Facebook bus drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area succeeded in overcoming the roadblocks employers and their governmental bodies have erected to prevent workers from organizing and/or joining a union. On Nov. 19, the drivers voted 43-28 to join the Teamsters.

Rome Aloise, international vice president and secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 853, in a phone interview with Liberation News, explained the significance of the vote:

“This is one of the first major inroads into the tech industry. Even though these are not direct employees of Facebook, they provide a service for Facebook that is very necessary in that they are delivering their workers well rested, not having to drive the commute themselves. It is also significant in that it reflects the wage disparities and all the other things that cause workers to seek out union representation. ”

This organizing effort is part of a growing campaign in Silicon Valley and the rest of the Bay Area to secure better pay, benefits and working conditions for low-wage workers.

In addition to the Teamsters, unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers, the SEIU, and UNITE HERE are carrying out organizing drives. Organization of the concession workers at recently opened Levi’s Stadium, new home of the Forty-Niners NFL team, in Santa Clara is currently underway.

The South Bay Labor Council has also launched a campaign directed at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to win a “living wage policy” benefiting employees working directly for the county and for county contractors.

Some 60 miles east of the Bay Area, the Teamsters are also organizing. During the interview with Aloise, he made this comment:

“We’ve been organizing 900 food workers out in the Tracy area who do fresh-cut vegetables, that put food on our tables, are mostly Hispanic immigrant workers—many suffering wage theft, intimidation, sexual harassment, all of the things typical of sweatshops at the turn of the 19th century. And we can’t get two lines of press for those poor people, while 80 workers organize Facebook and we get international press. I guess it’s just a sign of the times and where people’s priorities are.”

Outsourcing to lower labor costs

Companies from Google to Apple outsource service jobs such as janitors and security guards to outside contractors, who typically are non-union and pay rock bottom wages with few benefits and highly variable hours.

As a Nov. 19 article in USA Today put it, “With modest pay and few benefits, these workers struggle to piece together a living in one of the nation’s most expensive areas, creating a growing underclass of service workers in Silicon Valley.”

Loop Transportation, the contractor that employs the Facebook drivers, released a statement from its CEO Jeff Leonoudakis.

“Loop Transportation respects the election results and the decision of our drivers who service Facebook,” Leonoudakis said. “Even though we don’t feel that our drivers’ interests are best served by union representation, our drivers have spoken and we will now begin the negotiation process.”

Employers, of course, universally “feel” that workers’ interests are best served by the decisions and policies they, the bosses, adopt and impose. Having failed to convince the drivers of this false notion, the company is grudgingly, for now, going along with the vote.

Drivers’ concerns

Facebook shuttle bus drivers on Loop Transportation’s payroll say they earn between $18 and $20 for ferrying technology workers who often enjoy six-figure incomes to and from work. By comparison, union drivers for SF Muni, AC Transit and SamTrans can make as much as $25 or even $30 an hour—a pay level that itself is barely adequate in view of mounting living costs.

Regarding the concerns of the Facebook drivers, Aloise told Liberation News:

“The biggest working condition concern is the long split between picking people up in the morning, dropping them off, then picking them up at the job site and bringing them back to the drop off sites. The long period between is a major concern because they are not compensated for it. This is unlike in the old days when people were school bus drivers and lived in the community and they could go home during the middle of the day and come back to finish their split shift. But these drivers don’t live anywhere near where they’re working, so they can’t do that. Some of them are gone as much as 16 hours a day from their homes to get paid for eight hours. ”

“Then of course there are all the normal things—wages and benefits. ”

The coming process of negotiating a contract will likely reveal a sizable gap between the interests of the company and the interests of the workers—at least in regard to working conditions, benefits and wages.

Winning wider support

The workers will increase their chances of making significant gains if they link their struggle with other workers, union and non-union alike, as well as the community groups in San Francisco’s Mission District that have protested the big buses carrying the relatively high-paid tech workers commuting between their workplaces in Silicon Valley and the city.

This influx of high-tech workers who work elsewhere has contributed to the soaring housing and other living costs in the city, reinforcing the gentrification trends driving out more and more lower paid, especially African American and Latino, workers. As living costs rise, increasing numbers of teachers and other “white-collar” workers are also finding living in the city unaffordable.

The bus drivers themselves cannot afford to live in San Francisco, putting them into a contradictory relationship with their high-tech passengers, who, largely unwittingly, contribute to the gentrification phenomenon—a trend that is actually mainly driven by big real-estate interests and the banks in cahoots with local politicians.

Educating the high-tech workers as well as the public at large regarding the real issues posed by this struggle will be essential during the negotiating process, so as to maximize support for the drivers’ demands.

Inspiring others to organize

In regard to bus drivers who provide a similar service for other high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, Aloise told Liberation News: “We’ve heard from quite a number of them. So I think this is going to be more than a one-off organizing campaign. This is going to be more of a movement, at least among the drivers who work for all the big high-tech employers—Google, EBAY, Apple and so on. I think they are all pretty interested right now. ”

Wages for most workers in the San Francisco Bay Area have remained stagnant while the top tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple are booming and showing record profits. This disparity and a somewhat stronger economy have created the conditions for more successful organizing drives here and nationally. The Party for Socialism and Liberation fully supports all such efforts.