Collective outrage reverberated from the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District and across the country when a hail of media coverage descended on what one Silicon Valley import had to say about the homeless people who share his neighborhood. Justin Keller, who is colloquially referred to as the ‘tech bro,’ is the founder of the start-up Commando.io. After living in San Francisco for three short years, he wrote an open letter to Mayor Ed Lee demanding that the homeless were moved out of his neighborhood so he does not have to “see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people” going to and from work.
This letter comes amid one of the most aggressive periods of gentrification and mass displacement for San Francisco residents as property values and rents in previously working-class areas of the city have skyrocketed, replacing the established population with highly paid tech workers from well-funded start-ups and social media giants like Twitter.
With this in mind, a group of unionizing food service workers employed under contract to dish up the plates of Palo Alto Intel employees, decided to use Keller’s letter as a rallying cry to support the city’s growing houseless population. The group, who have banded together in the forming of an organizing committee to unionize their workplace, set up an outdoor feed to service the people of Keller’s neighborhood. Using the information from the registry of his website’s domain name, they were able to find his address and set up the feed directly in front of his building. While Keller was not one of the more than a dozen people who ate dinner with them that evening, they left him a plate of food at his front door with a sign saying “San Francisco is for Everyone, Not Just the Wealthy!”
“The same forces that push people out of their homes in San Francisco are also pushing up our rents and pushing us further and further out of the bay,” said one of the organizing Intel workers, asking to remain anonymous. “The message we wanted to convey is that we all have a right to live and stay here. It’s a right, not something you buy, as Mr. Keller thinks.”
Citing the fact that the vast majority of unhoused people living in San Francisco used to have standard housing in that city, the workers are operating on the notion that the homeless residents of these neighborhoods are just as representative of the city as its housed population. “These are working class people,” says one organizer, who also asked to remain anonymous during the organizing drive. “There, but for the grace of God, go me and my family.”
For many workers on the edges of the new Silicon Valley boom, homelessness is often just one minor emergency away. It was both the precariousness of the Bay Area life and the callousness of the original letter that motivated Maria Guerra, another member of the Intel organizing committee. “Honestly, I was a little disgusted that there was someone that would feel so passionate to move people out, you know, just so that he wouldnt have to see their struggle,” said Guerra. “The way I was raised, helping people is something you should be willing to do.”
Though Maria owns her home in San Jose, she has an additional ten tenants renting space in their small three-bedroom house. Another cafeteria worker reported that he was living in the living room of a co-worker’s apartment, while she shared the one bedroom with her three children.
This group of workers are currently employed Guckenheimer Corporate Dining and went public with their organizing drive on February 10th with a public rally, demanding that Intel CEO Brian Krzanich support the contracted employees as if they were Intel direct hires. Wages have been a key sticking point that led to the campaign, with many workers publicly citing the local housing market as the driving expense to be met. In a recent survey of 30 of the Guckenheimer workers done by Unite Here, the median wage was $14.50/hr, which, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, is about half of what a living wage would be for a single parent in the area. A delegation went forward to management on February 25th to confront management, looking at the wages and working conditions that have stretched employees so thin.
This is not the first union push to use the collective housing issues of the area as a driving factor in organizing as labor around the country has been forced to confront the lack of livability that their membership is facing. This has been an ongoing project, with unions like the Service Employee International Union starting community-partners like We Are Oregon in the wake of Occupy Wallstreet to work on the continued post-crash wave of evictions. The dynamic of displacement has shifted in the direction of tenants, and now much of the focus for housing justice activists is on urban areas seeing a blast of desirability from a combination of job growth and cultural branding. As places like San Francisco, Portland, Brooklyn, and Seattle become less and less affordable, a shift in priorities is happening back to looking at rent control, confronting no-cause eviction, and seeing homelessness as having a key place in the struggle for economic and housing justice.
The core organizing committee in Intel’s kitchen has committed to making housing an issue in this fight, and to take those issues back into the community that is seeing a crunch inside and outside of the tech industry. They plan on returning to Keller’s neighborhood the weekend of Saturday, March 5th, to continue providing food for the homeless community of the area. In this way they hope to make their push towards unionization a tool in the larger movement that is advocating unity among organized labor and housing justice organizations.