A federal labor agency has charged a major Silicon Valley shuttle operator with unfair labor practices.
Josh HarkinsonAug. 11, 2015 6:00 AM
Members of the Teamsters union blocked a Bauer's IT tech shuttle in San Francisco
A recently filed federal complaint alleges that one of San Francisco's biggest tech shuttle operators has attempted to thwart an effort to unionize its drivers. The complaint, filed by the San Francisco office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in late June, alleges that Bauer's Intelligent Transportation has spied on pro-union employees, interfered with union organizers, and organized its own management-backed union.
With 450 employees and 225 vehicles, Bauer's has a visible presence on the streets of San Francisco. About a third of its business comes from technology companies such as Twitter, Yelp, Cisco, Salesforce, and EA Games. In the mid-'00s it drove 55 commuter buses for Google, which now operates giant white double-decker buses on its own. Last year, Bauer's played a key role in negotiating a controversial deal that allows private commuter shuttles to use public bus stops to pick up Silicon Valley workers. (One study found that areas near the tech bus stops have seen some of the highest rent increases in San Francisco, where the median rent now stands at a whopping $4,225 a month.)
Bauer's drivers have been increasingly demanding to earn a living wage and form a union. After their efforts stepped up this spring, the company responded with a number of "unfair labor practices," according to the NRLB complaint. The agency's complaint is based on an independent investigation of allegations filed in March by the Teamsters, which has been trying organize Bauer's workers. Among other allegations, the NRLB complaint states that a Bauer's supervisor solicited employees to sign a petition indicating that they wished to be represented by an in-house union known as the Professional Commuter Drivers Union. This supervisor served as the PCDU's chief union representative. A few days later, Bauer's entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the PCDU.
Bauer's, NLRB regional attorney Jill Coffman writes in the complaint, has "dominated and interfered with the formation and administration of" an outside union while "rendering unlawful assistance and support to" its own union. She alleges that such practices violate federal labor law. Bauer's did not return a call requesting comment.
The NLRB alleges that Bauer's has "dominated and interfered" with the creation of an outside union while "rendering unlawful assistance" to its own in-house union.
The seven-page NLRB complaint offers few additional details about the allegations. Yet according to the Teamsters and a Bauer's driver who shuttles Cisco employees, the supervisor who headed the PCDU asked only a few workers if they wanted to join the union, and asked others to sign a blank page. "He pretty much just pushed me a blank sheet of paper and said, 'Here, sign this and I will see if I can get you better benefits,'" recalls the driver, who asked not to be named. "The next thing you know, he's got a supposedly full-fledged union. It was odd."
The contract that the PCDU "negotiated" with Bauer's capped driver wages at $22 an hour. In comparison, a contract recently signed between the Teamsters and shuttle drivers for Facebook guarantees drivers an hourly wage of $26.50 by 2017.
"The drivers need and deserve better wages, better benefits, and more respect," says Doug Bloch, the political director for the Northern California chapter of the Teamsters, which is holding a protest in San Francisco's Mission District today to call attention to Bauer's alleged union-busting tactics. "What Bauer's did is an insult to these workers."
The NRLB complaint will be argued before a federal judge in September. If the allegations hold up, Bauer's might find it harder to do business in San Francisco. In March, the city's Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution that urges the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority to consider shuttle operators' "labor harmony" when weighing their applications to use bus stops. The members of the SFMTA, who are appointed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, have not yet acted on the resolution. The agency did not return a call from Mother Jones.
The handling of the Bauer's dispute may also turn tricky for Lee, whom local activists say is too cozy with tech companies. In 2012, the mayor signed a $9.3 million lease granting Bauer's the use of a city-owned pier as a parking lot for its buses. In June, Lee hired Bauer's to ferry the attendees of the annual meeting of the Conference of Mayors to Uber's SoMa headquarters. Yet Bloch says Lee has generally been supportive of labor interests. "It doesn't surprise me that Bauer's IT is breaking labor law," Bloch says. "What would surprise me is if the political leadership in San Francisco tolerates it."
Protests against Bay Area tech shuttles were a nearly weekly occurrence early last year, when the buses were blockaded, barfed upon, and occasionally smashed by anti-gentrification activists. If the shuttles get a reputation for disrupting workers' efforts to organize, perhaps we'll see version 2.0 of the Google bus protests.
"Can you spy on me now?" Union organizers have criticized Verizon's "snitch app."
Verizon, facing a potential strike by 39,000 unionized workers, has rolled out a smartphone app designed to help its managers document and report violations of its "code of conduct" during a work stoppage.
Contract negotiations between the CWA and Verizon have stalled in recent days after the union objected to reduced job security, increases in health care costs, and slashed retirement benefits for its members.
A Verizon spokesman says the app, which allows users to snap geo-tagged photos of striking employees and send them to company executives, was designed in response to unspecified past incidents of vandalism and harassment during strikes. "We believe strongly that this is not an invasion of privacy," says spokesman Raymond McConville. "This is completely lawful and necessary to ensure that our employees are safe."
"This particular thing is just an example of how arrogant and obnoxious they are," counters Bob Master, the vice-president of the Communication Workers of America District 1, which is negotiating the new contract on behalf of Verizon fiber optics workers in New York and eight other East Coast states.
The worker concessions sought by Verizon are related, in part, to its decision to focus on its wireless business at the expense of building out its fiber optic network—a shift that hurts consumers, the union says. Indeed, a New York City audit found that Verizon had failed to meet its promise to deliver high-speed fiber optic internet and television to everybody in New York City who wanted it.
The CWA contends that the app is just another way for Verizon, which earned $9.6 billion in profits last year, to gain the upper hand. "I think they definitely projected this as a way of intimidating people," Master says. "At the bargaining table [our negotiators] call it the snitch app."
The vote by Google Express workers is part of a rising labor movement in Silicon Valley.
Josh HarkinsonJul. 27, 2015 5:08 PM
Labor organizers with the Teamsters union announced Monday that they're holding an election to unionize workers for Google Express, the shopping service that delivers everything from toothpaste to televisions purchased by online consumers. The union is seeking to represent about 140 Google Express warehouse workers employed by Adecco, a temp agency that provides much of the delivery service's Bay Area staff.
"Workers are required to sign short-term employment agreements with Adecco that limit them to two years before the company lets them go," the Teamsters Local Union 853 said in a press release announcing the vote. "Workers have also alleged subjection to constant harassment to work faster in poor conditions that include damaged equipment, cracked floors, and failing electrical systems that have resulted in fires."
A Google spokesperson contacted by Mother Jones declined to comment.
Google Express currently operates in seven US cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. Google started the the service in 2013 to compete with Amazon Prime.
The Google vote is the latest in a string of high-profile efforts to unionize Silicon Valley's low-wage service economy. In recent months, the Teamsters have begun representing shuttle bus drivers that transport workers for Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo. And the Service Employees International Union has convinced Google and Apple to hire their own security guards, rather than working with subcontractors that were criticized for union busting.
Labor organizers see Silicon Valley as perhaps the most glaring example of how the American economy increasingly benefits the wealthy. The success of the tech giants has created a whole new population of millionaires but has failed to create many middle class jobs. Google, with a market cap of $354 billion, has just 53,600 full-time employees. By comparison, General Motors, with a market cap of only $50 billion, has 216,000 full-time employees.
Such disparities are exacerbated by Silicon Valley's reliance on contract labor. Google Express workers make $13 to $17 an hour with no benefits, which is far from a living wage in the Bay Area.
"As subcontractors, we are treated as second class citizens," Gabriel Cardenas, a Google Express worker, said in a statement released by labor organizers. "We get a different type of badge and don’t receive some of the most basic types of compensation like benefits. The majority of us work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. I am standing with my co-workers and community because I believe change for this invisible workforce is possible."
Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that the Teamsters are organizing Google Express drivers. The union vote only applies to warehouse workers.
The practice is gaining popularity in drought-plagued California, but is it safe?
Josh HarkinsonJul. 24, 2015 6:00 AM
Was your California orange irrigated with wastewater from oil wells? Quite possibly yes.
Under a 20-year-old water recycling program, wastewater that is generated as a byproduct from oil extraction is treated and sold to some 90 Southern California landowners—including one with certified organic operations—which use it to grow crops such as citrus, almonds, apples, peaches, grapes, and blueberries sold in major grocery chains around the country.
In a widely expected move, a panel appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended today that the state's minimum wage for employees of fast-food chain restaurants be raised to $15 an hour.
The recommendation comes three years after strikes by New York City fast-food workers set off a national labor movement that has led to the passage of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But unlike those cities, New York doesn't have the power to set its own minimum wage—it's up to legislators in Albany.
When New York lawmakers balked at raising the minimum wage last year, Gov. Cuomo convened a board to examine wages in the fast food industry, which employs 180,000 people in the state. The state's labor commissioner, a Cuomo appointee, has the power to issue an order putting the proposal into effect. If he approves the wage hike, fast-food workers currently earning the state's minimum wage of $8.75 will get a 70 percent raise, effective by 2018 in New York City and 2021 in the rest of the state.
"It's hard to explain to my children why they can't do things other kids do," Barbara Kelley, a Buffalo mother who works at Dunkin' Donuts and takes home an average of $150 a week, said in a statement released by labor organizers. "With $15 an hour, I will be able to get by and maybe reward my kids in little ways, like ice cream after a long day, and in big ways like being able to save for the future." Labor organizers are optimistic that the $15 wage will be adopted and will spur raises in other industries.