Silicon Valley: Riders, Renters and Workers Rise

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Raimagine!

Segregation Shaped the San Mateo Housing Crisis

By Marcy Rein

Skyrocketing rents, multimillion dollar homes and an epidemic of evictions and displacement have become fixtures of life on the Peninsula. Widening income inequality is feeding this housing crisis: well-paid workers set the tone for the market, driving prices in an already wealthy area to astounding new heights.

But this is barely half the story. Housing availability in San Mateo County has never been determined solely by the market; decades of public policy decisions have excluded poor people and people of color. By making it almost impossible to meet housing needs, these same decisions have propelled the current crises.Daly City became home to many low-income families and families of color excluded from San Mateo County’s wealthy suburbs by covenants, zoning, and redlining. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Early development in San Mateo County was shaped by segregation, as it was in many places across the U.S.1 Homeowners’ associations and individual property owners attached restrictive covenants to their land deeds—clauses that barred the sale of the property to people based on their race, ethnicity and religion. Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Jews found themselves locked out of neighborhoods around the region.The last restrictive covenant in San Mateo County wasn’t voided until 2007. Homes in the Cuesta LaHonda Guild, in the rural southwestern part of the county, had had exclusionary clauses in their deeds since 1941, even though by 2007, the neighborhood had long been desegregated.2

The U.S. government also actively promoted housing segregation through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which financed the bulk of private home construction during World War II and helped fuel the suburban housing boom. On the pretext that segregated neighborhoods posed lower insurance risks, the FHA required covenants on property deeds where it guaranteed loans.

“For the first 16 years of its life, FHA itself actually encouraged the use of racially restrictive covenants. It not only acquiesced in their use, but in fact, contributed to perfecting them,” the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in its 1959 annual report.3 The FHA would promise developers that it would make loans to homebuyers in a new subdivision; the developers would take the promise to the bank and get low-interest construction loans. It was understood that the FHA guarantee meant that the neighborhood would be segregated.

After World War II, the agency also used low-interest home loans for veterans to maintain segregation by restricting the areas where veterans of color could use the loans.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial covenants couldn’t be enforced (Shelley v. Kraemer). But “…the FHA and VA continued to promote racial restrictions in their loan insurance programs until the 1960s,” wrote Richard Rothstein in The Making of Ferguson.4

After the federal Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, communities turned to planning and zoning to perpetuate segregation. While it was no longer legal to deny housing on the basis of race, cities could simply zone for large, single-family homes with spacious lawns and exclude the smaller homes and apartment buildings that low- and moderate-income people could afford.

In some cases, the policies were made specifically with racist intent. In others, residents made planning decisions that kept property values high and defended more subtly prejudiced visions of “quality of life.” This outlook persists today, as shown by debates over alleged racism at a recent neighborhood association discussion of regional planning in the generally liberal City of San Mateo.5 Whatever the motivation, the result has been the same. Little housing has been produced, and most neighborhoods have stayed wealthy and white.

San Mateo Flouts Affordable Housing Law
Housing activists in California fought to amend the state law on city planning to support fair and affordable housing. The state’s housing element law, passed in 1980, requires cities and towns to plan for their fair share of regional housing needs at all income levels. Regional councils of governments—such as the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG)—determine this need with a tool called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).

The RHNA looks at needs for very low-income, low-income, moderate, and high-income housing based on population and employment growth, existing employment, and employment growth near transit.

San Mateo County as a whole has consistently failed to meet its obligations to provide affordable housing. From 1988 to 2014, the county issued permits for only 34 percent of the low- and very low-income housing required.6 Several cities issued no permits at all for housing in those brackets. Menlo Park didn’t even submit the required housing action plan to the state Department of Housing and Community Development and was sued in 2012 by Public Advocates and the Public Interest Law Project on behalf of Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA), Youth United for Community Action and Urban Habitat.

The groups brought the suit after Facebook announced its decision to move its corporate headquarters to Menlo Park. The company asked for permission to add nearly 10,000 new workers, 28 percent of them in low-wage positions. This would squeeze the already tight supply of affordable housing, and threatened to displace low-income city residents.

The lawsuit sought to stop any new commercial development until Menlo Park met its housing needs—just as an action brought by Public Advocates on behalf of a coalition in Pleasanton had done a few years earlier. Pleasanton lost when a U.S. Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that its zoning policies violated state law.

Menlo Park opted to settle the suit, making an agreement that could lead to construction of 1,000 units of affordable housing.7

Gentrification Threatens Peninsula Communities
Excluded from wealthy suburbs by covenants, redlining and zoning, low-income people and people of color were forced to stay out of the Peninsula entirely, or crowd into a few dilapidated neighborhoods. Many found their way north to Daly City and South San Francisco, or south to East Palo Alto, Menlo Park (Belle Haven) and North Fair Oaks.

Now, as workers stream into Silicon Valley from around the world, there are few outlets for housing demand. Formerly dis-invested areas, home to most of the Peninsula’s communities of color, suddenly appear desirable. Facebook’s move to Menlo Park, for instance, has spurred a cycle of rapid speculation and displacement in East Palo Alto,8 Belle Haven9 and North Fair Oaks. 

The consequences of the Peninsula’s housing policies are reverberating around the region. Families and workers who have been left out of the economic boom are crowding in with friends or relatives, living in garages or cars, or leaving Silicon Valley entirely—often spending hours on the road to commute each day from the cheaper outskirts of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties.

While San Mateo cities have been happy to accept new job growth, many have effectively outsourced their housing needs to other parts of the Bay Area, fueling rising rents, gentrification, traffic congestion, and air pollution—and raising questions about the role San Mateo is willing to play in planning for the future of the Bay Area.

 

Marcy Rein is a contributing editor for Race, Poverty & the Environment.

Endnotes

1.    Toward Opportunity: Fair Housing and Equity Assessment of the San Francisco Bay Area, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), 2015.

2.    Julia Scott, “Racist Remnant Struck from Covenant,” San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 19, 2007, accessed 5 October, 2015, http://www.mercurynews.com/localnewsheadlines/ci_6663252

3.    Richard Rothstein, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles,” Economic Policy Institute Report (2014): B16, accessed 5 October, 2015, http://www.epi.org/publication/making-ferguson/

4.    Ibid, p. 17.

5.    David Lim, “Letter: Regarding the Beresford Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meeting,” The Daily Journal, June 22, 2015, accessed 5 October, 2015,  http://www.smdailyjournal.com/articles/opinions/2015-06-22/letter-regarding-the-beresford-hillsdale-neighborhood-association-meeting/1776425145407.html

6.    Compiled from the ABAG reports on past Regional Housing Need Allocation production, http://www.abag.ca.gov/planning/housingneeds/rhnd2.html

7.    Rene Ciria-Cruz, “Advocates Compel Facebook to Like Affordable Housing,” Race, Poverty & the Environment, Vol. 19 No. 2, 2012.

8.    East Palo Alto case study by the Urban Displacement Project, University of California Berkeley, accessed 5 October, 2015, http://www.urbandisplacement.org/case-studies - section-52h

9.    Farida Jhabvala Romero, “Renters Struggle to Keep Up in Menlo Park’s Belle Haven Neighborhood,” Peninsula Press, March 3, 2015, accessed 5 October, 2015, http://ww2.kqed.org/news/2015/03/15/renters-struggle-to-keep-up-in-menlo-parks-belle-haven-neighborhood/

 

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Housing availability in San Mateo County has never been determined solely by the market; decades of public policy decisions have excluded poor people and people of color.

Housing Stability and Health In San Mateo County

By Dr. Scott Morrow

“When I first started my job managing the San Mateo County Health System’s Asthma Management Program, I knew I would be dealing with mold and other common triggers that cause children’s asthma attacks,” says San Mateo County Public Health Nurse Vera Williams, “but none of us realized how big a component housing would be in the health of our clients.” Williams says that about half of her asthma clients live in unsafe conditions that exacerbate their symptoms. And they are not alone. Faced with the Peninsula’s increasingly high rents, many people in San Mateo County have been forced to accept substandard housing, crowd into units with two or three families, move to other counties, or become homeless—all of which expose them to a host of negative health impacts.

The San Mateo County Health System helps county residents and workers live longer and better lives.  We do this by providing excellent healthcare services; but also work to reduce people’s need for these services by creating healthy places with safe housing, sidewalks, good transit, nutritious food, open space, and a vibrant economy. When we succeed in creating healthy places, however, housing costs tend to increase—sometimes pushing out the very people whose health we are trying to improve. Housing stability is therefore a fundamental element of the Health System’s commitment to healthy places. This article explores this issue and its effects on health, highlights the need for action, and suggests a framework for moving forward.Renters displaced from San Mateo County leave an environment rich in amenities that support health, such this Burlingame park that gives children space to play. Photo © Gino DeGrandis

Housing and Health Crisis on the Peninsula
San Mateo County undoubtedly faces a housing crisis. Rents have shot up 70 percent in the last five years.1 Each week brings news of another building evicting tenants. This is due in part to the booming economy, which has produced 57,000 new jobs in 10 years.2 While much of the growth is in tech and other high-wage sectors, many low-wage jobs have also been added.3, 4

Housing production has not kept up with the soaring job market. Cities across the county have some of the worst records in the Bay Area for building homes for very low-income families. Over the last eight years, cities have given permits for just over half the homes needed across affordability levels. While 93 percent of the need for above-moderate-income housing has been permitted, only one-fifth of the housing needed for very low-income households has been permitted.5  Today, there is only one affordable housing unit for every four low-wage jobs.6  

Faced with this dramatic shortage, workers are forced to stretch their housing budgets to the breaking point. Almost 50 percent of San Mateo County renters spend more than they can afford (30 percent or more of their income) on housing. This cuts across race and class, and impacts low-income people and people of color hardest: 80 percent of very-low income renters and almost 60 percent of Black and Latino renters spend more than they can afford on housing.7 When residents pay too much for housing, they have less money to spend on healthcare, healthy food, and health-related activities.8, 9, 10

People who experience housing instability are at risk for significant mental health impacts. When displacement seems imminent, residents can experience anxiety and depression.11 They may also double or triple up families in crowded conditions or accept unhealthy and/or unsafe housing conditions, causing greater susceptibility to diseases such as asthma and coronary artery disease.12, 13 

When residents are displaced they face poor health effects from social isolation, disconnection, and loss of political voice.14, 15, 16 Children who have been displaced have worse developmental outcomes, such as lower academic achievement and a greater lifetime risk of depression.17,18 Some San Mateo County families who lose their housing end up homeless, which dramatically impacts their health.19

Additionally, the housing crisis feeds traffic congestion, which affects nearly everyone who lives or works in the county. Every morning, over 100,000 workers wait in traffic to cross the county’s bridges and highways.20 More than 60 percent of workers commute in—the second highest rate of in-commuting in the Bay Area21—leading to more inactive commuting time, more air pollution and congestion, and increased chances of traffic collisions, injuries, and fatalities.22

Some commuters are former residents who can no longer afford to live here, and many more are workers who cannot consider moving closer to their jobs because housing costs are so high. Virtually no research follows households after they’ve been displaced, so we don’t yet know where residents go when they are forced to leave San Mateo County. We do know that they leave behind a county rich in health supportive amenities such as high-quality schools, local parks, and good jobs. Research shows that growing up in high-opportunity areas improves a child’s chances of success later in life.23 For adults, moving away from San Mateo County can mean leaving a jobs-rich environment or commuting many miles back every day for work.

Taking Action: Start with the Five Ps of Housing Stability
Health begins where people live, learn, work, and play. Get Healthy San Mateo County is a local collaborative of community-based organizations, county agencies, cities, schools, and hospitals working together to advance policy change to prevent diseases and ensure everyone has equitable opportunities to live a long and healthy life. The collaborative is facilitated by the San Mateo County Health System. 

The health consequences of housing instability and displacement are widespread, serious, and difficult to resolve. But displacement is not inevitable. Get Healthy San Mateo County proposes five principles that can help achieve housing stability:

  • Protection of existing residents to ensure that they can remain in their homes and do not experience the health impacts of housing instability.
  • Preservation of existing housing at all affordability levels whenever possible despite changing economic conditions, or replacing lost units at the same affordability levels for current residents.
  • Production of new housing units at diverse affordability levels in line with housing needs through regulations and incentives for developers, as well as through a commitment to using public resources for housing.
  • Participation of residents and community leaders in decision-making processes that impact their housing stability.
  • Placement of new housing near amenities, jobs, transit, and healthy food and away from sources of pollution.

These principles are a starting point for cities and communities in San Mateo County to limit housing instability and ensure health and housing for all.  See www.GetHealthySMC.org/healthyhousing, sign up for our e-newsletter, and follow #HealthyHousingSMC to get involved.

 

Scott Morrow is a board certified physician in Public Health and General Preventive Medicine, and a Fellow of the American College of Preventive Medicine, with almost 30 years of experience in medicine and public health. He has served as Health Officer for San Mateo County for the past 23 years with a passion for the prevention of substance abuse and childhood obesity, changing the built environment to provide health equity, and promoting a local and sustainable food system.

Endnotes

1.    San Mateo County Department of Housing, San Mateo County Housing Indicators (June 2010-June 2015). Available at: https://housing.smcgov.org/housing-statistics,  and https://housing.smcgov.org/housing-statistics-archive.

2.    LED Extraction Tool-Quarterly Workforce Indicators. Job Change (Stable): Net Change. Available at: http://ledextract.ces.census.gov/.

3.    United States Census. Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics. On the Map. Available at: http://onthemap.ces.census.gov/.

4.    Benner, C. Center for Regional Change, UC Davis. Jobs-Housing Fit Analysis dataset. Available at: http://interact.regionalchange.ucdavis.edu/roi/data.html.

5.    ABAG, Bay Area Progress in Meeting 2007-2014 Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) as of 3/27/15. http://abag.ca.gov/files/RHNAProgress2007_2014_032715.pdf

6.    Benner, C. Center for Regional Change, UC Davis. Jobs-Housing Fit Analysis dataset. Available at: http://interact.regionalchange.ucdavis.edu/roi/data.html.

7.    Housing and Urban Development. Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy Data, 2008-2012. Available at: http://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/cp/CHAS/data_download_chas.html.

8.    Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The State of the Nation’s Housing. 2013.

9     Kushel M, Gupta R, Gee L, Haas J. Housing instability and food insecurity as barriers to health care among low-income Americans. J Gen Intern Med. 2006; 21: 71–77.

10. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The State of the Nation’s Housing. 2013. Available at:  http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/jchs.harvard.edu/files/son2013.pdf.

11. Liu Y, Njai R, Greenlund K, Chapman D, Croft J. Relationships between housing and food insecurity, frequent mental distress, and insufficient sleep among adults in 12 US states, 2009. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11 (37).

12. Sandel, M, Wright, R. Home is where the stress is: Expanding the dimensions of housing that influence asthma morbidity. Arch Dis Child. 2006; 91:942-948

13. Seeman T, Syme S. Social networks and coronary artery disease: A comparison of the structure and function of social relations as predictors of disease. Psychosom Med. 1987; 49: 341- 354.

14. Uchino B, Cacioppo J, Kiecolt-Glaser J. The relationship between social support and physiological processes: A review with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychol Bull. 1996;119(3):488-531.

15. Stansfield SA. Social support and social cohesion. In: Marmot M,Wilkinson R, ed. Social Determinants of Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press;1999:155-178.

16. Fullilove, M. Root shock: The consequences of African American dispossession. J Urban Health. 2001; 78(1): 72-80.

17. Voight A, Shinn M, Nation, M. The longitudinal effects of residential mobility on the academic achievement of urban elementary and middle school students. Educ Res. 2012; 41(9): 385-392.

18. Gilman S, Kawachi I, Fitzmaurice G, Buka S. Socio-economic status, family disruption and residential stability in childhood: relation to onset, recurrence and remission of major depression. Psychol Med. 2003; 33(8): 1341-1355.

19. Schanzer B, Dominguez B, Shrout P, Caton C. Homelessness, health status and health care use. Am J Public Health. 2007; 97: 464-469.

20. United States Census. Transportation Planning Package. 2010 Data.

21. United States Census. Transportation Planning Package. 2010 Data.

22. Department of Public Health, City and County of San Francisco. Traffic density. 2014. Available at: http://www. sfindicatorproject.org/indicators/view/46.

23. Harvard University, Equality of Opportunity Project.  Available at: http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/.

 

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When residents are displaced they face poor health effects from social isolation, disconnection, and loss of political voice.

San Mateo County Renters Fight Rising Evictions

By Joseph Smooke and Dyan Ruiz

A group of community workers, along with mostly Latino and African American working-class parents, hold hands in a prayer vigil at a suburban Bay Area neighborhood. They huddle together in the shade on the front lawn of a townhouse complex as their children play with protest signs and run around with friends. So close to San Francisco with its rent control and modest eviction preventions, the Silicon Valley city of San Mateo provides no security for tenants.Renters and community supporters protest the eviction of residents of 1824 El Parque Court in San Mateo at a vigil organized by the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action. Courtesy of [people.power.media].

The renters at 1824 El Parque Court are not the only ones threatened with eviction—San Mateo has no Rent Stabilization Board to compile reliable statistics. Tenants in several other buildings—910 Clinton St. and the Park Royal among them—also got eviction notices in previous months.

“We see a lot of buildings being flipped through speculation and hundreds of families being left without a home, having to leave the area completely, or move in with another family member,” says Aracely Mondragón, San Mateo County community organizer for the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action (SFOP/PIA),1 which organized a vigil to bring attention to the evictions at El Parque Court while escalating a campaign about the plight of Black and Latino working families in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.

With help from SFOP/ PIA, renters in several San Mateo County cities have begun to organize, which is starting to catch the attention of some local lawmakers. San Mateo City Council member David Lim was recently quoted saying that he supports just cause eviction protections, but it will be challenging to get legislation passed.2

San Mateo County touches San Francisco’s southern border and is home to some of the largest and most recognizable tech firms in the world. YouTube, Electronic Arts, Facebook, and Oracle anchor this northern part of Silicon Valley, which houses three million people,3 and stretches south down the length of the peninsula to San Jose and back up the east side of the Bay to Fremont.

Income Disparity Skews Housing Market
Companies on the San Francisco Peninsula employ over 300,000 tech workers who earn an average of nearly $200,000 per year.4,5 This means that a huge number of people, roughly equal to three quarters of the population of Oakland, are making a tremendous amount of money in the Bay Area. Many are young professionals wanting to live in San Francisco, but with the extraordinary demand for housing and the crowded ranks of high wage earners, the spillover from San Francisco to neighboring San Mateo County is intense.

Despite this increasing high-end demand for housing, income disparity dominates the social and economic landscape. At the top, high-profile tech firms are paying elevated wages to secure top talent. At the bottom, “the average income for Hispanics, who make up one in four residents in Silicon Valley, fell to an all-time low of $19,000 a year,” according to the annual Silicon Valley Index.6,7

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Blacks and Latinos make up a sizable share of low-wage workers cleaning and guarding Silicon Valley tech companies, where the technical workforces are overwhelmingly white and Asian.” Statistics in the article make the divide even clearer. Latinos make up 69 percent of the janitors in Santa Clara but only three percent of Google’s workforce.8

As the demand for housing from a highly compensated workforce continues to grow, landlords are eager to cash in. Why rent to a janitor when you can rent the same unit to an engineer whose paycheck is 10 times larger? Without renter protections, it’s easy for a landlord to evict a tenant or clear out an entire building or just keep raising the rents. If an existing tenant can pay, they can stay, but the increases inevitably become too much.

An internet search reveals several San Mateo County businesses dedicated to helping landlords evict tenants, such as Professional Eviction Services, whose website says: “When you need to clear your home, apartment, or commercial property of its tenants, search no further than our tenant eviction service company...”

Families Feel the Bite of Greed
“With the current market and the housing crisis, we’re seeing landlords and investors taking advantage of the weak legal protections, exploiting the holes that exist in the law in order to turn a quick profit,” says Daniel Saver, housing attorney at Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto. “In the wake behind them, there’s a trail of human cost. It’s destroying communities. It’s really tearing apart families and communities and ties that make San Mateo such a great place to live!”Evicted families face special challenges. Courtesy of [people.power.media]

Residents at the El Parque Court vigil talked about what this meant to them. One mom with two young children had lived there for seven years. Her daughter was still recovering from an ear implant and getting ready to start school at the end of summer. “We received the eviction notice on July 7, saying that we have to vacate our apartment in 60 days,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I am so sad about this. We had been fighting so hard for my daughter to get her implant, and the eviction notice came at roughly the same time as her implant. These were two very difficult things to handle at the same time.”

Another mom told us that it’s hard to find a new place that takes kids as landlords often restrict households to no more than four people. And moving at the end of the summer means not just finding a new place, but also getting children enrolled in a new school.

“My kids were born here, so they’re scared to move to another place,” she told us. “They think that this is their home and they’re worried about changing to another place, changing schools, and missing their friends. That’s why, for me it’s very difficult… and necessary to support vigils like this one.”

This certainly won’t be the last vigil for SFOP/PIA.

“We should start with just a baseline of tenant rights, like rent stabilization, just-cause and relocation benefits,” says Mondragón, who remains steadfast despite a well-funded lobby anchored by the Apartment Association working to defend the rights of property owners at the expense of tenants. “There is huge opposition but I think that we can continue to lift these eviction cases up and make tenant protections more feasible. And if not, you know, we’ll go to the ballot.”

 

Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke are co-founders of [people. power. media]. peoplepowermedia.net is an online platform broadcasting community voices to impact public policy. This article is a co-publishing project of [people. power. media] and Reimagine! RP&E.

Endnotes

1.    www.sfop.org

2.    “City to explore eviction limits: San Mateo City Council may consider just-cause ordinance, affordable housing crisis,” Samantha Weigel, Daily Journal, Sept. 5, 2105, accessed at http://www.smdailyjournal.com/articles/lnews/2015-09-05/city-to-explore-eviction-limits-san-mateo-city-council-may-consider-just-cause-ordinance-affordable-housing-crisis/1776425149665.html

3.    sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2015/05/05/silicon-valley-population-reaches-estimated-3-million-people/ and http://siliconvalleyindicators.org/pdf/population-brief-2015-05.pdf

4.    www.us.jll.com/united-states/en-us/Research/US-high-tech-July-2014.pdf

5.    www.us.jll.com/united-states/en-us/Research/US High-Technology Outlook_2013.pdf

6.    www.businessinsider.com/poverty-in-silicon-valley-2013-3?op=1

7.    www.siliconvalleycf.org/sites/default/files/publications/2014-silicon-valley-index.pdf

8.    blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/08/26/blacks-latinos-dominate-silicon-valleys-invisible-workforce/

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"There is huge opposition, but we can continue to lift these eviction cases up and make tenant protections more feasible."—Aracely Mondragón, SFOP/PIA

Exodus From The Jungle

By Andrew Bigelow

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, resided one of the largest homeless encampments in the United States, The Jungle. The encampment was the epicenter of homelessness in the Valley and was home to nearly 400 residents. The Jungle lay hidden in a creek bed off of Story Road in East San Jose, a stark contrast to a family amusement park across the street. After decades of existence, in the midst of a housing crisis in Silicon Valley, the City of San Jose decided to close The Jungle. Silicon Valley De-Bug, a media and advocacy organization, created a video documentary, Exodus from The Jungle, that depicts the eviction, talks with residents of The Jungle about what the camp meant to them, and follows their efforts to find new places to stay.

"Exodus From The Jungle" is a Silicon Valley De-Bug Production

All kinds of people stayed at The Jungle. “There’s a common misconception to how people become homeless,” said Robert Aguirre, an advocate for the homeless and former resident of The Jungle. “The stereotypical view is that homeless are drug-crazed, violent and lazy people. That they choose to be homeless and expect society to provide for them and aren’t interested in helping themselves, choosing instead, to live in filth and garbage, hoarding useless junk and using stolen shopping carts to haul it all around town. I am living proof that this is not so. I used to own my own business here in Silicon Valley, making $200,000 a year. I provided consulting services to manufacturers of electronic devices, designed and manufactured here. Many of the companies decided it was cheaper to manufacture their products outside the country.

Robert Aguirre, advocate and former resident of The Jungle.

“What a lot of people don’t consider is that they’re one or two paychecks away from being homeless themselves, with the price of housing in the Valley being what it is. You look around here and you see a lot of people who lost their homes due to foreclosure. They’ve lost their jobs because of illnesses, or because, like in my case, everything’s moved away,” Aguirre said.

The Jungle was home to all of its residents. People had built their own structures that they called home. It was an underground city. Despite the portrait often painted of the encampment, most residents vouched for how close a community it was. Anna, a former resident, called The Jungle a “family” and said, when the city dismantled The Jungle they were “tearing apart [their] family.” The city was said to be under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the pollutants in the creek, but residents attested that the mercury and other pollutants existed before they arrived. The day they were evicted, residents helped each other gather all belongings they had as they set off to find a new place to rest.

The night before the eviction, we heard there was going to be a press conference and protest. Organizers who had been aiding the community at The Jungle heard that the city wouldn’t start the sweep until a few days after the rain. It had been pouring leading up to that Thursday, December 3, 2014. It was dark and wet, but the sky was clear. Everything was very still; San Jose hadn’t woken up yet.  We showed up at The Jungle at 6 a.m. The cops were already there. Story Road was coned off from around the bridge to the end of The Jungle.

A temporary police fence stretched close to a quarter mile along the sidewalk that separated The Jungle from Story Road. As residents climbed out of The Jungle, they put their belongings on the sidewalk. By 7 a.m., the sun was rising over the hills in the east and the sidewalk was literally lined with people’s lives. Everything people owned was inside bags and shopping carts. Some stood not knowing where to go—there was nowhere for people to go.

Community organizers circled across the street planning immediate next steps. The police weren’t letting anyone cross the fence into The Jungle, but some residents and organizers were able to convince police to let us in. Photographer Charisse Domingo and I were allowed in and went to the edge of the top lot. While we interviewed former resident Anthony King, who’s now a community organizer, an elderly woman was gathering her belongings nearby. We cut the interview short and helped the woman move her belongings to the sidewalk across the mud. Her name was Eva. She had a fractured hip and was afraid of falling. Charisse took her shopping cart and Eva grabbed my arm as we slowly walked across the muddy lot.

Evicted residents of The Jungle placed everything they owned on the sidewalk.

What looked like a hundred city cleaners showed up and started destroying the camp, moving fast, tearing down tents and throwing away people’s belongings. Eva and I moved slow, being careful so she didn’t get hurt. When we got to the sidewalk, maybe 100 feet from her tent, she asked me to get her friend’s bicycle. They were separated during the frantic morning but she didn’t want her friend’s bike to be taken: an act of love. While standing on the sidewalk, Eva looked back and watched the workers destroy her home. She had lived there for almost a year. She turned to me and said, “There goes my home.” She said it with a strength that had endured this pain before. She walked to the bus stop to sit down because she couldn’t stand any longer.

“I’ve been homeless for seven years,” said Yolanda, a homeless advocate and former Jungle resident. “I have three kids who live with my parents in Mexico. I hope my kids never have to deal with this in their life. What they did here... they want to turn it into a dog park. What are they trying to say with that? They have better feelings for dogs than for human beings.”

After the eviction, some of the former Jungle residents tried to reestablish their community in two other locations, but the City swept them out each time, scattering them around the county.

“When The Jungle was closed, it drove a lot of homeless people all over the county to make themselves less visible, thereby lessening the chances of being harassed,” said Anthony King. “In doing this, many fell off the radar.”

 

Andrew Bigelow is a Hip Hop artist as well as a writer and organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug. Follow him on social media @HeIsAndrewBigs.

 

The video documentary “Exodus From The Jungle” is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jazNJRXvaWI

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The Jungle was home to all of its residents....It was an underground city.

Exodus from the Jungle Video

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, resided one of the largest homeless encampments in the United States, The Jungle. The encampment was ground zero to the homeless problems of the Valley and was home to nearly 400 residents. After decades of it's existence, in the midst of a housing crisis in Silicon Valley, the City of San Jose decided to close The Jungle.

"Exodus From The Jungle" follows the story of The Jungle closing and a group of it's residents as they search for a new home.

"Exodus From The Jungle" is a Silicon Valley De-Bug Production

Camera:
Charisse Domingo
Jean Melesaine
Fernando Perez
Daniel Zapien

Editors:
Daniel Zapein
Andrew Bigleow
Fernando Perez

Mixed Audio and Original Score by Malcolm Lee

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Raimagine!

Housing and Commute Costs Squeeze Low-Wage Workers

By Alexandra Goldman

San Jose janitors mark the 25th anniversary of the June 1990 protest in Los Angeles that ignited their unionizing effort. Courtesy of SEIU-USWW.

In Silicon Valley, current and historical land-use decisions create daily challenges for low-income residents. Low-density development, inadequate transit, and the high cost of housing force residents into tough choices: commute long distances, despite the high cost of gas and car ownership, or live close to work and pay rent almost equal to a month’s salary.

Over the next few years, the high-tech sector, Silicon Valley’s economic engine, is expected to continue its rapid growth, bringing with it a high demand for service sector jobs. In fact, more than half the Bay Area’s job growth will come from occupations earning less than $50,000 annually.1 Silicon Valley’s workforce continues to stratify, with one large group of wealthy workers, one large group of low-wage workers, and a few workers in the middle. And in a blisteringly hot housing market, low-wage workers—a disproportionate number of whom are Latino—face some unique challenges and constraints around living and commuting to their jobs.2

Hoping to illuminate the housing and transportation concerns of a rapidly expanding low-wage workforce, we surveyed more than 230 janitors at Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms. The study found that currently, many of the janitors live relatively close to their workplaces and feel that their only option is to commute alone by car. However, this situation is not sustainable—either for the janitors, as they struggle to live on only $25,000 annually, or for the Bay Area, as it strives for a future that is more environmentally sound. As one janitor put it, “How am I going to pay my bills? I’m going to pay the rent and I’m not going to eat!”

Although the opinions expressed in this article are entirely the author’s, the research was sponsored by a grant from the HUD Sustainable Communities Initiative to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and was carried out by the Equity Collaborative, in collaboration with Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), which represents 1,200 janitors in high-tech companies across Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and Genentech.

We hope this study will help catalyze some beneficial shifts towards a more equitable housing and transportation policy.

Commuting
Our study began with a common hypothesis: As the Bay Area grows increasingly expensive, low-wage workers will be forced to move to less expensive real estate and commute long distances to work. However, researchers found this not to be the case.  Almost all the janitors (95 percent) live in Silicon Valley (60 percent in San Jose), and work an average of 12 miles away. The median commute time each way is 30 minutes, not drastically different from the commute times for residents at other income levels.3

The vast majority of janitors (85 percent) drive their own car to work, 13 percent commute as passengers, and only 4 percent report not using a car (as driver or passenger) for any part of their regular commute.4 A very small number report using public transportation or walking, though they may sometimes use a car as well.

The expense of gas greatly limits how often those surveyed leave the house. One explained, “When I go out to get gas, I think about everything I need and I buy everything that same morning to not have to go out again.” Despite the cost, the janitors cite several reasons why they consider a car “a necessity” for working:

The transit system fails workers who commute outside of normal commute hours. “My schedule and the bus service schedule don’t match. I leave at 4:30 a.m.,” one janitor explained. Only 20 percent of the janitors both start and end work during regularly scheduled public transit hours.

There are no transit stops convenient to the workers’ homes and/or worksites.  Corporate campuses in Silicon Valley generally follow mid-century sprawling land-use patterns and are built on large, relatively inexpensive lots, removed from existing transit lines.

Many janitors have to move between buildings at their worksite during a shift, which can be difficult without a car as the distance between buildings can be over a mile. It can also feel unsafe for those working at night. The janitors also said that they are not allowed to use the bike shares many campuses offer the higher-wage employees.

Driving a car is often faster. Although many reported uncertain commute times, our survey found that commuting by public transportation can be twice as slow as commuting by car.

Without substantial efforts to increase the availability of public transportation, cars are a crucial link to economic opportunity for the janitorial workforce. In Silicon Valley, the landscape of public transportation investment mirrors the income disparity. Far more money—most of it from sales taxes that are regressive—has been spent expanding BART and Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) light rail system, which serve higher-income residents, than the bus system, which is used by lower income residents.5

The "Victorian Gown Economy," by Working Partnerships USA, based on analysis of Census 2000 and the American Community Survey.Housing
Study data suggests that the janitors choose to live closer to work to have a shorter commute, rather than live farther, in the less expensive exurbs and have a longer commute. “I feel that in the area where we live, it’s easier to find employment, for the young people who arrive, as well as for older people… even though it’s a very expensive city,” one janitor said. Another explained that she chose where she lives because “the convenience of having work nearby… [is] sustainable… We cannot look for jobs far from home, because gas is so expensive.” The cost of housing and transportation, as the two largest budgetary expenses, are intimately linked.6,7

The median monthly rent of the janitors surveyed is $1,675 a month and going up. To afford this rent, a household would need to earn $67,000 annually, or more than two-and-half-times the annual janitorial salary of $25,000. As one janitor explained, “I live in one bedroom and it costs more or less $1,200… That’s what I earn.”

The janitors report making a range of sacrifices to make ends meet: from living in overcrowded conditions with strangers, to working two jobs. “I think the most difficult thing I have done is to stop eating,” said one. “When I arrived in this country, I never imagined I would have to do something so cruel or so difficult or so hard as waiting to go into a room where I work so they would not see me taking an apple out of the trash.”

Conclusion
This study provides a limited but important look at the housing and transportation opportunities and constraints for a sector of the low-wage workforce living and working in one of the wealthiest and most expensive areas of the country. With an extremely low salary of $25,000 annually, the janitors are very vulnerable to fluctuations in the housing  market.  Ultimately, this points to the urgent need for more affordable housing in Silicon Valley, particularly housing near transportation. It also suggests that other tenant protections, such as rent control or just-cause eviction protection, may be crucial for stabilizing this population.

Janitors and other service workers could be a source of new ridership for VTA, since many live relatively close to their worksites. However, past funding priorities and the current transit service offered by VTA do not make public transportation a viable option for these workers. The extension of BART to San Jose and expansion of the light rail system have attracted the vast majority of Santa Clara’s local transit revenues in the last decade, and CalTrain may increasingly be more of a priority going forward.  These transit systems are generally utilized by the higher-wage workforce. However, the economic and environmental sustainability of the Bay Area requires that lower-wage workers also be able to access jobs and opportunity by means of frequent, reliable and affordable public transportation, which calls for major increases and improvements in bus service.

The extremely high cost of housing, the low wages, and the daily attempts to make ends meet are hardly unanticipated results of this study. What is more surprising, however, is the high percentage of low-wage workers still living in Silicon Valley. It’s not too late to make substantive housing and transit changes to improve both the daily lives of the Bay Area’s low-income workers and environmental sustainability.

 

Alexandra Goldman works as a Community Planner for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco. She strongly believes that land-use struggles in Silicon Valley and San Francisco are interconnected.

Endnotes

1.    Employment and Development Department, State of California, 2013.

2.    American Community Survey, 1-year, 2013 “Tech’s Diversity Problem: More Than Meets the Eye.” Working Partnerships USA, San Jose, California. 2014.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Janitors were allowed to select more than one form of transportation; hence the totals are greater than 100.

5.    “Moving Silicon Valley Forward. Vu-Bang Nguyen and Evelyn Stivers. Urban Habitat and Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. 2012.

6.    “Commuting to Opportunity: The Working Poor and Commuting in the United States.” Elizabeth Roberto. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. 2008. 

7.    “Something’s Gotta Give: Working Families and the Cost of Housing.” Barbara J. Lipman. New Century Housing 5(2). 2005.

 

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“I live in one bedroom and it costs more or less $1,200… That’s what I earn.”—a Silicon Valley janitor

Transit Allies Fight for Share of Sales Tax

By Marcy Rein

The smell of garlic growing hits your nose as you turn off Hwy 101 onto Route 152 through Gilroy. With its wide streets, low buildings, and dry 95-degree heat, Gilroy feels like a Central Valley town, though it sits at the southern tip of Santa Clara County, on the fringe of Silicon Valley. When you head north on 101, the “San Jose City Limits” sign pops up in the middle of open space and thirsty hills, and about 15 minutes later, traffic begins to clot around the 10th largest city in the country and its far-flung carpet of suburbs—wheelhouse of the high-tech industry and site of some of the worst commutes in the country.1

But low-income transit users face some common challenges, whether they live in Gilroy, the Latino communities of East San Jose, or Sunnyvale. The buses they depend on cost too much, take too long, don’t run often enough or late enough, and are always at the end of the line for transit funding.

The countywide transportation sales tax proposed for the November 2016 ballot could begin to close the funding gap, but competition for the $6 billion the tax could raise will be stiff: The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)2 got proposals for $50 billion worth of projects by its August 31 deadline. Low-income transit users will need to press their case in a political process that has been dominated by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents the region’s major employers. But a diverse new coalition, the Transportation Justice Alliance (TJA), is taking the challenge head-on.

“This is something bigger than the initiative,” says Diana Salazar, community organizer for Sacred Heart Community Service. “We’re in a broad alliance, and we’re building a strong base of riders countywide…. As low-income bus riders, we historically haven’t benefitted from services and the right to move. This is about coming together, claiming our place and power, learning how we shape the city and county.”Community meeting on proposed transportation sales tax, at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Sept. 9, 2015 © 2015 Tiburon

Transportation Funding Burden Falls Where it Hurts Most

Before 1980, California counties got about 80 percent of their transportation funding from the federal and state governments. Since 1980, the balance has flipped. Counties now bear 80 percent of the cost of their transportation systems, according to VTA’s Planning and Program Development Director John Ristow. Federal and state transportation spending, such as it is, favors highways; only 20 percent of federal dollars goes to transit, and in large metropolitan areas like San Jose, almost none of it can be used for bus operations.

To fill the funding gap, counties have turned to sales taxes. Santa Clara was the first to do so, with a 1984 ballot measure that raised funds for highways. This funding strategy has the county’s poorest residents paying the biggest share of their income to support the system—and getting the smallest returns.

“We’re paying but not getting service. It’s like taxation without representation in the American Revolution,” says Lucila Moran, an activist with Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos (RUTU).

For transit-dependent county residents like Moran, “transportation dictates the quality of jobs, education, housing, and services you have access to,” says Charisse Ma Lebron, director of health policy and community development for Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA), a group that combines research, policy advocacy, and organizing in campaigns for equitable growth, healthy communities, and quality jobs.

The ongoing housing crisis makes transit even more vital. “When you’re displaced, you get pushed farther from where you have your life. If you don’t have a car, public transportation is your only way to stay connected,” says Lisa Castellanos, Sacred Heart’s director of policy and organizing. 

Low-income families in the county spend around one-third of their household income on transportation3 and are far more likely to take the bus than light rail (84 percent of them depend on the bus, but only 16 percent rely on rail).4 The average annual income of VTA bus riders is less than $30,000; for BART riders, it’s $53,000, and for CalTrain riders, $117,000.5The bulk of the revenues from previous county transportation sales taxes have benefitted higher-income residents.

Bus service hours are down 22 percent since 2000; even after the restoration of some hours in 2010–2011, service is the lowest it’s been in 25 years. Light rail service, by contrast, has gone up 32 percent since 1999-2000.6

More than half the funds from the half-cent tax passed in 1996 went to transit—but to light rail, not buses. Eighty percent of the revenue from Measure A, passed in 2000, has gone towards bringing BART to San Jose,7 and money raised by the eighth-cent tax passed in 2008 is all earmarked for BART.

To say that transit funding slights the Valley’s poorer residents is also to say that it leaves out communities of color. Latino, Black and Native American families have the lowest incomes in the Valley and saw the sharpest decline in income from 2000 to 2010.8 Segregation within the tech industry concentrates Latinos and African Americans in poorly paid service jobs.9

Transportation sales tax measures go to the voters with a spending plan attached. The fight for a fair distribution of the funds happens early—so when the Silicon Valley Leadership Group tried to slide a new tax proposal onto the 2014 ballot with little discussion, community groups and some elected officials weren’t having it.

Getting Equity on the Agenda
David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard) founded the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group in 1978; it changed its name to the Leadership Group in 2005, but remains the voice of the high-tech employers at the core of the Valley’s economy.

The Leadership Group has initiated all of Santa Clara County’s transportation sales tax proposals. It has funded polling to see which spending plans would get the greatest voter support, and bankrolled the campaigns themselves. In late 2013, Leadership Group President Carl Guardino proposed a new sales tax for the November 2014 ballot, to spend on BART and roads.

“When SVLG floated the idea of a potential new measure in 2014, we and many others jumped in quickly to make sure the next transportation funding measure would be made with significant community input and through a transparent public process,” says Chris Lepe, TransForm’s senior community planner.

WPUSA called together the group that would become the TJA—a broad coalition of more than a dozen community organizations, unions, environmental groups, and policy advocates.10   “We want to be sure the tax revenues are invested to benefit our communities, and raise our communities’ voices in the transportation sphere,” says Lebron.

TJA members met with VTA staff and Board and other local elected officials to make the case for postponing the tax vote and seeking meaningful community input. The VTA agreed to consider the tax for the 2016 ballot and to collaborate with the TJA on four community meetings around the county.

More than 400 people participated in the meetings held in Gilroy, Mountain View, Central San Jose, and East San Jose. The meetings were scheduled to make attendance easier—on Saturday afternoon in Gilroy and in the early evening everywhere else. The organizers provided food, childcare and translation—Spanish/English at all meetings, and Vietnamese/English as well in East San Jose.

In two-and-half packed hours, the meetings offered a crash course in the way decisions get made on transportation funding and a chance for community members to talk directly with VTA planning staff. Participants spent about an hour in breakout groups, mapping their regular transit use and reflecting on their riding experience. They ranked the transit improvements they would like to see and reported their priorities back to the VTA staff and the meeting as a whole.

Some needs percolated to the top of the list at every meeting: more frequent and affordable bus service; better connections among bus routes; reduced fares for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income people, and safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. The TJA is compiling the community priorities into a transit justice platform that can guide it through the next stages of the work.

“Santa Clara County has had very strong labor, social justice and environmental coalitions, but this is the first time these interests have mobilized around transportation funding in such an invested way,” says Lepe, who as a student at San Jose State was part of the campaign to keep San Jose’s famous flea market, “La Pulga,” from being displaced by a future BART stop at Berryessa.11

Keeping Fairness at the Forefront
“Transportation is a collective enterprise, and this is a long process. We need to work together to improve transportation for all,” Lebron reminded participants at the end of each community meeting.Bus riders from Gilroy and surrounding areas identify routes where they need more buses. © 2015 Harvey Barkin

At the next step in the process, the TJA will need to ensure that equity stays on the agenda when the VTA decides which of the dozens of project proposals submitted by cities, agencies, and community groups will go into the final spending plan that gets on the ballot.

The VTA has been collecting input to help its board of directors decide on the criteria it will use to evaluate proposals. The coalition sent a four-page letter detailing changes that would enhance equity and environmental health elements in the proposed criteria. For example, instead of “travel reliably,” the group suggested saying, “Increase the reliability of public transit, especially for people with disabilities, seniors, students, and low-income individuals.”

The Alliance also suggested that the VTA compare an entire package of equity-based projects and programs against other packages. In planning lingo, these packages are “scenarios.”

“Developing an investment scenario that starts with the needs of low-income communities produces the greatest benefits—including environmental and economic benefits—for the broader community,” says Bob Allen, director of policy and advocacy campaigns for Urban Habitat. “We saw this at work in the recent regional planning process that led up to the adoption of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area.”12

The VTA will review all the proposals using the criteria it picks, and come up with a draft expenditure plan by February 2016. Before the sales tax measure goes on the ballot, all 15 cities in Santa Clara County and the VTA Board will have to approve the spending plan. The Alliance and its member groups will continue participating on VTA’s Policy and Ad Hoc committees, engaging Board members and other elected officials.

Working with a Complex Process and Flawed Choices
Special-purpose sales taxes in California have to pass by a two-thirds majority,13 so the proposal that emerges from these long preparations must appeal to voters all over the county with widely varying income levels and transportation needs—from the wealthy, almost rural communities of Saratoga and Los Altos Hills, to the poorer communities east of Hwy 87, to the suburban environs of North County. 

“Typically, we see high turnout in North and West County, so opposition needs to be neutralized or pleased,” retired San Jose State University Political Science Professor Terry Christensen says. “When you need two-thirds approval, you can’t afford any organized opposition.”

Deep imbalances between jobs and housing define the county’s transportation landscape. Jobs abound in the northern part of the county, but housing—especially affordable housing—is hard to find. Workers must travel from San Jose or farther away to work at Apple in Cupertino, or Stanford University in Palo Alto, for example.

The BART extension has drawn support from those who see it as an effective way to get drivers out of cars and encourage job growth in San Jose. “The entire Bay Area has been behind extending BART… I drive 880 and the traffic is horrendous; as the economy gets more regional, our need for connectivity increases,” says Doug Bloch of Teamsters Joint Council 7.

But the BART project has taken far longer and cost far more than anticipated, leaving a host of unmet needs not only for TJA’s constituencies, but for North and West County cities as well. Elected officials from several cities signed onto a letter to VTA in August 2015, asking the agency to take a more truly regional approach to planning. Priorities for North County cities include electrification and grade separations for CalTrain (over- and underpasses so the train doesn’t back up car traffic) and light rail extensions.

“How have downtown San Jose interests dominated the process until now?” asks Mountain View City Council member Lenny Siegel. “We need more jobs in San Jose and more housing here, but the imbalance is so great that transit must be part of the picture. The best option is transit that follows the commute… cars use 280, 85, 237, 101 from the south. That’s the traffic transit needs to address,” Siegel says.

Some members of the TJA, notably WPUSA, advocate incorporating affordable housing near transit into the sales tax measure. Building affordable housing within a quarter-mile of transit could also cut congestion and pollution by reducing vehicle miles traveled; affordable housing yields even greater benefits than market-rate, according to a report by TransForm and the California Housing Partnership Corporation.14Signing in at East San Jose community meeting © 2015 Tiburon

Building Power for the Long Term
“The affordable housing need is so acute that you can’t have that level of public investment and not include it,” says Bob Brownstein, WPUSA’s director of policy and research.

California law only allows local governments to raise sales taxes 2 percent over the state’s base sales tax of 7.5 percent. Santa Clara County’s rate is already at 8.75 percent, so it can go up another half-cent. If the transportation tax passes, the county won’t be able to raise taxes until the current measures expire in 2036.

“You need to seize windows of opportunity when they open. This is our last chance to capture local resources for transit for a while, so we need to take it seriously,” Brownstein says.

The social movement moment also offers an opening, and a perspective on the work.

“A bigger movement is happening around the Bay. This is an opportunity to build power in a way unique to this moment because of the multiple ways low- and moderate-income folks are suffering and struggling over the costs of housing and transportation,” says Lisa Castellanos. “We need to democratize more spaces where decisions get made that hit very close to home for low-income people and people of color, immigrants, undocumented, people who ‘shouldn’t’ be participating, whose voice isn’t considered in the electorate.”

 

Marcy Rein is a contributing editor for Race, Poverty & the Environment.

Endnotes

1.    “Transportation Justice in San Jose and the Bay Area,” presentation by Urban Habitat and Public Advocates for PACT, March 2012.

2.    The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) runs the bus and light rail systems in Santa Clara County. It also functions as the county’s Congestion Management Agency, responsible for making transportation plans and securing and allocating funds. Its Board of Directors sets policy for the agency. The Board is made up of 18 county and city representatives; 12 are voting members and six are alternates. All are elected officials, appointed by the jurisdiction they represent. Three are Santa Clara County supervisors, six come from the city of San Jose, and nine represent other cities.

3.    Moving Silicon Valley Forward: Housing, Transit and Traffic at a Crossroad, Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and Urban Habitat, 2012, p. 6.

4.    Ibid., p. 10.

5.    Interview with Charisse Ma Lebron, director of health policy and community development for Working Partnerships USA, Aug. 18, 2015.

6.    Life in the Valley Economy 2012, Working Partnerships USA.

7.    Transportation funding memo to county Board of Supervisors.

8.    Latino and Black families saw their household income drop by 29 percent; white households experienced a 9 percent decline; Asian households saw a 1.4 percent increase. Life in the Valley Economy.

9.    Blacks and Latinos hold fewer than five percent of the high-paying engineering and technical jobs, but make up 75 percent of all grounds maintenance workers, 72 percent of janitors, and 41 percent of security guards. Tech’s Diversity Problem: More than meets the eye, Working Partnerships USA, 2014.

10. As of September 2015, the Transportation Justice Alliance included the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, California Walks, Friends of CalTrain, Greenbelt Alliance, People Acting in Communty Together (PACT), Public Advocates, Sacred Heart Community Service, Sacred Heart United Seniors Action Committee, Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos (RUTU)/Riders United for Transportation Renewal, Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits, Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, Teamsters Joint Council 7, TransForm, Transit Riders United, Urban Habitat, Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA) and Yu-Ai Kai.

11. For more on “La Pulga,” see Ginny Browne, “San Jose Flea Market Faces BART Expansion, Displacement,” Race, Poverty and the Environment, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2011.

12. SB375, a part of California’s landmark climate change legislation, requires regions to plan to bring jobs, housing and transit closer together in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the planning body for the nine-county Bay Area region: Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties.

13. A special-purpose tax raises funds for a specific use—in this case, transportation. Sales taxes to raise money for city and county General Funds only need the support of 50 percent of the voters, plus one.

14. Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes Near Transit is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy, TransForm and the California Housing Partnership Corporation, 2014.

 

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"We're paying but not getting service. It's like taxation without representation."—bus rider activist Lucila Moran

Bus Riders Step Up for Better Service

By Harvey I. Barkin, Photos by Tiburon

Cutting-edge technology and the best-paying jobs may be in San Jose. But San Jose also has a far worse commute time than the national average, and low-income families in Santa Clara County spend more on transportation than their Bay Area neighbors. When they use transit, they are far more likely to use the bus than light rail—and bus riders face daily inconveniences and indignities that can deeply affect their lives.One of the busiest transit stops in San Jose, downtown on Santa Clara Street. ©2015 Tiburon

Consider the experience of Artruro Velarde of San Jose, who takes the #71 bus to his job with a company that stages homes for sale. Sometimes the bus is late, or simply doesn’t show up. “To get to work late can mean losing a job. My boss is understanding, but he’s not going to pay me when I don’t work, and an hour’s pay can make the difference in not being able to pay the rent on time, not being able to pay the bills,” says Velarde. Or that of Lucy Moran, also of San Jose: “I’ve been on the bus all day long just trying to get things done, like pay the PG&E, pay the water, go to the doctor,” Moran says. “Just to get anything done, it takes forever,” she says.

Velarde and Moran each belong to one of the new groups in Silicon Valley that formed to give voice to bus riders and fight for better, more affordable service, and a fair share of transit funding for buses: Transit Riders United (TRU), organized by Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA) and RUTU (Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos), Riders United for Transportation Revitalization, a project of Sacred Heart Community Service. “I’m tired of complaining,” Velarde says. “I want to do something.”

Transit Riders United
“Transit Riders United is made up of people who ride the bus every single day. The vast majority of them are Latinos and Vietnamese, youth, seniors, students and working folks. There’s beauty in putting all these different cultures, backgrounds and ages into one room joined together in the fight for a better community,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, Director of Community and Civic Engagement for WPUSA.

Transit Riders United started based on a need. “We [WPUSA] were working on a whole host of issues around housing, transit, renters, wages and workers,” Fernandez says.  “The one issue that rose to the surface was the need for reliable transit. Eventually, we started talking about what is it that we really want to do, and how do we build power for transit riders?

“As part of the conversation, we looked into other communities that were able to build power for transit riders such as Los Angeles and Boston. It was interesting to note the similarity in LA and San Jose where transit riders didn’t have power. We realized that the voice of everyday people riding the bus should be part of the decision-making process. And bottom line, that’s what we’re all about,” she says.1

San Jose’s TRU began building its base by going to the most heavily traveled bus lines and talking to riders at the stops and on the buses, surveying riders about their experiences with the bus system and improvements they would like to see.

In the conversations that shaped the TRU, the overlapping nature of transportation and housing issues was never far in the background. Fernandez shares the story of a woman with two kids:  The family lives in Tracy because San Jose is too expensive. “She and her husband work here [in San Jose],” Fernandez says. “They get up very early, at 5 a.m., and commute by car. He drops her off at the bus stop. Then she has another two hours to get to her job. She said to me, ‘Not only does it cost me time, but I don’t see my kids. By the time I get home, they’ve done with homework and dinner. I only get to kiss them good night. That’s it for family time.’”

RUTU
Sacred Heart distributes discount transit passes through Santa Clara County’s Transit Assistance Program. TAP itself represents an organizing victory. Community groups mobilized for two years to get the affordable passes—but TAP is temporary, set to close down at the end of 2016.

Sacred Heart’s name and fame for “giving lots of free food and TAP (the bus transfer pass) has helped us build a base,” says Community Organizer Diana Salazar. Besides helping people meet their immediate needs, though, Sacred Heart works with them to build power to change their conditions. RUTU, its transit riders group, started with people who get TAP passes.

Since it began in February 2015, RUTU has built three committees, one each in San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Gilroy. The San Jose people got together first, named the group, and also came up with the idea of a rider survey. By the end of the summer RUTU members around the county had collected about 400 surveys, talking to people on the bus, at bus stops, and in line to get TAP passes.

Sacred Heart’s work, like WPUSA’s, recognizes the intersections among the many issues that affect people’s lives. Its organizing model addresses anti-displacement (housing, renters’ rights), transportation justice and migrant rights. Transportation often is in the middle.

Salazar explains, “You’re an immigrant and you get evicted for no reason. You are now homeless and have no access to transportation.”  Members of Sacred Heart’s senior organizing committee rely on a lunch program funded through VTA, RUTU members want to see TAP continue, and seniors worry that the VTA-run paratransit program may be replaced by cab vouchers.Adrian and George go home from work as night security guards. ©2015 Tiburon

Bus Riders Speak Out
Many of the transit problems TRU and RUTU members seek to solve can be traced to the consistent underfunding of bus service in Santa Clara County. In 2008, for instance, BART took all of the funding from Measure B, which put an eighth-cent sales tax in place. By 2010, rail capitalization had eaten up 88 per cent of the funding from the Measure A sales tax passed in 2000. This left only 10 per cent for VTA operations and 2 per cent for bus capitalization. In the same year, VTA cut four times as much bus service as light rail service to cope with budget deficits.Rider on the #23 in Cupertino. ©2015 Tiburon

Now a new proposal for a county transportation sales tax is being developed, upping the ante on the work of TRU and RUTU. (See “Transit Allies Fight for Share of Sales Tax,” p. 109.) If funding can be found, it should go where it is most needed.

“There needs to be better investment in transit, such as fast, frequent, and reliable bus service,” says WPUSA Director of Health Policy and Community Development Charisse Ma Lebron, speaking on behalf of the Transportation Justice Alliance (TJA), a broad coalition of more than a dozen community, environmental and labor groups.

“Transit investments should benefit the needs of low-income, people of color, and working families. These are our same community members who may not be able to afford a car, are transit-dependent, and may work unpredictable hours—so they need better access to buses. Some residents have two or three jobs, yet the current bus service does not meet their transit needs,” Lebron says.Riders on the #22 from Sunnyvale. to San Jose. ©2015 Tiburon

Over the summer RUTU and TRU played major roles in mobilizing bus riders to the community meetings co-sponsored by the TJA and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to gather input for the sales tax proposals. The four meetings identified community leaders and those with opinions; despite the differences in geography, riders in Gilroy, Mountain View, downtown San Jose, and Alum Rock (East San Jose) voiced some common concerns.

Gilroy, in the rural southern part of the county, “is simply transit-starved,” Lebron says, and bus riders feel the pinch.

Victor Frias has been a bus rider since he lost his eyesight three years ago. At the Gilroy meeting he complained that the #14 bus to Saint Louise Regional Hospital goes to its garage too soon and doesn’t stop at Walmart (where he shops for his basic necessities). He also pointed out that there is no shade under which bus riders could wait in comfort. “You get burned out in the summer,” he said.

Alejandro Ayala of San Martin echoed Frias’ concern about the #14; he has to be out of the hospital at 5:15 p.m. or he will miss the last bus. He has to go to Morgan Hill to pick up his medications, because the County closed medical clinics in Gilroy and even The Sisters of Charity no longer take Medi-Cal or Medicare. He’d walk to Cochrane Road to take the #16,“but it does not run on weekends,” he said. Even when it does run, the walk and the bus ride would take him four hours round trip, said Ayala, shifting his weight from one foot to another as if it hurt to stand.

At the Mountain View community meeting, Angela Mital said, “We use the bus for everything… We take four different buses just to go and walk another hour and a half to the bus station. Sometimes we have to wait for close to one hour on weekends, and the bus trip to San Jose takes two hours. We want more routes for the #26 and for the #304 to run after 7 p.m.,” she said. She gets help from Sunnyvale Community Services with food but because no bus goes there, she has to walk home laden with heavy but basic necessities.

When buses don’t run their routes or are late, students are “sometimes marked absent” in school, Marcel Mendez noted. Patricia Martinez identified the #53, which should come every half hour, but is often late. It is the route that high school and middle school students take.

The Mountain View bus riders also made mention of the need for shade at bus stops and more accommodations for the safety of pedestrians and bicycle riders.

Leticia Martinez told the East San Jose meeting about the difficulties of being a caregiver dependent on the bus. “Twice in the last two years I was unable to drive for health reasons. I live in the eastern foothills in San Jose, and am the caregiver for my 97-year-old mother,” she said. “The nearest bus stop is a mile and a half away. How can you carry groceries that far? How can you do your mother’s laundry? I felt helpless, depressed and very isolated.”

Patricia, a law student at San Jose State and a single mother, said that buses get her home too late after her night classes. “They need to run more frequently, especially the #25 and #65—and they need to run through campus, so we don’t have to walk so far to catch them at night when it isn’t safe,” she said.

Building Power and Voice
The town meetings in Gilroy, Mountain View and San Jose generated a long list of ideas for improving the transit system, Salazar said. Concerns for frequency, connectivity (being able to get around with fewer transfers) and affordability rose to the top.Students and other riders at bus stop across the street from San Jose State © 2015 Tiburon

RUTU and TRU both face the long-term tasks of building their members’ leadership capacity and knowledge of the politics behind transportation decisions—as they think about strategy for the sales tax campaign.

 “We’re still almost a year away from the ballot. So we haven’t figured out how many members of RUTU can’t vote,” Salazar says. “It’s still too early to figure out how we’re going to push [for a yes vote] because the ballot language has not been determined.”

Even help from non-voters can be effective. Salazar says, “Those who can’t vote can pass the word out in the streets to vote. They know people who can vote or they have children who can vote. We just need to get the word out.”

Up until now, Fernandez says, “there really wasn’t a lot of time and energy put on organizing riders. We can have a handful of people talking about what isn’t working but unless we can organize, work together and speak in one voice, we’ll definitely be drowned out.” But the picture is changing.

“If we keep building the power of bus riders, we will make sure that the funds that could possibly be collected go to where they’re most needed. And frankly, if I didn’t feel this way, I wouldn’t be doing this job,” she says.

 

Harvey I. Barkin is a San Jose-based freelance and technical writer. His work has appeared in various outlets, including several Filipino community publications such as FilAm Star and Philippine News.

Tiburon is a Bay Area Psychonaut photographer whose driving visual force is sub-cultures and counter-cultures. Follow him on ig: tiburonfb

 

Endnote

1.    The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU), founded in 1992, won a civil rights suit against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for running a “separate and unequal” transit system: The MTA dramatically underfunded the bus system, used almost exclusively by people of color, compared to light rail, patronized by whites. After winning the suit, BRU kept organizing to turn the victory into concrete improvements, such as added service hours and driver jobs, and a nine-year halt to fare increases. http://www.thestrategycenter.org/project/bus-riders-union/about

 

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“If we keep building the power of bus riders, we will make sure that the funds that could possibly be collected go to where they’re most needed."—Maria Noel Fernandez, WPUSA

Bus Rider Profile: Arturo Velarde

By Harvey Barkin

When his car broke down three years ago, Arturo Velarde decided he had more important goals in life than driving again. He has since been using the bus, mostly for work, but also for other things, such as getting to medical appointments at Santa Clara Valley Medical and getting his tax return done in Cupertino.

Still strong at 64, Velarde works for a staging company—the kind that dresses up homes for sale. He has been managing the inventory for almost half a year, but he doesn’t feel permanent enough in the job to take liberties. “My boss is very understanding but he can’t keep saying to me, ‘It’s okay to be late’—and he’s not going to pay me when I don’t work,” he says.

Velarde is fortunate to have a bus stop only three blocks from his home. He takes the #71 to work. By car, it’s a short hop, but the bus takes 20 to 22 minutes and if he misses it, he has to walk the eight to 10 blocks, which makes him late.

On weekends, the wait and ride can take 40 to 45 minutes, “because (VTA) thinks no one works [on weekends] and there’s no demand,” he says. But Velarde tries to live with it. Instead of whining, he’s systematic about riding the bus; he carries a map of the routes and consults the timetable posted at the stop.

“When the bus is late three to four minutes, I’d check my schedule sheet. It stretches to 25 minutes, I call the VTA customer support hotline posted on the wall. ‘The bus is late,’ they say, and I say, ‘I know that.’”

“‘It’s going to be there,’ they say, with no explanation. In 25 minutes, a bus arrives. But it’s the one scheduled to arrive after the bus I called about. You don’t know if the previous bus is down or if they decided to skip a trip to save money! I think the key points here are frequency and respecting the schedule.”

Like most veteran bus riders, Velarde is a realist and has often been in situations where he has to help himself. But even with the best plan, the bus still defeats him.

“I always arrive at the bus stop 10 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive,” Velarde says. “If it arrives later than scheduled, I catch it. If it’s the previously scheduled bus arriving late, I still catch it. If the bus arrives 20 minutes late, then I take the #271 to Eastridge, but I’ve already missed the #26 that will take me to Monterey Road.”

This is not the only problem. “One time, I was between jobs, and I had to ride a bicycle,” Velarde recounts. “I found this to be more of a hindrance than the healthy benefit they say it is because there’s only space for two bicycles [on VTA buses]. And I guess it’s up to the driver to accept more bicycle riders.

“One day, a bus driver shooed me away saying, ‘Wait for the next bus; I already have one bike!’ It was 11:00 and I had no choice but to wait for the next one, who would probably tell me the same thing. On that day, I decided to walk instead of bringing my bicycle to work.”

Velarde has been sharing his experiences with Transit Riders United as part of an effort to make the system work better for bus riders.

“I believe in changes and hope these all will be good changes that come out of this process,” he said at the TJA/VTA community meeting in East San Jose on September 9, 2015.

 

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“The key points are frequency and respecting the schedule.”—Arturo Velarde

Bus Rider Profile: Lucila Moran

 

By Marcy Rein

“Last night I got off work at 1:30 a.m. and missed the last light rail,” says Lucila (Lucy) Moran. “A girlfriend who works nearby got a taxi with me, but it cost us $15. The bus Lucila Moran, activist in RUTU (Renovadores Unidos de Transportes Urbanos/Riders United for Transportation Revitalization)needs to run later!”

That’s just one of many improvements this  would like to see to make the bus system work better for those who need it most.

Moran grew up in San Jose. “I can still remember the orchards, how beautiful they were. In the summers, my family all worked picking fruit—cherries, walnuts, pears, and prunes. My brother said to me, ‘If you don’t study and go to college, you’ll be doing this the rest of your life,’” she says. She paid attention, following her brother to San Jose City College, then to San Jose State, where she majored in dance.

She still wears her dark curly hair in a dancer’s bun, and when she’s telling me how one of her teachers insisted on precision in every move, she lifts her spine and raises her arms in an elegant line; I can see her on stage. But a car wreck changed her plans.

“I couldn’t move from the neck down,” she says. “I told God that if He healed me, I would give up theater, and only dance for Him.” She recovered, and went back to school. Then she got married and had three children (the oldest over 30 now), but ended up a single mom after her husband left the family.

“I was taking the bus all over, sometimes with all three kids,” Moran recalls. She encountered her share of frustrations with bad connections, infrequent service, and rude drivers. “And bus stops need benches and shelters for seniors and people traveling with young children,” she says, remembering a day when she and her grandniece got drenched by a sudden rainstorm while waiting for a bus. Even telling this story, she smiles a bit.

Over the course of several years, Moran finished her BA in theater arts and drama and got a second degree in creative arts and dance. She’s had a variety of jobs and taught dance in the community and at her church. Today, she works as a substitute teacher and as a banquet server through UNITE-HERE Local 19. Sometimes she has a car that works, but sometimes she still relies on the bus and light rail.

To get to her sister’s retirement home across town, Moran has to take three buses and light rail, shelling out $2 for each leg of the trip. “Six dollars is a lot of money when you’re struggling,” she says. The trip takes two hours if all the connections work, longer if they don’t.

A friend told Moran about the Transportation Assistance Program (TAP) at Sacred Heart. She had to make three early morning trips to get her discount pass but she appreciated it so much that she was glad to help when the organizer at Sacred Heart asked her to bring more people together to save the program.

“Before I got involved, I used to just get upset,” Moran says, leaning towards me, her hands dancing as she talks. She had no idea how decisions about transit got made, or how to work for better service.

“Lots of people don’t know they have a voice, like I didn’t know.” Now she helps with RUTU’s meetings and transit rider surveys and tries to motivate others to get involved.

“I tell them, ‘If you love the [TAP] program, help others. Speak up so the people who make decisions will know there’s a need out there, and keep the program going,’” Moran says. “It’s hard when people have to juggle kids and work, they’re stressed, but I tell them, ‘If you can’t come, tell others,’ so everyone has a way to contribute. And I ask, ‘If not us, then who?’ If you get involved, we can make it happen.”

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“Before I got involved, I used to just get upset.” —Lucila Moran

Tech Shuttle Drivers Win Union Contracts

By Doug Bloch

After six months of organizing, the workers at Loop Transportation who drive the Facebook shuttles, voted to join Teamsters Local 853 in November 2014—cracking high-tech’s anti-union wall and inspiring a wave of union organizing that lifted up wages throughout their industry.Shuttle drivers celebrate after vote to unionize. Courtesy of Teamsters Local 853

 “Everywhere we turn, people seem to be talking about income inequality, especially here in  Silicon Valley,” says Teamsters Joint Council 7 President Rome Aloise. “But if you look at recent US history, you’ll see that the income gap has grown as the percentage of unionized workers started to shrink—so we see this organizing as a hopeful move towards closing the income gap in Silicon Valley.”

At their peak in the 1950s, the Teamsters represented almost 50,000 mostly Latino cannery workers in San Jose.  These good middle-class jobs with decent wages and benefits are all gone now, replaced with low-wage service sector employment.  The canneries were shut, the orchards paved over, and highly successful companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay and others grew up in their place.

While these new companies have made some fabulously rich in this new information economy, most people haven’t got much to show for it. Low wages, rising rents, and high housing prices are squeezing working families out of the Bay Area. Although the region’s top tech firms made a record $103 billion in profits in 2013, one in three Silicon Valley households do not make enough money to meet their most basic needs. 

The business model of the high tech industry itself exacerbates the problem. Median wages for tech workers employed by these companies exceed $60 per hour, according to data from the California Employment Development Department. But the high tech firms also contract out a vast array of service jobs, such as security guards, janitors, cafeteria workers, and shuttle bus drivers.  For these workers, who are primarily people of color, median wages range from $11–14 per hour.1

When the Loop Transportation drivers decided to organize with Teamsters Local 853, their number one issue was working split shifts. They only got paid while they were driving, not during the downtime between the morning and evening commutes. They were working twelve to fourteen hours for eight hours’ pay. Since most couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area, they couldn’t get home between shifts. They were left with nowhere to go; sometimes they slept in their cars.

“Driving a shuttle bus means long days,” says Loop Transportation driver Sean Hinman. “Before we had the union, it meant hours of sitting in Bay Area traffic and hours of sitting around between shifts without pay.”

Loop not only required split shifts, but provided no vacation, paid holidays, or retirement benefits, and offered healthcare that workers simply couldn’t afford. So, despite the company’s anti-union campaign, the 87 drivers prevailed in their National Labor Relations Board election.2 This was outstanding, given high tech’s longstanding hostility to unions. And in February 2015, the workers negotiated a first contract that provides for a $9 per hour wage increase, on average (from $18 to $27.50 per hour), fully paid family healthcare, up to five weeks paid vacation, eleven paid holidays, bereavement leave, a pension, and more.  Facebook signed off on it.

Usually it takes a long, contentious campaign for unions to win a first contract.3 This was a dramatic exception. The high tech companies have deep enough pockets to foot the cost of a union contract with no difficulty—and could pay a political price in the Bay Area for being perceived as anti-union.

Union Drive Lifts Wages Industry-wide
Just after the Loop Transportation workers voted on their contract, more than 150 drivers for Compass Transportation—which runs the shuttles for Apple, Yahoo, eBay, and other companies—won their union election. They prevailed after four months of organizing amidst an anti-union campaign. They negotiated a similar contract that is still awaiting approval by Apple and Yahoo.  In the meantime, hundreds more workers for roughly a dozen shuttle companies are on the move.

Although it involved a relatively small number of workers, this organizing set off a chain reaction that nobody anticipated. After the victories at Loop and Compass, last March, Apple and Google announced across-the-board 25 percent wage increases for all shuttle bus drivers—union and non-union alike. The companies were responding to collective pressure from both the Facebook victory and Silicon Valley Rising, especially the successful effort by the Service Employees International Union/United Service Workers West to push Apple and Google to bring their security officers in-house.

These wage increases appear to have forced non-union shuttle bus companies to follow suit just to keep their drivers from going to one of the better-paying companies.  One employer estimated that wages have gone up 30 percent in the market since the organizing started.

The ripple effects of the tech drivers’ successes have spread beyond Silicon Valley.  The same companies that service high-tech firms also service airports, transit agencies, and other clients in the Bay Area.  For example, Teamsters Locals 665 and 853 represented Loop drivers at San Francisco and Oakland airports before the Facebook group organized.  All of a sudden, those clients find themselves in a position where they need to raise wages and benefits just to keep their drivers.

At the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), Local 853 represents about 145 paratransit drivers.  Many of these drivers are African American and live in Bayview/Hunter’s Point.  They transport San Francisco’s disabled, elderly and infirm under a contract SFMTA has with TransDev—the parent company for Compass Transportation.  Local 853 started bargaining with TransDev in November 2014, and by April 2015 had only secured a proposal for 1 percent wage increases. 

Meetings with Mayor Ed Lee, several members of the Board of Supervisors, and the SFMTA staff produced some movement.  Angry members, led by some very strong shop stewards, were threatening a strike as a last resort.  Nobody wanted to leave the riders stranded, but with median rents in San Francisco hitting $4,225 per month, something had to be done.

With active members pushing the issues and strong help from political allies, in May things broke.  Little more than a month after Apple and Google announced pay raises to try to keep pace with Facebook, TransDev suddenly seemed to discover some new reserve of funds. The company offered up an $8 raise over the five-year contract, which amounted to a whopping 44 percent increase. They upped the paid days off from 12 to 25 and included five paid holidays, where drivers had none before. 

 “Despite these very positive gains, we understand that wage and benefit increases alone will not solve the problem—so many factors increase inequality in the Bay Area,” Rome Aloise says. “That’s why we’re working with Silicon Valley Rising to address issues like the high cost of housing and the need for better transit.”

Doug Bloch is the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 7, and participates in the Transportation Justice Alliance.

Endnotes

1.    Working Partnerships USA, Tech’s Diversity Problem: More than Meets the Eye, August 2014, accessed at http://www.wpusa.org/Publication/Tech_Diversity_Report_2014.pdf

2.    The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency that oversees the elections in which workers vote on whether or not to join a union, and the bargaining between workers and employers over contracts. Workers face serious obstacles to winning union elections. Employers routinely fire union supporters and threaten to cut wages and benefits or close the plant if the workers vote union; they spy on organizing efforts and interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with supervisors. See Kate Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Union Organizing, Economic Policy Institute and American Rights At Work, 2009, p.2. accessed October 17, 2015, http://s3.epi.org/files/page/-/pdf/bp235.pdf

3.    Fifty-two percent of workers who win union elections still have no contract a year after the election; 37 percent don’t have an agreement two years out. Ibid, p. 3.

 

 

 

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"We see this organizing as a hopeful move towards closing the income gap in Silicon Valley.”—Teamsters Joint Council 7 President Rome Aloise

Social Justice Unions Claim Deep Roots in Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

This story was drawn from a longer article, "Roots of Social Justice Organizing in Silicon Valley."

Versatronex electronics assembly plant workers on strike, September 1992. ©1992 David BaconThe Santa Clara Valley labor movement took off in the 1880s as agribusiness boomed. Huge orchards of prunes, apricots, and other fruit flourished, and alongside them, the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country and the world. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the first unions for cannery workers, including one called “Toilers of the World,” which included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers. The IWW became the first in a line of left-wing unions that would practice radical, inclusive, worker-to-worker organizing in the Valley, linking workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights, and workers’ and community struggles.

By 1930, the Santa Clara Valley was the fruit processing capital of the world, owing to the labor of thousands of immigrant workers. It was also the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries—some run by huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak—employed up to 30,000 people.

“The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s,” wrote historian Glenna Matthews.1 This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the Valley became famous—electronics.

In August 1931, every cannery from the border of San Mateo County to south San Jose went on strike, organized by a Communist union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union.

“We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” recalled Dorothy Healey, one of the strike organizers. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together… So we would hold these street meetings—I mean park meetings, strike meetings—at St. James Park, and the police would break them up,” said Healey, who was 16 years old at the time of the strike.2

The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” There were hardly any full-time organizers. Meetings were held in people’s homes, and membership cards passed along through family networks in the plants. Despite obstacles, by the end of the 1930s the San Jose canneries were all unionized, and remained so until they closed six decades later.

The anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and ‘50s bred a fratricidal struggle in the U.S. labor movement. This led to the expulsion of unions like the United Cannery and Agricultural and Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) and the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). UCAPAWA was destroyed, and its union contracts in the canneries were taken over by the Teamsters Union, with the support of the companies who wanted to be rid of leftwing unions. And while the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared.

Farmworker Organizing
With the anti-communist witch hunts still taking place, radical Chicano labor and community leaders began work in San Jose. Bert Corona, the father of the modern immigrant rights movement, moved there after being blacklisted by the Coast Guard on the Los Angeles docks. He and Lucio Bernabe, a cannery organizer, encouraged strikes among braceros, contract farm workers brought from Mexico to work in U.S. fields as semi-slave labor. The pair organized food caravans when braceros stopped work, and tried to prevent their deportation.

Ernesto Galarza, who also lived in San Jose in the postwar era, organized Mexican and Filipino farm workers into the National Farm Labor Union in the late 1940s, which struck growers in the Central Valley. That union’s successor, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, began the great grape strike in 1965 under the leadership of Larry Itliong, and later merged with the National Farm Worker Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Bernabe later helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ‘80s. The CWC challenged discrimination under the Teamsters contracts. Mexican workers, mostly women, had only temporary jobs working on the line during the season, while white workers, mostly men, had the permanent jobs in the warehouses and maintenance departments.

High Tech Builds Its Anti-Union Model
From the beginning, high tech workers faced an industry-wide anti-union policy. “Remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies… The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management,” said Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corp.3 The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel management techniques for maintaining “a union-free environment.” Some of those techniques, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking.

A co-inventor of the transistor and founder of an early Silicon Valley laboratory, William Shockley, espoused theories of the genetic inferiority of African Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in the Valley, they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce.

In electronics plants women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley’s production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees. African American workers were frozen out almost entirely. Unemployment in the African American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels. African Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering.

Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated with the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

“It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of powerlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome... It seems obvious that there has to be a long-term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communities in which they live,” said Amy Newell, who helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley.Workers from USM, Inc.—largely Korean immigrants—march with other immigrant workers to protest wage theft. © David Bacon

By the early 1980s, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers. Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice, in three languages—English, Spanish and Tagalog. Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers. “A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union,” Manan recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals—all without a formal union contract.

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it.

UE Spurs Organizing for Worker and Community Safety
Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed. The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness. The group’s lawyer, Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee), is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

“When we talk about organizing,” explained Flora Chu, the director of SCCOSH’s Asian Workers’ Program, “we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for instance, aren’t used to organizing in groups at work. SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively. The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants.”

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the “clean industry,” exposing large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers. Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list.

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry’s policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. In 1983, the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 10 years later. While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell heavily on operators and technicians. “What this really meant,” said Romie Manan, “was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group.” Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the Valley in 1994.

Employers Turn to Contractors, Unions to New Tactics
In 1993, Intel built a new $1 billion plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered the company $114 million in incentives. Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing. But contractors who provided services to large companies, from janitorial and foodservices to the assembly of circuit boards, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11-14/hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4/hour. Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits.

By contrast, because contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices and workers’ wages to the lowest level possible, contract assemblers and non-union janitors got close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.  The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers’ organizing activity.

In Fall 1990, more than 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. SSEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1877 organizer Lino Pedres on the picket line. © David Baconhine’s actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the Valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple. Using the same strategy, SEIU went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than that at Apple. The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.

In September 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. There was no medical insurance. Sergio Mendoza worked in the “coil room,” making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. “Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed,” he said. The conditions in the “coil room” were very different from those at the facilities IBM had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a “campus.”

Versatronex workers went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton. “It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons—tent encampments where workers live for the strike’s duration,” said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City. “Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is our source of strength.”

As workers at Versatronex were striking for their union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly factory, USM Inc., launched a public campaign after their employer closed their factory owing them two weeks’ pay. They marched through downtown San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over the assets of the closed factory.

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement’s search for new ways to organize. They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.  Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win. As workers organized around conditions they faced on the job, they learned to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry’s basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be. Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves.

 

Text and photos © 2015 David Bacon. David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He is the author of several books about migration and globalization, most recently The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013). He was a factory worker and union organizer for two decades, including several years with the United Farm Workers, the UE, and the ILGWU.

Endnotes

1.    Glenna Matthews, Silicon Valley, Women, and the California Dream, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 42.

2.    Ibid, p. 266, note 15.

3.    Alan Hyde, Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-velocity Labor Market, Routledge, 2015.

 

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A long line of left-wing unions has practiced radical, inclusive, worker-to-worker organizing in the Valley, linking workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights, and workers’ and community struggles.

Roots of Social Justice Organizing in Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

Versatronex electronics assembly plant workers on strike, September 1992. ©1992 David Bacon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

California’s next-to-last lynching (the last was an African-American man lynched in Callahan in 1947) took place in St. James Park, in downtown San Jose, in 1933. Radical labor lawyer Vincent Hallinan, representing two accused kidnappers, Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes, called Governor Sunny Jim Rolph, urging him to send in the National Guard as a lynch mob of thousands gathered in front of the county jail. Rolph did nothing, and the two men were hanged from a tree in the park.

The South Bay has its history of violence, structural racism and worker exploitation. But it also has a long history of resistance—of courageous organizers who built movements that have had an impact far beyond the Santa Clara Valley.

Thirty-nine years after Thurmond and Holmes were killed, Angela Davis, African American revolutionary feminist and then-leader of the Communist Party (CP), was also held in the same Santa Clara County Jail near St. James Park. There she went on trial, charged with kidnapping and murder, accused of providing the guns used by Jonathan Jackson in an attempt to free his brother, George, a leader of the Black political prisoners’ movement. The jury declared Davis not guilty. The jury foreperson, Mary Timothy, hugged her afterwards and later wrote a book about the trial.

The verdict was the product of an international campaign that put a spotlight on Santa Clara County. It succeeded because a strong local committee mobilized support, headed by another African-American Communist, Kendra Alexander. To back up Davis’ legal team, the committee, including veteran radical Virginia Hirsch, researched every person named as a potential juror. Although researchers were careful not to have any direct contact with jurors, their work ensured the jury included people open and fair about the prosecution’s accusations. This kind of community research, giving the defense lawyer daily reports as the jury was being seated, has since become a powerful tool in other trials of political activists. It was the first time such intensive background research on the jury pool was employed by the defense in a criminal trial.

Indigenous Resistance
The Santa Clara Valley's social movement history began with the indigenous resistance to colonization, followed by the annexation of California after the war of 1848.The original indigenous Ohlone people living at the south end of the San Francisco Bay were torn from their communities, and then enslaved in the missions built by the Spanish colonizers. But those communities fought the Spaniards and the land grant settlers. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes that in the civil rights era of the 1960s, California indigenous people researched this resistance. “They found that no mission escaped uprisings from within or attacks from outside by communities of the imprisoned along with escapees,” Ortiz writes. “Indigenous guerrilla forces of up to two thousand formed. Without this resistance, there would be no descendants of the California Native peoples of the area colonized by the Spanish.” After Mexico freed itself from Spain in 1820 (throwing out the Franciscan friars who operated the missions), Valley residents rose in opposition to conquest by the United States in 1848. Tiburcio Vasquez, who led a rebellion against the U.S. in the years after the war, was born in Monterey and fought with Joaquin Murrieta from the Santa Clara to the San Joaquin Valleys. After Vasquez was captured, he was tried in the Santa Clara County Courthouse, and hanged in St. James Park.

The growth of the South Bay’s population really began with the development of huge orchards of plums, nuts and other fruit in the late 1800s, and then the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country. By 1930 the Santa Clara Valley was the fruit processing capital of the world, owing to the labor of thousands of immigrant workers.  It was the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries included huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak, employing up to 30,000 people.

Researcher Glenna Matthews says, “The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s."  This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the valley became famous—electronics. The pollution of the South Bay’s water also has a long history prior to the emergence of the electronics industry in the 1970s. By 1930 ranchers and canneries were pumping so much water from wells that salt water from the bay had leaked into the aquifers. Even earlier, the disposal of organic waste from canneries had caused serious pollution of the bay itself.

Worker-to-worker Organizing Wins the Canneries
To oppose the canneries, the Valley’s labor movement was launched in the 1880s with material support from the San Francisco Federated Trades Council. The Wobblies—the radical anarchist Industrial Workers of the World—organized the first unions for cannery workers, including an early one called “Toilers of the World.” It included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers.

Then, in August 1931 every cannery from the border of San Mateo County to south San Jose went on strike, organized by a Communist union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union. Its main organizer was Elizabeth Nicholas, a Serbian immigrant and Communist, who won the support of the local labor council in 1929. Another strike organizer was Dorothy Healey, at the time sixteen years old. “We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” she later recalled. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together. The police brutality was of a far greater level than anything that the people have seen in later years. So we would hold these street meetings—I mean park meetings, strike meetings - at St. James Park, and the police would break them up.”

The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” Nicholas later worked for the union, but besides her there were hardly any full-time organizers. Meetings were held in people’s homes, and membership cards passed along through family networks in the plants. Despite obstacles, by the end of the 1930s the San Jose canneries were all unionized, and remained so until they closed six decades later. Healey became a vice-president of the United Cannery, Agricultural and Packinghouse Workers of America (UCAPAWA), as well as a national leader of the CP. Nicholas remained in the valley, where she spent the rest of her life advocating for workers.

In the red scares of the late 1940s and 1950s, however, UCAPAWA was expelled from the CIO for its radical politics and destroyed. Its union contracts in the canneries were taken over by the Teamsters Union, with the support of the companies who wanted to be rid of leftwing unions. Also expelled from the CIO were the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which organized food processing workers in dried fruit plants in the Santa Clara Valley, and the United Electrical Workers (an expulsion that would later have a profound impact on the future of unions in the Valley's electronics industry.)

After World War II, while the anti-communist witch-hunts were taking place, radical Chicano labor and community leaders began work in San Jose. Bert Corona, the father of the modern immigrant rights movement, moved there after being blacklisted by the Coast Guard on the Los Angeles docks. He and Lucio Bernabe, a cannery organizer, encouraged strikes among bracero contract farm workers brought from Mexico to work in U.S. fields as semi-slave labor. The pair organized food caravans when braceros stopped work, and tried to prevent their deportation.

Corona organized the local chapter of the Asociación Nacional Mexicana Americana (ANMA), a radical community organization fighting discrimination. He also belonged to the Community Service Organization, where Cesar Chavez got his original organizers’ training. Chavez’ family lived in San Jose for several years on 21st Street near the Sal Si Puedes barrio, and he and Corona both worked there with the CSO. But Corona also disagreed with “one of its [CSO’s] stated reasons for organizing ... to keep the ‘reds’ from establishing a base in the communities.” Veteran San Jose activist Fred Hirsch says, “Fear that the CP might establish a base in communities was not unfounded. In fact, it had a base, and used it to strengthen community actions and organizing by workers in the canneries and fields.”

Lucio Bernabe fought off one of the most notorious political deportation cases of the era with the help of the leftwing American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born and local members of the CP. He eventually helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ’80s, with another left-winger, Mike Johnston. The CWC challenged discrimination under the Teamsters contracts. Mexican workers, mostly women, had only temporary jobs working on the line during the season, while white workers, mostly men, had the permanent jobs in the warehouses and maintenance departments.

Ernesto Galarza also lived in San Jose in the postwar era. Galarza worked with Mexican and Filipino farm workers starting in the late 1940s, organizing the National Farm Labor Union and striking growers in the San Joaquin Valley. That union’s successor, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, began the great grape strike in 1965 under the leadership of Larry Itliong, and later merged with the National Farm Worker Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Galarza wrote several influential books about farm labor and Chicanos, particularly Merchants of Labor, which exposed the abuses of the bracero program.

In the 1960s the upsurge of the civil rights and anti-war movements transformed the politics and social movements of the Santa Clara Valley. In part, this reflected growing population and changing demographics. In 1950 Santa Clara County’s population was 290,000, and 12 percent were people with Spanish names. By 1970 the population had grown to over a million, and while Spanish-named people were still 12 percent, their numbers had swelled to 129,000. As significant, the 2,333 Filipinos in the county in 1960 had exploded to 28,000 in 1980, and 60,000 in 1990, as they became one of the most important parts of the workforce in the electronics industry of Silicon Valley. By 1990 the Hispanic category used by the Census that year included 307,000 people—now over 20 percent of the population.

Key among the organizers of the civil rights era was Sofia Mendoza. She and her husband Gil fought discrimination in San Jose from the time she was a student in college. In the 1960s she and other Chicano community activists in the East San Jose barrio began organizing against the Vietnam War. “I was extremely bothered because not only were they killing our young men in Vietnam, they were also killing them here in the streets of San Jose,” she later explained.

1960s Chicano Movement Mobilizes Against Police Brutality
The first of the Chicano student blowouts, which helped launch the Chicano movement, took place at San Jose’s Roosevelt Junior High in 1968. Rosalio Muñoz came up from Los Angeles to support the students, and talked with Mendoza. He then went back to LA where he, Carlos Muñoz and other activists started the student walkouts there. Rosalio Muñoz later became a primary organizer of the huge Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War up Whittier Boulevard, where Ruben Salazar was shot by Los Angeles police and killed.

In San Jose the movement began organizing marches on City Hall, and formed a committee to stop police brutality, the Community Alert Patrol. “We just had it,” Mendoza remembered. “We had reached our limit. The police had guns, mace and billy clubs. They were always ready to attack us. It seemed as if nobody could stop what the police were doing.”

But CAP did stop them. One march mobilized 2000 people. Its members monitored police activity, much as the Panthers were doing in Oakland, documenting police beatings and arrests. Students organizing for ethnic studies classes at San Jose State University became some of CAP’s most active members, at the same time fighting to get military recruiters off the campus. CAP had the participation of Communists, socialists, Chicano nationalists and other leftwing groups.

Mendoza, her comrade-in-arms Fred Hirsch, and others saw that the area needed a multi-issue organization to confront the many problems people faced in the barrios—discriminatory education, lack of medical services, poor housing, and of course the police. “We wanted an organization that was not limited to one ethnic group, that would organize our entire community,” she later recalled, “so we called ourselves United People Arriba—United People Upward. We liked the term ‘United People’ because it got the idea across that people from different ethnic backgrounds were coming together in San Jose to work for social change—Blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and whites working together in one organization.” Today organizations in Silicon Valley carry on the legacy of UP Arriba and the anti-deportation fights—from Silicon Valley De-Bug’s Albert Covarrubias Justice Project to the community organizing of Somos Mayfair to the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network.

Mendoza went to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam during the U.S. military interventions, and in 1973 she went to Moscow as a delegate to a congress of the World Peace Council. She was motivated, not just by the deaths of young Chicanos in Vietnam, but by the transformation of her valley by the Cold War. The Westinghouse plant in Sunnyvale was making nuclear missile tubes for Trident submarines. The plant where Gil worked started making farm equipment, but then switched to building tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Most of all, she saw food processing replaced by the growth of the huge electronics industry. Del Monte finally closed its Plant 3, at one time one of the largest and most modern in the world, in 1999—the end of the canning industry in San Jose. The last of the big canneries is today a condominium complex.

Defense Contracts Feed Tech Industry
One of the oldest myths about Silicon Valley is that its high tech innovations were the brainchildren of a few, brilliant white men, who started giant corporations in their garages. In fact, the basic inventions that form the foundation of the electronics industry, especially the solid-state transistor, were developed at Bell Laboratories, American Telephone and Telegraph, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, and General Electric. These innovations were products of the Cold War—of the arms race after World War II. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded in 1958 and provided basic research at taxpayer expense that enabled the electronics industry—especially chipmakers—to launch startups that were then fed by military contracts. Long before the appearance of the personal computer, high tech industry grew fat on defense contracts and rising military budgets. Its Cold War roots affected every aspect of the industry, from its attitude towards unions to the structure of its plants and workforce.

As the electronics industry began to grow in the 1950s, a fratricidal struggle within the U.S. labor move­ment led to the expulsion in 1949 of unions like UCAPAWA and the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Only the ILWU and the UE survived as independent unions, and the UE went from 650,000 at the end of World War II to about 60,000 at the beginning of the 1980s. As a result, while the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared.

From the beginning, high tech workers had to face an industry-wide anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who participated in the invention of the transistor and later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that “remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. ... The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management.” The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining “a union-free environment.” Some of those techniques, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking. While many techniques were developed in Japanese plants for driving workers for more production and efficiency, and were referred to as the “Japanese model,” other techniques were pioneered in Silicon Valley itself.

Another co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, was an advocate of racist theories of the inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in Silicon Valley they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce. In electronics plants women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the valley’s production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees. African-American workers were frozen out almost entirely. Although unemployment in the African-American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels, African-Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering.

UE Challenges Anti-Union Electronics Giants
Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated to the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, Signetics, Intel, AMD and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants, or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

Workers in the UE asked the Department of Labor for the workforce demographic information the companies were forced to file as recipients of Federal contracts. They sought to document systematic discrimination and racial, national and sex segregation practiced by employers. The Federal Office of Contract Compliance refused to turn over the information, saying that these giant corporations considered demographic breakdowns of their workforce a trade secret. Essentially, there was no enforcement of civil rights anti-discrimination laws in the industry, since both the government and the companies themselves hid the information that would have supported charges.

Amy Newell helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix. Two decades later she became the UE’s national secretary-treasurer, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley. She recalls, “It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of pow­erlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome ... It seems ob­vious that there has to be a long term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communi­ties in which they live.”   

By the early 1980s, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers. Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice, in three languages - English, Spanish and Tagalog. Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers. “A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union,” he recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals. At the height of its activity, organizer Michael Eisenscher was the committee’s link to the national union, running the union mimeograph machine in his garage. “It was the workers who brought the UE into the industry,” Eisenscher recalls. “They had to run a campaign to convince the union to move me from Los Angeles to San Jose in 1980.”

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it. The main strategic question, which the committee sought to answer, remains unresolved. In large electronics manufacturing plants, union-minded workers are a minority for a long period of time. Their organization has to be active on the plant floor to win over the majority of workers by fighting around the basic conditions that affect them. But it has to be able to help its members survive in an extreme anti-union climate.

This long-term perspective is very different from the organizing style of most unions today. Many view union organizing as a process of winning union representation elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Others try to use outside leverage to force management to remain neutral while workers sign union cards, and eventually negotiate a contract. In high tech, however, huge corporations insulate themselves from their production workforce so well that outside pressure has little effect on them. Most unions have simply abandoned the idea of helping workers in those plants to organize at all, saying that they are “unorganizable.”

Because of the weak interest by unions themselves (aside from the UE), and the high level of repression inside the plants, an important reason for the survival of the UE Committee for so many years was a commitment by the Communist Party. The party set up a collective to help workers build a union structure inside the plants and organize community support outside them. One party member joked that it was easier to distribute the Communist paper The Peoples’ World than the union committee newsletter, “since everyone knew you could get fired for joining the union, and reading the PW seemed a lot less dangerous.” The committee also included members of other left political parties, including the Communist Labor Party.

In plants where a large percentage of the workers were immigrants, it attracted people who’d been active in Communist and left parties in their countries of origin, especially the Philippines. Some played a leading role in the UE committee because they’d played a similar one back home, where they’d been educated politically in their own revolutionary traditions. And because of the repressive conditions there, they had experience in working in what was, inside the Silicon Valley plants, essentially an underground environment.

Union Spurs Organizing for Worker and Community Safety
Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed. Semiconductor production is basically a chemical process, and uses extremely dangerous and toxic gasses and solvents. The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness. The group’s lawyer Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee) is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

“When we talk about organizing,” explained Flora Chu, a former director of SCCOSH’s Asian Workers’ Program, “we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for instance, aren’t used to organizing in groups at work. SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively. The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants.”    

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the “clean industry,” and exposed the large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers. Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list. Workers were the canaries in the valley - what afflicted them was eventually visited on the surrounding community.

Because of the concentration of immigrant workers in the electronics industry, the UE Committee became one of several organizations that opposed growing immigration raids in Silicon Valley at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. Together with Mike Garcia, then an organizer with the janitors’ union, James McEntee of the county’s Human Relations Commission and others, they picketed employers who cooperated in turning over undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities for deportation. The activists focused on electronics plants like the circuit board assembler Solectron, and on the local garment plant belonging to Levi’s.

This activity led to hearings before the county Board of Supervisors, and eventually to the formation of People United for Human Rights. When Congress began debating immigration bills that eventually resulted in the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986, PUHR and its member organizations opposed them. PUHR supported the bills’ immigration amnesty, but warned that employer sanctions (the provision that forbids employers from hiring undocumented workers) would criminalize work for the undocumented.  PUHR also warned that the bills would restart bracero-type programs, and militarize the U.S./Mexico border. Even some local unions joined this opposition, defying what was then support of employer sanctions by the national AFL-CIO.Workers from USM, Inc.—largely Korean immigrants—march with other immigrant workers to protest wage theft. © David Bacon

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry’s policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. In 1983 the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 workers ten years later. While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell much more heavily on operators and technicians. “What this really meant,” said Romie Manan, “was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group.” Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the valley in 1994. “It was the union that developed the analysis of the industry’s runaway strategy,” Eisenscher notes, “and we warned what the consequences on production jobs would be for the Valley. Those warnings were not heeded and our predictions unfortunately were proved correct.”

Corporations Turn to Contractors, Unions to New Tactics
In 1993 Intel built a new plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered $1 billion to help finance construction. Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing. But contractors that provided services to large companies, from janitorial and food services to circuit-board assembly, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11–14 per hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4 per hour. Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits. By contrast, contract assemblers and non-union janitors were paid close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.  The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers’ organizing activity.

 In the fall of 1990 over 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. Shine’s actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple. Using the same strategy, the union went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than those at Apple. The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.          

In September of 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. There was no medical insurance. Sergio Mendoza worked in the “coil room,” making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. “Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed,” he said. The conditions in the “coil room” were very different from those at the facilities IBM’ had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a “campus.”

Contract assembly, the kind of production done at Versatronex and similar plants, provides a number of benefits for large manufacturers. Contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers’ wages, to the lowest level possible. Today the contract assembly system, then in its infancy, has come to dominate high tech industry. Corporations like Hewlett-Packard and Apple have no factories at all. Their entire production is carried out by contract manufacturers in plants around the world.       

‘Our Culture is Our Source of Strength’
Workers at Versatronex went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton. One of the hunger strikers was Margarita Aguilera, a former student activist in Mexico who used her experience to organize workers. “It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons, tent encampments where workers live for the strike’s duration,” said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City. “Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is our source of strength.”

As workers at Versatronex were striking for their union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly factory, USM Inc., launched a similar struggle after their employer closed their factory owing them two weeks’ pay. They marched through downtown San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over the assets of the closed factory.

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement’s search for new ways to organize. They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.  Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win. As workers organize around conditions they face on the job, they learn  to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry’s basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be. Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves.

Industry Domination of Valley Development
“We’ve never felt that the electronics industry had the interests of our communities at heart. If they plan the future of the Valley, they’re going to do it for their benefit, not ours,” charged Ernestina Garcia, a longtime Chicano community activist in San Jose.

“What we have here are different interests,” said Jorge Gonzalez, who chaired the grassroots Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition. “Economic development in Silicon Valley has historically served the interests of the few. We want development that serves the interests of the many. Just protecting the competitiveness and profitability of big electronics companies will not necessarily protect our jobs and communities.”

In the heyday of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee, the National Semiconductor plant had almost ten thousand workers, working directly for the company. By the time Romie Manan was laid off, employment had fallen to 7000. Over half worked for temporary employment agencies, including almost all production workers. Manpower, the temp agency, had an office on the plant floor. According to Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877, “High technology manufacturing doesn’t create high-wage, high-skill jobs. It patterns itself after the service sector. Contractors in manufacturing compete over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest.”

Twenty years later Silicon Valley remains the fortress of the country’s most anti-union industry. High tech dominates every aspect of life. Its voice is largely unchallenged on public policy, because the workers who have created the valley’s fabulous wealth have no voice of their own. Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their workers and communities for years that healthy bottom lines would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs. Economists still paint a picture of the industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.

The promises are worthless. Today many giants of industry own no factories at all, having sold them to contract manufacturers who build computers and make chips in locations from China to Hungary. In the factories that remain in the Valley, labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels. While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they’ve dropped for thousands of workers on the production line. Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as production was moved out of the valley to other states and countries.SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1877 organizer Lino Pedres on the picket line. © David Bacon

Apple Corp. has cash reserves in excess of $1 billion, while San Jose voters are told that there is no money to pay for the pensions of workers who’ve spent their lives in public service. The productivity of industry in the Valley went up in the first decade of the current century by 42 percent. But at the same time, average annual employment went down 16 percent. The upper income stratum of the Valley benefited from this productivity growth, but there was no corresponding growth in jobs. Fewer people produced wealth for fewer people. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of households with incomes under $10,000 more than doubled, from 11,556 to 26,310.

To make the economy serve the needs of working families, they must be organized. It’s not enough to have a voice “speaking truth to power” or a “place at the table.”  Silicon Valley’s 99% need the organized ability to effectively fight for their needs, in the face of corporate resistance. And despite obstacles, for its entire history Silicon Valley has been as much a cauldron of resistance and new strategies for labor and community organizing as it has been an engine for the production of fabulous wealth. Workers have opposed inhuman conditions. Community organizations have fought for social justice and equality. They will keep on doing that.

Left organizers played a vital role
“A thread runs through Santa Clara Valley’s history of labor and community organizing, from the days of the canneries up through the heyday of industrial production in the high tech industry,” says Fred Hirsch. “Very little organizing or political activity occurred spontaneously. There was always a small group of left-wing, class-conscious, Marxist-oriented workers who met regularly, exchanged experiences, and planned campaigns. It was not one single group. New people came in and others moved on. Many simply got old, retired and died. Through much of the time an important strand of that thread was the Communist Party and the many friends with whom its members worked. But other groups with similar left ideas also organized and sought to influence people’s ideas.”

Hirsch spent his own working life as a plumber. When he first came to Santa Clara County and joined the Plumbers’ Union, at the height of the Cold War, he was attacked by right-wing leaders of his union. But he persevered, and eventually his local elected progressive officers and had a membership often open to radical ideas. It passed resolutions supporting immigrant rights, and even made a donation to U.S. Labor Against the War—the network of unions opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. Hirsch himself became a delegate to the South Bay Labor Council, and a respected voice and officer in his own local.

For Hirsch, learning the radical history of the Santa Clara Valley isn’t just about the past. He believes this experience points a direction for the future, to today’s movements committed to deep and structural social change. “The real lesson is that we need to build an organization with a clear focus on a socialist and democratic future in a world without war,” he says. “It has to be an organization that deals with injustice in our communities and worksites, our nation and our planet. It must point the way for the labor movement to fight the racism and sexism embedded in the institutions and culture of our society. Its members should be active, take leadership from the people around them, and be willing to shoulder responsibility themselves.”

For Hirsch and the Party members of his generation, the CP brought together those who’d been active in the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, with the activists of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. That allowed one generation to pass on to the next the political theory, the culture of organizing and resistance, and even the history of peoples’ movements themselves. A similar organization, he says, “should do its best to promote serious education about the process for social change and organize people to take to the streets. In other words, we need an organization like the Communist Party we dreamed and worked for so many years ago, but that’s more effective than we were. Without it wonderful working class leftists will continue making enormous efforts to build progressive movements that ebb and flow, but won’t develop a strategy and build a base of their own.”

Disclosure: David Bacon was chair of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee for several years, the UE organizer assigned to Versatronex, and treasurer of People United for Human Rights.

 

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The South Bay has a long history of resistance—of courageous organizers who built movements that have had an impact far beyond the Santa Clara Valley.