Maria Noel Fernandez, Silicon Valley Rising
Maria Noel Fernandez, by Gretchen Röehrs
Silicon Valley is a place of immense wealth—and punishing poverty. Long before Trump, the subcontracted workers who provide critical services to tech companies throughout the Valley faced a litany of challenges: low wages, high housing prices, racial discrimination, and hostile immigration authorities, among others. Now they’re dealing with Trump, who threatens to make all of their existing problems worse, and add many more to the list.
We spoke to Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of Silicon Valley Rising, about organizing Silicon Valley’s tech service workforce and how it fits into the fight against Trump. We talked about the power of collective action, and its potential not only to improve the lives of workers, but to produce meaningful political change.
This interview took place in early 2017.
What is Silicon Valley Rising, when was it founded, and what kind of work does it do?
Silicon Valley Rising is a campaign to inspire the tech sector to build an inclusive middle class here in its home region. In 2014, it was becoming clear that the economy was bouncing back from the recession in a major way—but our communities weren’t. One in three working households were making too little to get by.
We held a big community meeting that spring with low-wage workers, housing advocates, clergy, immigrant leaders, and unions. Everybody brought their piece of the puzzle to try to put together a solution.
We realized that moment was a lot like all the other moments we’ve seen the Silicon Valley economy boom. There are a lot of patterns, like subcontracting, that allow the industry to do really well at the same time that many of its workers and neighbors aren’t. We knew it divided along racial lines. We needed to tell the story of how this could be possible.
This was at the same time when tech was getting a lot of scrutiny for not having enough diversity in its workforce. Which was funny because we were talking to plenty of African Americans and Latinos working for tech—the security officers, the janitors, the cafeteria workers, the folks driving the Google bus. But they don’t show up in the diversity numbers because they don’t work directly for the tech companies. They work for subcontractors.
So we published a report that summer saying that tech’s real diversity problem is occupational segregation: you’ve got white and Asian workers directly employed by the tech companies earning six figures, and you’ve got black and brown workers on the exact same campuses employed by subcontractors, earning barely more than minimum wage.
We had one cafeteria worker who was living with her three kids in one bedroom of her ex-mother-in-law’s house because that was all they could afford. She reached the breaking point when her kids wanted a Christmas tree but they couldn’t have one because there was literally nowhere to put it in that one room. So they moved out to the Central Valley. Rent was cheaper, but that left her commuting four hours a day to her job and never seeing her kids.
So we brought together a coalition from the same people who had been in that room in the spring of 2014. Silicon Valley Rising is led by a group of labor, faith and community organizations. We launched with an event at Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the same hall where Cesar Chavez organized in the 1950s.
We focus on three things. First, we’re supporting low-wage tech workers who are speaking out for better jobs and demanding that the tech sector take responsibility for what happens to workers in their subcontracted services supply chain. Over 9,000 workers in those four occupations—security, janitorial, food service and shuttle drivers—have won a voice at work or improved wages and working conditions since we got started. Second, we’re campaigning for public policies that raise the floor for all workers, like raising the minimum wage and opening access for part-time workers to more work hours so they can pay the bills. The third piece is addressing the impact of tech on housing prices. We’re working to build and preserve affordable housing and protect communities from displacement.
What’s been the impact of the election on the work that Silicon Valley Rising does, and on the lives of low-wage tech workers more broadly? What does Trump mean for the daily lives of these workers?
Service workers in the tech industry are deeply worried about the new Administration. Fifty-eight percent of workers in the subcontracted industries that serve the tech sector are black or Latino, including many immigrants. President Trump’s executive orders around immigration directly threaten many of these workers and their families.
And we know with some of these subcontractors there’s already a long history of intimidating workers not to stand up for their rights by making threats based on their immigration status—which keeps wages low and makes workers afraid to organize. It’s pretty hard to separate the issues. But I think for the workers who’ve recently won unions or a strong union contract, they’ve personally lived what it’s like to stand up and win and how powerful they can be together. That’s not a lesson you soon forget.
I know there have been a number of victories recently with unionizing service staff on tech campuses. Obviously these unionization efforts are critical for securing better wages, benefits, and working conditions for these workers. But how can these newly unionized workers also play a role in the fight against Trump?
Unions are working people standing together. Not a lot of people realize this, but they’re democracies—workers vote on contracts and vote to elect their union officers. Unions have always, always been a place for workers to have a stronger voice by standing together in the political arena, just like they have a stronger voice by standing together at the negotiating table with the boss.
Workers who are just coming off an organizing victory have seen what they can achieve by standing together, and they’re ready to fight back. I’m thinking about the janitors—8,000 of them in the Bay Area who won a big contract fight last year. These are largely immigrant women of color who work alone in empty buildings on big tech campuses at night. Sexual assault on the job was a huge problem, often from their supervisors, and the janitorial companies would just look the other way and give out slaps on the wrist. So in their contract they won strict protections against sexual assault. Then they went to the statehouse and won a bill that protects not just the women in the union but across the state.
This also matters because the country and the world are looking to Silicon Valley for what the future of the economy will be. We have an increasingly tech-driven economy, and it can either be one that creates inclusive opportunity or one that leaves behind everyone who doesn’t have an advanced degree. This is especially important right now, when Trump is exploiting economic insecurity to pit communities against each other. We know that when unions are strong, inequality goes down and prosperity is widely shared. By taking on occupational segregation in tech, these workers are showing a better alternative to Trump’s divisive policies.
Those policies have already inflicted a lot of damage, but they’ve also provoked a lot of protest in response. Do you see any silver linings? Does this political moment present any new opportunities that we can capitalize on?
It’s been exciting to see some of the high-wage workers in tech speaking out very forcefully against actions of the Administration like the travel ban. That’s given us the opening to reach out to those workers. Now we’re coming together to say, “We are the tech industry. All of us. We are under attack and we need our companies and the tech CEOs to stand with us right now.”
We’re trying to show the tech companies that they have a choice to make: they can stand with the Trump Administration and its agenda of fear, exclusion, and the rich getting richer, or they can stand with the workers who make their companies run and earn them enormous profits.
We’ve seen tech companies do the right thing in a number of cases, like the ones who came out and said they were going to require their contractors to provide higher wages and paid leave. We believe that’s possible again—that the industry will use its immense wealth and power for good.
If Trump is going to deport people, tech companies can turn their campuses into sanctuaries and tell their contractors to do the same. If Trump is going to attack unions, tech companies can protect workers’ right to organize and make sure their contractors stay fair and neutral to let workers decide. If Trump is going to gut federal money for housing, tech companies can step in with their dollars and their political clout to help solve the housing crisis here in Silicon Valley. The list goes on.
You mentioned that high-wage tech workers have been speaking out on these issues. What’s your view on the potential for solidarity between high-wage and low-wage tech workers in organizing against Trump?
This political moment is creating new opportunities for all tech workers to stand together. From defending against hateful attacks on immigrants to tackling Silicon Valley’s housing affordability crisis, there are some key issues that are shared by our entire community.
And as direct tech workers learn more about the conditions of subcontracted workers, we’ve found that they want the highly successful companies where they work to share their values and treat all their workers fairly. As these programmers and engineers become more politically active, we’re seeing a greater willingness to support organizing efforts and encourage the industry to improve standards.
In February, for example, we co-organized an action with the Tech Workers Coalition in San Francisco. Over 200 tech workers—from coders to security officers—came together to protest Trump’s immigration orders and demand that Dell respect an industry-wide janitorial contract.
More recently, in March, more than 500 workers across the tech sector came to Palo Alto for a rally organized by Tech Stands Up. We supported the action in order to push tech companies to resist the Trump Administration’s hateful actions on immigration and civil rights. We also wanted to encourage the industry to be a force for good when it comes to protecting its immigrant workforce, pursuing inclusion, and addressing income inequality.
It meant a lot to see people like Maria Gonzalez, a janitor at Facebook, and Jacky Espinoza, a barista at Cisco, speaking at the rally. They raised the issues of low-wage workers—often people of color and immigrants—who make up tech’s subcontracted workforce. These workers work side-by-side with the programmers, engineers, and other high-paid professionals but face a whole different slew of socio-economic challenges—on and off the job.
To see them sharing their story as the story of the tech industry—and to hear the response of hundreds of people working in the sector who afterward told us they were interested in joining our campaign to fight for the rights of these workers—tells me there is a new opportunity in this moment to push the tech industry in the right direction.
We’re really excited to keep bringing all tech workers together to act in solidarity.
This has been a free interview from Tech Against Trump, a book by Logic chronicling the rising tide of anti-Trump resistance by tech workers and technologists. It previously appeared in The Nation.