Despite being one of the biggest strongholds of Democratic power in the United States, there are almost no unions representing private sector workers in the Silicon Valley. But a new NLRB ruling that takes effect next month is going to make it much easier to organize workers. Here, quoting from a March 26th Inside Counsel article entitled “Proposed ambush election rule from NLRB said to favor unions,” is a summary of the new rules:
- Opponents to a union drive would have as few as 10 days to campaign against unionization – as opposed to the 42 days now given to them.
- Employers have to file a “Statement of Position” within seven days or lose the right to pursue any issues.
- Requiring nonunion employers to provide employee personal information such as home addresses, e-mail addresses, home phone numbers and cell phone numbers to the union.
- Ending a 25-day waiting period before holding an election.
- Letting workers vote even if eligibility is challenged. Legal action would have to wait until after the election.
- Employers would no longer have an automatic right to a review of contested issues.
Along with being a Democratic stronghold, and like many other Democratic strongholds in the U.S., the San Francisco Bay Area has one of the most polarized income distributions. The middle class is being hollowed out. Will the unions come calling, armed with the NLRB’s new tools to organize workers?
As discussed in a comprehensive New Yorker article written by George Packer and published in May 2013, “Change the World,” there is a strong libertarian streak that still animates a majority of the Silicon Valley’s high-tech leadership. But a new generation of business leaders have started to challenge that mentality, both for ideological and business reasons. While still paying lip service to libertarian values, the allure of government money and incentives to develop surveillance products and “green” products (often the same product) is too tantalizing to resist. But Packer’s article also focused on the stratification of wealth in the Valley. He writes:
“There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing.”
From an even more liberal media source, Alternet, comes an even more scathing expose, also written in the Spring of 2013, entitled ” How Google and Silicon Valley Screw Their Non-Elite Workers:”
“Many of Silicon Valley’s blue-collar jobs are outsourced to subcontractors, a practice common with Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and other big tech firms. Usually the lowest bidder gets the contract, and in labor intensive industries such as security, food service, janitorial and landscaping the lower bids tend to come from firms with lower labor standards.”
For a very recent take on the alienation of service workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, wade through this lengthy but thoughtful article published earlier this week on TechCrunch, a survey of the challenges the current real estate bubble poses to low income residents, many of whom are being evicted as speculators buy up residential properties for redevelopment, “How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists.” Read the graphic depicting a handbill entitled “Mission Yuppie Eradication Project,” an exhortation to “vandalize yuppie cars,” and “lawyer lofts.” Better yet, decipher the meaning of the title – it rewards contemplation.
Once the NLRB rules are changed, there is only one reason unions won’t attempt to organize these workers – who are ripe for union organizing: They want that high-tech money to keep pouring into the coffers of the Democratic party, so they don’t want to do anything that rocks the boat. At least not before November 5th.
There is another route libertarians can take however, as they confront – either before or certainly after the 2014 elections – a growing labor movement in the SF Bay Area. They can address the root cause of discontent, which is a cost-of-living in California that is far above the national average. In most of the United States, homes and condominiums cost scarcely more than the costs for the land and the materials, but in the SF Bay Area, they cost three times as much, or more.
Libertarians who are true to their principles understand better than most ideologues that abundance is generated through competitive development of land and resources. California is unusually blessed with both. And libertarian philosophy only retains its self-proclaimed intrinsic altruism if competition is unleashed not only to bring down the price of a smart phone, but also to bring down the cost for gasoline, water, transportation, food, and yes, housing. To do this, libertarians will have to take on the environmentalists as well as California’s most anti-competitive special interest of all, the public sector unions and their allies who run the pension funds – who require asset bubbles in order to stay solvent.
In a way, the NLRB rule change may help the Silicon Valley, and by extension, all of California. Because it is going to force the libertarians to choose sides. They can continue to spout libertarian ideals whenever it suits them, while lobbying for mandates for expensive “green” products and policies. This will keep prices high and punish low income workers, fomenting strife. Or they can fight for a solution where everyone wins – a lower cost of living through economic development and corporate competition.
Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center