the most expensive areas of the country, from $18 an hour to $27.50 an hour, including a split shift differential. The agreement also includes 11 paid holidays; up to five weeks paid vacation; guaranteed hours; health care for workers and families of full time workers, fully paid by Loop; wage increases for workers on split shifts; a minimum six-hour day for workers who can’t work split shifts and much more.

For shuttle drivers who work long days, away from home for 14-16 hours, the split shift pay and adjustments were critical to their quality of life.

“I hope that everybody else that drives and is not in the union goes into the union,” said Alfredo Castillo, a Facebook driver. “I think it’s great having the union and we deserve it.”

Cynthia Goolsby, also a Facebook driver, agrees. Goolsby says she makes $26.40 an hour now, and that’s $8.40 more than she made before becoming a Teamster.

“It makes a huge difference,” Goolsby said.

Denisha Powell has only been driving for the Facebook contractor for a few weeks and is enthusiastic about her new job. Powell was formerly a Teamster driver at another company, and it was important to her that she remain a Teamster.

“I’m excited to be working here and working as a Teamster,” Powell said. “My mother retired from UPS as a Teamster and she’s proud of me!”

After Facebook drivers organized, 140 drivers at Compass Transportation—the contractor for Apple, eBay, PayPal, Yahoo, Zynga, Genentech, Amtrak and Evernote—also joined Local 853.

In August, waste workers with Genentech contractor Clean Harbors, and warehouse and shipping workers with Google Express contractor Adecco joined Local 853.

In August, Compass Transportation workers unanimously approved a contract proposal based on the Loop workers’ contract.

Apple, eBay, Yahoo and Genentech have since instituted significant wage increases as a result of the organizing efforts, and have expressed support for a full package for the drivers, building pressure on Compass to accept the unanimously approved contract.

“We want everyone to be on an equal playing field,” Aloise said. “Facebook did the right thing and it’s time that the rest of these wealthy companies step up and do the right thing.”

Dangerous Jobs

Not far from Facebook’s famed headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., is the warehouse facility for Google Express contractor Adecco. Customers who want to purchase items like toilet paper, shampoo, soup or any other myriad items from stores like Costco, Whole Foods or Target, can sign up for same-day delivery through the Google Express service.

It’s in this former slaughterhouse where Adecco employees warehouse and prepare the items for delivery by couriers. These workers have suffered from poor ventilation, sweltering temperatures, electrical fires and damaged equipment. The employees are also required to sign short-term employment agreements with Adecco that limit them to two years of employment, although those limits are at the discretion of the employer and appear to be exercised at whim. It serves as a reminder from the company of who’s really in charge; an “at will” status hangs heavy and offers no hopes of job security. The workers’ hope was to change these working conditions by joining the Teamsters.

“Good things are coming for us,” said Chris Henderson, who works in the warehouse. “We want to be safe and focus on our jobs; that is all we want to do.”

Henderson said that he and his co-workers had to contend with an anti-union law firm during their organizing drive. Union busters tried to keep the workers from forming a union, which the workers were doing to change what Bob Kerrigan describes as ‘Third-World’ conditions at the facility.

“I am personally excited and thrilled; everyone from the Teamsters has been fantastic for us. We have more support in the past few months than we’ve gotten from Adecco in years,” said Kerrigan, who works in the warehouse.

At Clean Harbors—the contractor for Genentech—compliance technicians, chemists, in-site technicians and administrative assistants joined Local 853 this summer. Bobby Winter, a compliance technician, said he started the organizing efforts by calling Stacy Alvelais, a business agent with Local 853.

Winter is pleased to be a Teamster and is looking forward to a contract at Clean Harbors, where workers collect and dispose of hazardous and universal waste.

“It’s a dangerous job. It deserves to be remunerated properly,” said Winter, who praised the National Labor Relations Board’s recent rulemaking on expedited elections, which allowed for a quick vote. “We had much less harassment from management than we would have because of the policy change.”

Press Effect

The world took notice when workers in the tech industry began organizing with the Teamsters in Silicon Valley. Headlines like, “Facebook Drivers ‘Like’ Teamsters,” had caché. Reporters were intrigued by organizing efforts at corporations whose products have become a part of daily life around the globe. Facebook alone has more than a billion active monthly users.

Tech reporters with varying degrees of knowledge about unions paid attention, and the workers’ stories were featured worldwide in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Time, San Francisco Chronicle and countless tech publications, as well as on television and radio.

Aloise recognized that proactively engaging with reporters by keeping them informed and providing access to workers—even inviting reporters to union meetings—contributed greatly to the positive press that the campaign has received and is receiving.

The reporting put pressure on the contractors, and their clients, to do right by the workers. Extensive media coverage has also introduced new workers to the Teamsters, as they read about what was happening and recognize that they, too, deserve union representation.

Digital Divide

At 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday in September, millennials line up at the corner of 24th and Valencia, in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s an area of the city where young professionals have displaced longtime residents. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently described San Francisco as a “microcosm for what is happening not only in the United States, but all over the world,” reflecting growing wealth and widening income inequality. In this neighborhood, it is mainly working class Latinos who have felt the pinch of gentrification.

The dot-com employees wait on the corner as buses pull up with dashboard placards that read the final destinations—“Yahoo,” “LinkedIn,” “Tesla” and many other companies in Silicon Valley.

A young man with a British accent welcomes a friend to the corner; the friend is riding the bus for the first time that day. It is the only company bus that morning and it will transport the friends about 45 minutes outside the city to where they will start their work days, contributing their minds to some of the world’s largest and most innovative brands.

Scott Peebles’s commute to work that morning was much shorter. Peebles works as a shuttle driver for Compass Transportation, driving employees of Apple—which is number five on the Fortune 500 list—and he got to work that day in his 1997 Dodge Caravan, his home.

Peebles is one of a growing number of workers who, despite being employed full time in Silicon Valley, struggle in a competitive market to find affordable housing. Peebles slept on an inflatable mattress in the back of his minivan at night, and during his split shift, would visit the library and aim to learn something new every day. He would also persistently search for a home, knowing that “this isn’t supposed to happen in America.”

After Peebles moved to California to make more than the $10 an hour he earned as a paratransit driver in New York City, he came to Compass and started at $18 an hour, and was soon earning $19.50. After he and his co-workers organized with the Teamsters in February, his pay shot up to $30 an hour.

“When I heard we were going to have a union, I got very excited, especially because it was the Teamsters. I said, ‘Wow, this is going to change everything.’ Without the union, the company wouldn’t have raised the wages. I’m grateful for that,” Peebles said.

With the retroactive pay, Peebles was able to put money on his credit card and keep a positive outlook. After two months of living in his car, Peebles recently found a room in a town house for $1,300 a month. His new home has tall ceilings and a comfortable bed, and it’s an opportunity made possible thanks to the wages he is now making.

Not everyone has that opportunity. This is why the Teamsters Union is working to create opportunity for more workers, as part of a growing movement of labor, faith and community-based organizations and workers challenging income inequality in Silicon Valley through a partnership called Silicon Valley Rising.

According to a report by Silicon Valley Rising, although the region’s top tech firms made a record $103 billion in profits in 2013, one in three Silicon Valley households do not make enough money to meet their most basic needs. The San Francisco Chronicle reports average monthly rents for a one-bedroom apartment are in the range of $3,361 in San Francisco and $2,469 in Oakland.

A housing crisis exists, and as developers build skyscrapers, no fault evictions are on the rise in San Francisco.

“We believe in a Silicon Valley where all workers, their families and communities are valued and are a part of our region’s prosperity. Silicon Valley Rising strives to close the drastic inequity in our community,” said Derecka Mehrens, Executive Director of Working Partnerships USA, one of a number of community groups that is leading the campaign along with the Teamsters.

Rising Tide

“The saying goes that a rising tide lifts all boats, but in the Bay Area, the rising tide is lifting all buses,” Aloise said. “We are seeing contractors that had stalled on wages now negotiating big wage increases so that they can keep their drivers from moving to one of the better-paying companies. We are seeing proposals at the table for double-digit wage increases for school bus drivers. The union is raising the standard not just for shuttle drivers at tech companies, but as a result of those successes, raising the standard for other workers.”

Sean Hinman, a Facebook driver, sees the big picture, as well, and is proud of what he does for a living and his status as a union member.

“I’m very grateful to be at a company that is involved with a tech company and a union,” Hinman said. “Tech companies are the future. We live in a time where Google, Facebook, Apple, LinkedIn, these companies are the powerhouses, and for us to be able to unionize and rebuild the great structure of America—to give workers a chance to live and survive in America—that’s a great thing.”

San Francisco Labor Harmony

With thousands of tech company employees taking commuter shuttles to work, where do all those buses go? They pick up and drop off passengers at public transportation stops, called Muni stops, as part of a commuter shuttle pilot program established last year by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). However, while commuter shuttles—like the ones that transport tech industry employees—get to use, for a fee, public bus stops which are taxpayer funded and maintained, they’re not held accountable for their labor standards. Should a strike or work stoppage occur due to a company’s poor labor record, the workers and the community will be the ones to suffer the impact.

This is why Teamsters in Northern California are bringing public attention to this issue, including rallying in the streets of San Francisco. Thanks to the work of Teamsters Local 853 and Local 665, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution that would require the SFMTA to consider the labor practices of commuter shuttle operators as part of their permitting process. Teamsters and allies are putting pressure on SFMTA to adopt the unanimously approved resolution.

“San Francisco is a union town, and there is genuine concern for wages, benefits and working conditions for these drivers that work for some of the most profitable companies in the world,” said Doug Bloch, political director for Joint Council 7, representing more than 100,000 Teamsters across California and Nevada. “The Board of Supervisors is standing with the drivers who are fighting for their fair share, and working to make sure that any fight won’t interfere with the regular business of 800,000 daily bus riders in San Francisco.”