Silicon Valley rises up for low-wage workers

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Over 200 labor, religious, and community activists packed historic McDonnell Hall here today to launch Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition aiming to win living wages, benefits, and fair treatment for the many low-wage workers who provide services to the high-tech giants like Apple and Google that dominate the region’s economy. Organizing these workers, which has already scored victories among bus drivers for Facebook and other high-tech corporations, will be key to this effort.

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate place to launch this organizing initiative. McDonnell Hall, originally no more than a shack on the campus of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, is where Cesar Chavez got his start at an organizer, mentored by legendary activist priest Fr. Donald McDonnell; it also saw the beginnings of the La Raza organization.

Fr. Jon Pedigo, pastor of the church and a leading progressive activist in San Jose, kicked off the event by reading from the New Testament letter of James: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you… You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” Fr. Jon added, to loud cheers, “But today we offer resistance!”

Another local progressive religious leader, Rabbi Dana Magat, read a passage from the prophet Jeremiah denouncing a king “who makes his neighbors work for nothing and does not give them their wages,” concluding, “It’s time to rise up!” to which the crowd responded with shouts of “¡Sí se puede!”

Ben Field, executive director of the South Bay Labor Council AFL-CIO, declared, “We are standing in the same place where Cesar Chavez began his work.” He lauded the “unprecedented coalition of labor, faith groups, and community organizations” that had come together to fight for the one-third of all families in Silicon Valley – one of the richest areas in the wealthiest country in the world – who are struggling to make ends meet: “Those who serve food, drive for, and protect the high-tech companies that make billions in profits are barely getting by.” He pointed to the “hourglass” nature of economic expansion in the Valley, where the only jobs being created are either high-wage professional jobs requiring specialized skills or less-skilled jobs that don’t pay enough to live on in the pricey San Francisco Bay area. Silicon Valley has 1.1 million low-wage workers, but only 31,000 “middle-class” jobs.

“This is happening nationwide,” he explained, “but it’s happening fastest in Silicon Valley. He noted the sharp racist edge to this development, with the vast majority of low-wage jobs held by people of color, a situation he described as “occupational segregation.” As he concluded, “We need to expand economic opportunity so that people who work for a living can actually make a living!” the crowd broke out into cheers.

Derecka Mehrens of Working Partnerships USA, the community ally of the South Bay Labor Council, explained the three goals of the new coalition:

1.     “To lift the floor for all workers in Silicon Valley” by winning living wages for low-paid workers;

2.     “To work on housing to meet the crisis in Silicon Valley,” which has some of the highest housing costs in the nation; and

3.     “To bring those tech companies to the table-they’re going to pay their workers a living wage!”

“We’re going to rebuild the middle class in this community!” she concluded, to loud assent.

Particularly notable was the strong alliance being built between labor and faith communities, bringing back to life a strong but often-forgotten history of religious support for the labor movement. The Catholic bishop of San Jose sent a message declaring, “We are proud to stand together with you as Silicon Valley Rising. We need to make Silicon Valley a place where all families can thrive together.” Fr. Jon led a rousing prayer-really a call to action-calling for “a more racial and active labor movement” and ending with a plea “that those who are beaten down by the powerful in this Valley may have hope.” Rabbi Dana, quoting a passage from the prophet Amos calling for “righteousness to roll down like an ever-flowing stream,” insisted, “We need a tidal wave of righteousness in Silicon Valley. It is time to rise up!” – and shouts of “rise up” resounded through the hall.

Other organizations in the coalition included two SEIU locals, a Teamsters local, UniteHere local 19, Latinos United for a New America, Asian Americans for Community Involvement, Affordable Housing Network, and Silicon Valley DeBug, an organization of young activists. And members of the Chavez-Ross Club of the CPUSA took part.

The gathering not only looked forward to struggle but also back to some recent victories. The previous Saturday, drivers for Facebook, organized by the Teamsters, won a first contract increasing wages, providing company-paid healthcare and pensions, and ending involuntary “split shifts” that forced drivers to work mornings and evenings with the hours in between idle and unpaid. On the very day of the rally, drivers for Yahoo, Apple, Genentech, eBay and Zynga voted overwhelmingly for Teamster representation.

The rally ended with more than shouts and applause. Almost all those present signed cards pledging to participate in future actions. Next on the agenda is an Apple shareholders meeting March 10, when the coalition will rally to demand that the hugely profitable tech giant see to it that the service workers it uses get a living wage.

Photo: Henry Millstein/PW


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.