Can Silicon Valley tech companies “do better?” With the launch of a new website, the tech industry's security guards are coming forward with tales of inequality in Silicon Valley, and asking Google and other big tech companies to do just that.
Protesting security guards outside Google's IO conference last week  used the annual developers' conference to demand tech companies pay them living wages -- as well as to broadcast their new website, TechCanDoBetter.org .
“We're trying to change the conversation, because so much of the narrative is around tech and what good it's doing,” said Alfredo Fletes, communications specialist for Service Employees International Union. “Our website is a safe space to learn more about workers who face the challenge of making it.”
Fletes said a Google spokesperson recently agreed to meet with SEIU to address the security guards' concerns, but also mentioned this was the first the union heard from the spokesperson since last year.
Google hasn’t yet addressed the issue head on. The tech giant’s spokesperson wrote in press statement: "Thousands of Googlers call the Bay Area home, and we want to be good neighbors. Since 2011 we've given more than $70 million to local projects and employees have volunteered thousands of hours in the community. We’re excited to be expanding that work in 2014 with the recent Bay Area Impact Challenge winners – several of them have even joined us at I/O!”
The spokesperson added, in reference to the protestors' Darth Vader-themed attire, “May the force be with them."
Google's Bay Area Impact Challenge means that Hack the Hood, Health Trust, Bring Me a Book, and Center for Employment Opportunities will all be receiving awards of $500,000 each. But donations aren’t the same as fair pay: The average Silicon Valley Security guard, Fletes said, will be receiving $22,000 this year.
Charles Justin Wilson, a security guard in Silicon Valley, speaks out about pay equity at the Google I/O conference last week. Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez.
In TechCanDoBetter.org’s video game (aptly named Dream Crushers), users are invited to play the role of a struggling security guard. The gameplay forces the player to make tough budget choices. Maybe, for instance, you'd like your security guard to eat. Maybe you'd like him to pay his utility bills. But if you try to do all the basic necessities – transportation, food, utilities, child care – you lose.
“You're not meant to win. Security officers who played the game said it was frustrating,” Fletes explained. “But they also said their lives were way more difficult.”
It's not just about wages, either. “Look at at Apple and Google's security contractor record of harrassment, discrimination, and surveillance,” Fletes said. Those are the kinds of stories security guards are invited to send to TechCanDoBetter.org. Workers can also fill in surveys on the website to help SEIU advocate for them, and sign up to receive text message alerts from SEIU.
Charles Justin Wilson, 31, moved from Chicago to Silicon Valley to build a life for himself. Now he's a security guard, and he spends his days “dealing with everything from giving someone directions to a [fighting a] knife-carrying nut job.” He said he'd like to see Silicon Valley tech workers “even try to do” what he does. Like many security guards, he makes $12 an hour.
“Anyone who thinks you can survive on $12 in Silicon Valley is either out of touch, really stupid, or just plain evil,” he said.
Google has been the center of a series of protests since January when San Francisco residents began blocking the company's buses. Google's profits rose 36.5 percent to $2.9 billion last fall. The average worker wages in Silicon Valley dropped 3 percent even as the cost of basic needs for a family of four in Silicon Valley rose by nearly 20 percent between 2008 and 2012.
“They're not doing a lot,” Samuel Kehinde, another security guard, said outside Google's conference. “So, we are just asking them to pay attention to their home and to give back to their community. They cannot turn a blind eye on the community.”
Maybe they can. Or, they could do better. For tech giants, there are options.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.