Cupertino, Calif. — As organized labor expands its efforts in Silicon Valley, a local union and civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson are pushing for better working conditions for the security guards who work at Apple’s campus.
United Service Workers West, a regional arm of the Service Employees International Union, hopes to unionize security guards who work on Apple’s campus, and in the short term is asking Apple to use a different security contractor.
The campaign comes amid a growing debate about the valley’s sweeping use of contract workers, who do everything from driving shuttle buses to cooking in the cafeteria.
But as the tech workers they serve are showered with eye-popping perks, service workers often struggle to make ends meet in the pricey Bay Area, advocates say.
Though it hopes to unionize security guards across the valley, United Service Workers West has sharpened its focus on Apple, whose actions the group believes could set a standard for other tech companies to follow. Although unions must ultimately negotiate with contractors, clients such as Apple set the tone, said Samuel Kehinde, a former security guard who is now vice president of United Service Workers West.
“Apple can be the leader,” he said. “They can decide how life should be for this class of workers in the valley.”
Jackson, whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition helped prompt Apple and other tech companies to share diversity statistics earlier this year, wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook this month raising concerns about how the company’s security guards are treated by the contractor, Security Industry Specialists. Applauding Cook’s leadership on issues like the environment and gay rights, Jackson urged him to take a stand for service workers.
“Part of the narrative of their firm is equitable and first-class leadership,” Jackson said in an interview. “As they grow at such a rapid pace, they should have world-class working conditions for their workers from the bottom up.”
Jackson requested a meeting to discuss the issue with Cook but said he has yet to hear back from Apple.
Organized labor notched an important win in the valley recently as Facebook’s shuttle bus drivers, who work for Loop Transportation, voted to join the Teamsters union.
Google also made waves in October by announcing that it will create an in-house force of security guards who will be eligible for the same benefits as other Googlers, ending its relationship with SIS after the transition.
Kehinde hopes Apple is taking note.
“We are very happy for those officers,” he said. “Life will be better for them.”
Kehinde said bidding is under way for Apple’s security contract. He and Jackson are specifically pushing Apple to move away from SIS, which they say has a poor record of treating workers.
Apple and SIS did not respond to requests for comment. SIS says on its website that it has been the target of a “vicious” campaign by the union.
SIS co-President and CFO Tom Seltz wrote in a piece published by the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that the company pays security guards working in Silicon Valley an average of $19.77 per hour plus benefits, well above the state average.
Alfredo Fletes, a senior communications specialist at United Service Workers West, said the union is still concerned about Apple security guards’ ability to get by, given the Bay Area’s soaring cost of living.
In addition, a survey of SIS’s job postings in Silicon Valley last year indicated that a large share of the positions are part-time, Fletes said.
“Even if (SIS) does pay above-average wages, we worry that the instability of the hours and the high turnover rate is really impeding workers from obtaining a better way of life,” he said.
Security guard Michael Johnson, who said he makes less than $20 an hour as a supervisor on another tech company’s campus, says he is getting squeezed out of the Bay Area.
No longer able to afford his own apartment, the 52-year-old San Jose resident rents a room from a friend and tries to help his two sons through college. He carefully plans his meals to take advantage of fast-food specials, eating at Popeyes each Tuesday, when he can get two pieces of chicken for less than $2.
“They see me walk in the door and they automatically take my order,” he said, chuckling. “Little tricks like that — you learn those things.”
Johnson works for contractor Universal Protection Service, monitoring the San Jose campus of a technology company that he declined to name, fearing professional repercussions. He insisted that security guards deserve to share in the wealth coursing through the valley.
“We’re the first responders in any emergency — fire, flood or blood,” he said. “When their employees want to work late we escort them to their car. We protect their intellectual property. We protect all their assets.”