Illustration: Sam Woolley (Gizmodo)
The effort began at an Applebee’s in Redwood City, a link in a chain of towns that dot that peninsula that connects San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Robert Taitt, a security officer who works on Facebook’s campus, signed his union card there. He was one of the first of more than 3,000 Silicon Valley security officers who guard the campuses of Facebook, Google, and other major tech companies to do so.
That was well over a year ago. Although the four major agencies that employ Silicon Valley’s security guards have recognised the union, they have yet to agree on the union’s first contract. Negotiations have dragged on through the summer, despite a shooting at YouTube’s headquarters in April that highlighted the risks that security officers face when safeguarding tech campuses.
As they work to solidify their contract, security officers are struggling to eke out a living in the most expensive region in America, all the while rubbing elbows with some of the area’s wealthiest residents — the tech workers they’re tasked with protecting.
The median salary at Facebook is reportedly north of $240,000 (around £183,000) a year; Alphabet, Google’s parent company, pays a median salary of just over $197,000 (£150,000). Security officers working in Silicon Valley can currently earn between $13 (£9.90) and $18 (£13.70) per hour — the equivalent of between $27,000 (£20,500) and $37,000 (£28,100) a year. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in both Menlo Park and Mountain View, where Facebook and Google are respectively based, hovers above $3,000 (£2,200) per month, a price that’s far out of reach for most security officers. Some officers work second jobs to try to make up the difference, while others rely on overtime. Rent isn’t the only difficult expense — several officers told Gizmodo they try to only eat while at work, where the food is free, because they can’t afford groceries.
“You can offer to work for 16 hours a day,” said Annabelle, a security officer who asked to be identified only by her middle name because she feared retaliation from her employer. “And they always have places where they need officers, so if you can stay awake and you can work the hours, you can earn some overtime, and that will help pay for a desperately needed car repair, or it will put food on the table — whatever the latest catastrophe is.”
Some of the security officers who work on tech campuses, like Annabelle, are homeless; others commute several hours each day from slightly more affordable areas. Many of them say they cannot afford the health plans offered through their employers. Some say they are passed over for opportunities for promotions and advancement based on racism, ageism, or favouritism. Officers who spoke with Gizmodo say that winning their first union contract will make their jobs more sustainable, and they continue to push for its adoption while juggling the demands of the job and the hardships of life.
There’s been a rising tide of worker activism in the tech industry this year. Google employees have successfully pressed their leadership to improve diversity and inclusion efforts and wind down a controversial military contract. Workers at Salesforce, Amazon, and Microsoft are pushing back against their companies’ contracts with government agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. Because their skills tend to be in high demand, tech workers are in a position of strength to advocate for the issues that matter to them. Security officers hope that their union contract will be one of those issues.
“Tech companies should already be at the table negotiating with us, in a sane world,” said Eric Murphy, a security officer who works at Facebook. “Their intentional denial of the responsibility they have for their own employees is the root of the problem. They outsource the delay tactics and workplace issues so it doesn’t look bad for them.”
The union contract delays are a result of the contractor model the tech industry uses to employ large swaths of its workforce — its security officers, its janitors, its cooks, its baristas, its bus drivers. Tech companies like Facebook don’t typically employ these workers directly. Instead, they partner with contractor firms to bring in labour. (Apple, which made its security officers employees several years ago, is an exception.) But the tech firms have discretion over what they’re willing to pay in wages and insurance — so security officers are negotiating with their employers, who then turn around and negotiate with the tech companies. The game of telephone slows everything down.
After several May negotiation meetings between the four security companies — Allied Universal, G4S, Cypress, and Securitas — and the union, SEIU United Service Workers West, it doesn’t seem that security officers are any closer to winning a contract.
“I’ve been at Facebook three years. I’ve walked in the building. I’ve seen signs that say ‘women’s rights matter’ all over the wall. I’ve seen ‘black lives matter’ all over,” Taitt explained. “The problem is, when I reported the issues to them, they’ve done nothing to resolve the issues. They’re telling me that because I don’t work directly for them they can’t help me. But I don’t believe that because I think they can do a lot of things to help me or help our cause but that they chose to sit back and continue to let it happen.”
In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, a G4S spokesperson did not say why the union negotiations have taken more than a year to finalise but said that the company “respects the rights of its employees” to have union representation.
“Throughout the United States and across the globe, G4S respects the rights of its employees to choose whether or not be represented by a union in accordance with applicable law,” the spokesperson said. “G4S has positive and constructive working relationships with the unions that represent its employees, including our employees in the Silicon Valley area.”
Neither Allied Universal, Cypress, nor Securitas have responded to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
Officers told Gizmodo that they’re often discouraged from interacting with tech workers, but that tech workers have spoken up for them when they’ve observed mistreatment. Facebook officers have successfully pressured Allied Universal to allow them to sit in chairs and to have water bottles when they’re stationed at outdoor posts — efforts that some Facebook employees supported.
“The funny thing about the Facebook employees is they’ve actually fought for us before against their own security management about treatment that they’ve seen,” Taitt said. But for problems that aren’t as easily visible, like wage disputes, security officers are often on their own.
A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email that the company “values the partnership with our security providers and we greatly appreciate our Security Officers and the tremendous work they do every day to keep our people and offices safe and secure.” The spokesperson added that Facebook is not currently considering making its security guards full-time employees but supports their unionisation efforts.
“Facebook, as a whole, respects the right of our vendor employees to organise. Union organisation by vendor’s employees does not alter our decision to work with or engage a vendor,” the spokesperson said. “In fact, we believe that is also important that the vendors we work with do not oppose or inhibit the right of their employees to unionise.”
In May, security officers organised a march near Google’s Mountain View campus to raise awareness about their unionisation efforts. Although several hundred officers turned up, the march highlighted the insularity of the tech industry; because Google’s security officers can’t be on campus more than two hours after their shift ends, they had to stage their protest in a nearby park, not quite within view of the campus. The march traced through mostly empty streets — since Google busses its employees to campus and provides them with free lunches, they don’t have much incentive to leave the office during the day.
“I’ve seen signs that say ‘women’s rights matter’ all over the wall. I’ve seen ‘black lives matter’ all over. The problem is, when I reported the issues to them, they’ve done nothing to resolve the issues. They’re telling me that because I don’t work directly for them they can’t help me.”
“Most of the people who work here can’t afford to live here. There’s another answer to that besides building affordable housing — it’s to make sure that people get a living wage,” Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel told the assembled security officers. He noted that tech firms tout their high median salaries, but that such numbers are only possible because the companies are excluding their contract workers from the calculations. “We don’t just need software engineers, we don’t just need venture capitalists, we need people to do the grunt work that makes Silicon Valley possible,” he said.
Like Facebook, a Google spokesperson said the company “absolutely supports workers and their right to choose to unionise or not unionise, and Google works with both union and non-union vendors.” The spokesperson emphasised that Google is not involved in the union negotiations. “Google is not the employer of these workers,” the spokesperson said.
The contrast between security officers’ wages and tech workers’ salaries isn’t lost on officers.
“It is surreal because we’re told by our clients, ‘Keep an eye on those homeless people,’” Annabelle explained. “The funny thing is, so many of the officers are themselves homeless. They themselves are living in an encampment somewhere, and they themselves are living out of a van.”
“There’s always these terms that are bandied about, you know, we’re disrupting this, we’re disrupting that,” she added. “They’re disrupting people’s ability to live in a decent and dignified manner under a roof instead of in a car. When you’re saying that we’ve disrupted the old temp agency model and you’re getting away with a much more streamlined operation and you’ve got workers that are so desperate that they’ll work for ten, eleven dollars an hour, I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of, I think that’s a disgrace.”
(California’s state minimum wage is currently $11 (£8.40) per hour for companies with 25 or more employees. Local minimum wages vary; Palo Alto’s minimum wage rose to $13.50 (£10.30) as of January 1, while Mountain View’s minimum wage is now $15 (£11.40) per hour.)
A Google employee who requested anonymity to speak freely about the security officers’ union told Gizmodo that most of his coworkers are unaware of the officers’ stalled contract.
“If tech workers are going to build a real labour movement, we have to tackle issues of race and discrimination and housing,” the employee said. The security officers, he noted, are employees’ first line of defence, and especially after the shooting at YouTube, Google should prioritise their well being. “It is in nobody’s best interest to have a guard who is tired, hungry, or sick,” he said. “I’m honoured to be supporting this effort because they’re doing something a lot of tech workers are still hemming and hawing about. They’re standing up in a way other workers with far more power and privilege haven’t gotten around to. They’re proving to us that it can be done.”