Tech Surge: Silicon Valley Mobilizing

Silicon Valley underwent a political awakening in 2017. Catherine Bracy and Derecka Mehrens are harnessing the political moment to engage tech workers and service workers in the fight for a more equal Bay Area.


Silicon Valley underwent a political awakening in 2017. President Donald Trump’s inauguration did what no amount of protests, think-pieces, or hostile graffiti had done before—it galvanized tech workers and the companies that employ them into becoming more politically engaged than ever.  

Though the 2012 SOPA/PIPA debates had convinced the larger firms that they needed a seat at the political table on issues that impacted their businesses, the tech community was largely silent on social issues and general politics. That changed when Donald Trump became president-elect. Since the inauguration, more than 300,000 people from San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose—the three largest cities in the Bay Area—have participated in political protests of various Trump administration policies, according to Countlove. Some startups even began providing their employees paid leave to take part in protest activities.

Speaking from the Personal Democracy Forum mainstage last week, Catherine Bracy and Derecka Mehrens, two veteran organizers rooted in the Bay Area, explained how their respective organizations are taking advantage of this emerging momentum to create a more equitable future for Silicon Valley.

TECH EQUITY COLLABORATIVE

Formed in early 2016 partly in response to Uber’s decision to move its headquarters to Oakland, the Tech Equity Collaborative predates what co-founder Catherine Bracy called “the emergence of a new civic constituency” in her PDF speech. Yet the current political moment has made tech workers more willing to engage on issues impacting their region. “It was a little bit of a hard sell last year,”  Bracy said in her talk. But after the election, she said, “we saw a total uprising of tech workers to demand that their companies, who had played some role in getting us to where we were, fight for progressive and inclusive values.”

The Collaborative focuses on issues that are critical to the Bay Area’s future: housing, workforce development, and access to technology. In practice, the Tech Equity Collaborative seeks to achieve change through campaigns, events, and volunteer opportunities. Campaigns and events take two forms. Some aim to educate tech workers, most of whom are new to the Bay Area, sharing information about the roots of the housing crisis, how Silicon Valley got to where it is, and what, potentially, can be done to solve some of the social challenges facing the region. For Bracy, these campaigns “[lay] the foundation of knowledge that everyone needs to be active citizens.” Some campaigns hew closer to traditional activism, like a current effort to set aside part of the Oakland budget for eviction defense support and emergency rental assistance for displaced residents. The Collaborative joined a coalition of grassroots organizations pressuring the Oakland City Council to include this funding in the budget and urged its members to show up at city hall and call their representatives to show their support. Soon, the Collaborative will be encouraging volunteer work that goes beyond the occasional park cleanup, training members to become nonprofit board members and pairing them with local organizations.

Despite benefiting from national events, the founders of the Tech Equity Collaborative maintain a strong commitment to local issues. It’s at the local level, co-founder Darrell Jones told Civicist, “that you can have the biggest impact; you ignore it at your peril.” While national concerns around immigration, gerrymandering, inequality, and climate change roar through the headlines, Bracy argues that “you can’t engage in these national issues with any integrity if you’re ignoring the issues in your own backyard.”

SILICON VALLEY RISING

While the Tech Equity Collaborative mobilizes tech workers for the public good, Derecka Mehrens focuses on organizing the people that serve them. Through Silicon Valley Rising and the Partnership for Working Families, which often partners with the AFL-CIO and its unions, Mehrens engages the service workers of the Bay Area, the men and women who shuttle tech workers to and from work, craft and serve free lunches (which they don’t always receive themselves), and clean up after late night work sessions. They make, on average, only $19,900 per year.

For every coding or engineering job created in the Silicon Valley tech sector, the service industry gains four additional jobs, but these jobs often offer low pay and poor benefits. Poverty wages combined with high housing costs often lead to untenable living situations. In her PDF keynote, Mehrens described the life of Naheema, who worked as a cafeteria worker for a subcontractor at Intel. Until two years ago, she rented a single bedroom in a larger home for herself and her three children before eventually moving to the Central Valley, a two hour commute from her work.

To benefit people like Naheema, Mehrens leveraged her traditional labor organizing background, bringing together service workers, local unions, faith leaders, and racial justice advocates. Gathering these groups in the same East San Jose Church where Cesar Chavez began the farm worker’s movement, Mehrens and her collaborators developed a strategy to pursue higher wages, paid leave, and better working conditions. Two years later, in September 2016, Intel’s cafeteria workers won the right to unionize, joining UNITE HERE Local 19. With their union cards, the Intel workers gained a five dollar increase in their wages, health insurance for their families, paid sabbatical leave, and immigrant worker protections. All told, more than 6,100 workers have organized since Silicon Valley Rising launched, with 3,000 more currently at the table.

Silicon Valley’s service workers were making progress before Donald Trump ever stepped into the White House. But with Trump at the helm, Mehrens told the PDF audience that tech workers have joined the movement to support the immigrants and blue collar workers who are most vulnerable to the president’s agenda. In her talk, Mehrens said that after November, she saw “tech workers start to find their political voice…and service workers and tech workers talking about their situations, talking about their strategies for organizing. We saw CEO’s step out, and we saw workers show up for workers, for service workers.” In May, Mehrens and her collaborators started a petition for Google to allow their workers and subcontractors participate in the May Day protests. Google said yes. In the months since the inauguration, engineers and executives at technology companies have attended additional rallies, expressed support for progressive policies like universal basic income, and even formed new organizations like Tech Stands Up, a group that organizes tech workers in opposition to the administration. For Mehrens, these signs point to the beginning of a new political movement, and hopefully foreshadow a growing commitment to equality from the Silicon Valley tech sector.

With technology companies driving so much of our national economic growth—last year alone, Silicon Valley tech firms posted $142 billion in profits—these workers have an outsized voice. Organizations like Silicon Valley Rising, the Partnership for Working Families, and the Tech Equity Collaborative are helping the designers, developers, and executives of the tech sector shape that voice in a post-Trump world. Though industry denizens have contributed to displacement in their neighborhoods and inequality in their ranks, the Trump backlash is beginning to walk those failings back.