There was a stupid article in TechCrunch
earlier this week talking about how Facebook is such a great place to work without needing a union
. That article was of course a pointed political statement supporting the Republican majority in the Michigan statehouse who passed a controversial “right to work” law
without any committee review or public discussion, and despite the protests of tens of thousands of Michigan citizens just outside the doors.
It was quickly pointed out by commentors to the article, that Facebook
is an exception to the rule, that workers there are highly talented, their environment is designed to cater to them, even interns make 150 percent of the national average wage.
Someone else pointed out that Silicon Valley in general is a different place than the robotic sweatshop-like environments that were the automobile plants, the clothing mills, etc.
But both arguments miss another fundamental shift in the valley, one that makes it even more imperative that we consider the very real possibility that unions may be necessary in the valley’s future.
This is the growing trend toward contracting labor rather than hiring, using part-time workers rather than full. In many cases these relationships are mutually beneficial, but they also lead to a significant amount of risk and uncertainty being shifted to the worker, who must fend for himself or herself through periods between employment, often losing everything they saved or worse, slipping into inextricable indebtedness.
This is the kind of situation many unions were designed to protect against. Steelworkers, pipefitters and many others are hired on a job-by-job basis, and it may be many days or weeks before the next major construction project comes along. Through the mutual support of a union and the constant upgrading of skills, these workers can make it through the rough patches.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of pipefitters and iron workers in Silicon Valley, and that’s exactly how they operate. In fact, 17 percent of all workers in California are union, the same number as in Michigan. When work on structures like the new 49ers Stadium in Santa Clara is done, it may be quite a while before some of these people see another timeclock. So they upgrade their skills, rotate through as workers in the union halls, and provide mutual support and assistance.
But the predominant mindset in Silicon Valley is elitist, as reflected in the general belief that all jobs in Silicon Valley are engineering or service jobs, and that brilliance rises to the top and mediocrity eventually just gives up and goes away.
Incredibly however, there is a lot of brilliance here, and even brilliant people get laid off.
At the same time, a lot of what looks like mediocrity is just great people stuck in mediocre jobs.
And, there’s just a whole lot of grunt work that has to be done here whether it’s appreciated or not. And a good portion of that is already being outsourced to places like India and Singapore, with mixed results.
It’s also been argued that efficiencies and requirements for ever-newer skill sets are leaving many workers behind, but that, too is a reason why unions were created.
Facebook may be the exception, but the financial risks that workers are now forced to take in Silicon Valley are very much the norm.
People are losing everything they have, and its so pervasive as to be irrefutable.
Now is not the time to be weakening unions. Now is the time to stand up for workers.