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Silicon Valley Moving Toward Alliance With Big Labor

Back in the late 1970’s something happened to the Santa Clara Valley. Increasingly it became referred to as the Silicon Valley, because the emerging silicon based semiconductor industry found its first home in plants nestled along the southern shores of the San Francisco Bay. Boasting what are among the finest universities in the United States – Stanford and Cal Berkeley – and the best weather in the world, high technology companies began choosing the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940’s and never looked back. Where once there were endless orchards of Prune, Apricot and Cherry trees, a sprawling ecosystem of high tech companies and venture capital firms now attracts talent from everywhere on earth. The Silicon Valley became, and remains, the epicenter of the most dramatic technological advances in history.

For the first 25 years or so, certainly through the end of the 20th century, the mantra in the Silicon Valley was “better, faster, cheaper.” Entrepreneurs were creating entire new industries, as digital technology enabled “mini-computers” to replace mainframes, and “work-stations” to replace mini’s, which were in-turn replaced by PCs and laptops, which are themselves being replaced for many applications by smart phones. But as we move to the “internet of things,” and as the Silicon Valley ecosystem matures from a jungle of creative destruction to a forest where a handful of gigantic firms wield unprecedented economic power, the “better, faster, cheaper” mantra is fading away.

20151006-UW-Apple

Artists rendering of Apple’s new headquarters (public domain image)
With “levered free cash flow” of $51.9 billion over the past year, Apple can easily pay their
service employees enough to make unionization unthinkable. What’s their real agenda?

Silicon Valley’s new breed of entrepreneurs have realized they don’t necessarily have to compete for customers who will voluntarily choose their products over those offered by their competitors. They have realized the government is a customer with very deep pockets, that more regulations will empower big companies and destroy the emergent ones, that environmentalist mandates will force consumers to buy their products as they forge OEM relationships with manufacturers of durable goods, that the security state is a voracious consumer of high technology, and that public bureaucrats can be sold billions of dollars worth of educational hardware and software.

The Silicon Valley’s new breed of “entrepreneurs” have realized something else, too. They’ve realized that as they evolve from competition to cronyism, big labor can be a powerful political ally.

A recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Unions and tech: A most unlikely political alliance forms,” sums up the new reality. Author Joe Garofoli writes, “Led by the 1.4 million-member Teamsters union, some in labor are ready to support friendly tech companies when the corporations face regulators in San Francisco, Sacramento and beyond. Support from the Teamsters will make labor-backed Democrats much more receptive to the needs of a tech company. ‘Labor supports their employers in a lot of cases,’ said Rome Aloise, Teamsters International vice president. ‘We fight with them, but we support them — because they’re the creator of jobs, which creates members for us. On the other hand, for the ones that don’t pay decent wages and benefits, we’re not going to be supportive of them.'”

This has little or nothing to do with wages and benefits. The firms where the Teamsters have already gotten a foothold, eBay, Zynga, Yahoo, Genentech, and Apple, can easily afford to offer their drivers pay and benefits that render union dues a superfluous drain on their paychecks. And if these well heeled high-tech corporations haven’t granted their drivers and other service employees stable hours and competitive pay, that is a shameful omission they ought to correct without union intervention. They should, they could, and they would. But they don’t want to. Because what this is really about is acquiring political power.

A few examples should suffice to convey the nauseating threat heralded by this new reality:

When the crony “greens” want to force every toilet and faucet manufacturer to install sensors to micro-monitor indoor water consumption, when the crony “education reformers” want to force every home school parent to purchase laptops wired with approved educational software, when the crony security and law enforcement “innovators” want to sell more drones and remote sensors to look into our backyards and listen in on our living room conversations – the unions will be there, adding their political muscle, public and private, to make sure our elected representatives do the right thing.

If union activism in the Silicon Valley was merely about wages, benefits, work hours, and dignity, they would have a legitimate role to play. Ideally, in those situations, private sector unions earn their clout by acquiring and retaining members voluntarily in a right-to-work environment. But unions, unfortunately, care just as much about power and organizational aggrandizement as the big corporations they purport to fight. That’s why they thrive in the powerful places where they are needed the least, in monopolistic entities with captive markets who can afford them – government and giant corporations – entities that realize union alliances will help them intimidate the political objectors, appease the union controlled pension funds, and obliterate the commercial competition.

The dawning unionization of the Silicon Valley is an ominous development. It must be challenged. The people who run Silicon Valley should consider what will happen when there’s an economic downturn, and labor contracts curtail their options to restructure. They should ask how their new allies will view utilization of self-driving cars and countless other labor saving innovations. They are putting the culture of “better, faster, cheaper,” at mortal risk, a culture that has enabled unprecedented global prosperity, and has the potential to offer wondrous new achievements for decades to come.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.