The Other Tech Workers

David Huerta, SEIU United Service Workers West

Portrait of David Huerta, by Gretchen Röehrs David Huerta, by Gretchen Röehrs

Tech workers aren’t just engineers and designers—they’re also the security guards, shuttle drivers, janitors, and cafeteria staff who work on office campuses across Silicon Valley. These workers are typically hired by contractors, rather than the tech companies themselves. They are overwhelmingly people of color, and many are immigrants. Despite working in one of the world’s most profitable industries, they earn very low wages: one in three fall below two hundred percent of the federal poverty level, which was $24,300 for 2016.

We spoke to David Huerta, the president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Service Workers West, about the new threats these workers face under Trump, and how they’re organizing to fight back. SEIU United Service Workers West is a statewide local of SEIU, the second-biggest union in the United States, and has been organizing tech service workers across Silicon Valley along with other unions such as UNITE HERE and the Teamsters. David told us about the potential for solidarity between blue-collar and white-collar tech workers, and why he’s optimistic that resistance to Trump will spark a movement that will unite the two groups.

This interview took place in early 2017.

Tell me about SEIU United Service Workers West and who you represent in the tech industry.

We’re a statewide organization stretching from Sacramento to San Diego, active in all the metropolitan areas of California. And we represent 45,000 workers total.

In the tech industry, we have about 5,000 janitors working on tech campuses, and we recently won recognition for about 3,000 security officers. So between those two groups, we’ll represent some 8,000 tech service workers by the end of the year.

What are your workers most concerned about when it comes to the Trump Administration? What’s the biggest immediate danger?

The biggest threat is what he’s going to do to undermine labor standards for working people. That fear is shared by both our janitors and our security officers.

So-called “right-to-work” laws are a threat to all working families. The laws destroy unions and lower standards for everyone. In right-to work states, the average working family makes 12.5% less and is less likely to have health coverage than in non-right-to- work states.

Closely related is the danger he represents to immigrants. And that impacts not only our workers, but their families, their extended families, and their communities. Immigrants across Silicon Valley are living in fear that federal agents may break down their doors and separate parents from children and break up families.

On the other hand, Trump has sparked something in people. It’s often coming from a place of fear and a place of frustration. But people are starting to question what’s happening. You're seeing it in the street. You're seeing it in the conversations that folks are having. It’s a moment where people are defining who they are and what they stand for.

For instance, you’re seeing tech workers coming together with security officers and janitors to resist this Administration. I think that's been the biggest unintended impact of Trump—and I think it's the biggest opportunity.

Do you think there’s potential for solidarity and coordination on anti-Trump organizing by white-collar tech workers like engineers and blue-collar tech workers like janitors?

Absolutely. Because this Administration’s agenda is creating an intersection of shared interests that has the ability to spark movements. Before, you would see agitation and activism being siloed to specific groups. Now, people feel attacked across class and across race. And that’s creating a common interest that we haven’t experienced in the past.

What’s happening right now in Silicon Valley between tech workers and service workers is a great example of that intersection. It serves as an example of what’s possible. What’s going to be challenging is how to continue the momentum, and expand it to other parts of the country.

Is immigration policy one of the concerns shared by white-collar and blue-collar workers in tech? Because there a lot of white-collar tech workers who are foreign nationals working on H1-B visas, and there are many blue-collar tech workers who are immigrants.

Yeah, one of the biggest points of intersection between those two groups is the question of immigration. Because you have a lot of immigrants who are working as service workers on tech campuses, and you also have a lot of immigrants and foreign workers on H1-B visas working in the white-collar professions. Both populations could be vulnerable under this Administration.

We’ve seen the attacks on immigrants. We’ve seen the woman who was deported in Arizona. We’ve seen DACA children get arrested.

If you're a computer engineer on an H1-B visa and you’re hearing these stories, you might start to think, “How is that any different from me? They’re here doing what I’m doing, trying to provide for their families.” That can really bring people together.

But I think the opportunities go beyond that. I'll be perfectly honest: there are major diversity issues in the tech community. Service workers are overwhelmingly people of color, and engineers don’t have the same level of diversity. How can we come together to solve that problem?

When it comes to fighting Trump from the tech sector, what do you recommend in terms of tactics? How should white-collar and blue-collar tech workers be organizing?

It comes down to challenging the tech industry to serve a broader purpose, to become what it aspires to be.

It’s going to be really critical for engineers to embrace the workers who clean the offices, secure the campuses, cook the food, and drive the shuttles. The key question is how to bring skilled and unskilled labor together to create a broader movement that's going to have impact. But it’s a movement that’s still grasping, that’s still getting its legs.

There’s a lot that service workers and skilled workers can learn from each other. Tech can be used as a tool for organizing, and engineers can learn about organizing from janitors and security officers who are already creating change in their own lives by working together. In that exchange, there’s potential for a lot of power.

When the computer programmers recently stopped work at Google, they invited our janitors to come speak. It’s powerful to hear the value of service work in Silicon Valley, and how service workers are impacting people’s lives, alongside the voices of the people who are actually developing the technology. Together, they can hold the companies they work for accountable.

One of the conversations that’s been happening since the election among white-collar tech workers is the possibility of forming a union. As someone who leads a union, what do you think of that idea? Is a tech workers union desirable? Is it feasible?

Well, look. Whether you're a white-collar tech worker or a janitor, you're still part of production. It goes back to old-school organizing: if you don’t own the means of production, then the only way you're going to have impact on the means of production is by working collectively.

Through organizing, tech workers could have a huge impact. I can only imagine the impact it would have on labor organizing if tech workers were to say, “We also want to organize and we also want to have a collective voice.” It could transform labor organizing going forward.

So, there's huge opportunity and possibility when that comes together.

Any other big takeaways about how folks working in tech can fight Trump? Any lessons that have emerged from the past several months?

Bringing these two types of workers together is one of the most important things we can do. We need to focus on shared interests so the relationship becomes transformational as opposed to transactional. I think that’s going to lead to a much bigger resistance. Tech workers can teach us how to be more effective within tech, and we can mentor their ability to organize.

It's not any one tactic so much as a shift in mindset that allows us to see the value in each other. If we understand our shared value, we can move together, and have tremendous impact on the industry and the Administration.

There is enormous wealth being created in Silicon Valley. And everybody is responsible for creating that wealth—it’s not just one person.

People have to have dignity in their life. That’s one of our main objectives. It’s central to creating a more sustainable environment in Silicon Valley, for workers across all sectors.


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.

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