By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer
The Building Trades know well that the tech industry, so maligned by many San Franciscans, has been good for our work. The protests against Twitter and the tax break that brought it to mid-Market have been held outside a building that put many of us back to work in its reinforcement and renovation. The Nema apartment building across Tenth Street from Twitter employed hundreds of us because Twitter was there to provide it tenants. Overall, many thousands of Building Trades workers have fed their families from the grand harvest the tech industry has provided.
As to Google, when its Mountain View campus was being built originally for Silicon Graphics, I myself commuted there in a company-provided truck to run a crew of Iron Workers.
One effect of rapid growth of any industry in a given area is to disrupt the lives of the residents who were there beforehand. This disruption is often enough negative. An effect of tech industry growth, paired with the long failure of San Francisco to accept an adequate volume of housing construction, has indeed been to push working-class San Franciscans from their homes.
In reaction, then, some members of other unions have participated in the so-called “Google bus” protests, in which busloads of tech workers have been kept from making the same commute I made years ago.
If protests reach out to those workers, if they are clear that they do not condemn the workers, but seek support in fights like those against the evictions through which some landlords are attempting to get tech workers’ business, the protests ask the workers to be more a part of the community in which they now live. This is a message they need to hear.
But it is hard to convey this message by stopping someone from going to work.
If the message conveyed instead is that those workers should go away, the protests risk alienating large blocks of workers – and, well paid or not, tech workers are just that, workers.
We do not grow or even preserve the labor movement by alienating large blocks of workers.
We in the Trades have learned lessons from having ourselves made this mistake too often. We have in recent years become better at teaching our members picketing non-union contractors that we have no beef with non-union workers, but that these workers are potential allies and union members. Our organizers have become better at teaching these workers that our “Area Standards” pickets do not demand that they go away, but that they be better paid.
In years past, though, by confronting workers we hardened divisions and made the growth of our ranks far more difficult. And by insisting that non-union contractors that we signed to union agreements shed their existing workforce and hire a new workforce entirely from our halls we did not just make signing new contractors more difficult – if they felt any loyalty at all to their employees – we made permanent enemies of those employees.
More than a century now of experience has taught us even bitterer lessons.
The arrival of Chinese workers in San Francisco in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the arrival of tech workers in the early twenty-first differ markedly. Most Chinese workers were poor and viewed as racial outsiders by the City’s white majority. Most tech workers are not at all badly paid, and if they are viewed as outsiders, it will rarely be for race.
But the Chinese were workers, and tech workers are workers, and now as then employers want to maximize profits off the backs of workers.
The San Francisco Building Trades at the turn of the last century argued for the exclusion of Chinese workers. We did not want more to come; we wished those already here would leave. We did not believe they could understand or belong to our movement. We succeeded in part in our efforts at exclusion, but not in full.
I am personally grateful that our success was only partial. I would not otherwise have my wife of thirty-two years or my two sons.
As the Chinese-American community grew in size and in political and economic power, the Building Trades’ early opposition to its very presence became a deep liability for us. We lost market share in both public and private contracting. Only in recent years have we filled the deep rift between us, and even now only incompletely.
Tech workers face real difficulties. Their industry often would rather import workers from abroad than train here. It looks for every opportunity to outsource work. It makes demands on time that do not allow a family life. Its employment is usually temporary and lacks the continuity that we gain from our hiring halls or multi-employer benefit plans. Tech workers might wish some day that they had something like a union. And they are not going away, and their numbers and influence are likelier to grow than decline.
It would be good for all of us then if they did not think we were their enemies.