Silicon Valley and the Not-Fair Economy

Silicon Valley and the Not-Fair Economy

There are so many facets of the shuttle-bus-to-Silicon-Valley story that fascinate me. The fact that people are willing to commute a fair distance to be able to live in San Francisco while working for tech companies 60 miles away has big implications, and not just for the bus drivers who are in the news this week.

Shuttle2-blog480The headline story right now is of course that of the drivers who shuttle workers from the city to their workplaces at companies like Yahoo!, Apple and Genetech have decided to unionize, and will be represented by the Teamsters. This follows an earlier move by Facebook shuttle drivers to do the same thing. The workers have various issues – split shifts are at the top of the list – and feel that unionization is their best option. The tech companies do not seem to mind one way or another, although of course they will be the ones that eventually pay for any wage hikes.

The spin that is being given to the story is that it is about wage inequities, and to be sure there is some of that. Silicon Valley, like many boom towns, is a victim of its own success. Its mega-successful companies employ highly paid staff, who of course have driven up property values to astronomical levels. The people who clean their houses and serve up their lattes also get paid more than they would elsewhere, but not enough to live well close to the boom. It is an old story, one that has its roots decades ago.

The newer story is that many Silicon Valley workers – the ones getting those outrageous paychecks – are also choosing to live elsewhere, and particularly in cosmopolitan San Francisco. Of course, the workers are not exactly choosing San Francisco because it is cheap – last summer the median price for a single family home in the city hit $1 million for the first time, making it the most expensive place in the U.S. to live – but rather because it is not outside their reach and it is a cool city to live in. Of course, commuting could be an absolute nightmare, which is where the buses come in. Given that they can use carpool lanes, they take a bunch of time off commutes, and given that they offer Wi-Fi and other amenities they are presumably pretty comfortable. A great solution for every right? Well, apparently not.

The problem is that it isn’t fair. How is it that some employees get to live in pretty townhouses and apartments with a view of the Bay, get shuttled to work, take home big pay packages and live the good life – and others do not? How is that fair? That is the interpretation of protesters who have been taken the bus ‘issue’ to heart over the last year or so, and who are particularly irked that the tech workers are driving up San Francisco’s already nuts housing prices (particularly around the tech bus stops, go figure).

The answer, of course, is that the economy rewards some skills more handsomely than others. It actually isn’t all that fair that LeBron James brought in north of $70 million last year because he is good launching a ball into a basketball net, or that Kim Kardashian raked it about $28 million for her skills (and I’m not sure what they are actually). And it actually isn’t fair, either, that elderly people who bought in San Francisco decades ago are now raking in stratospheric gains on any properties that they buy, while younger people are finding it almost impossible to get into the market at all.

The real problem, and it is a legitimate one, is that there is a growing feeling that those who are not basketball players or reality TV stars or tech workers cannot even get a toehold into the good life. It is not even just a feeling either, since there are real reasons to believe that income inequality is growing. That in itself causes social issues, as well as really not being a sign of an economy growing in the best way that it could.

And so the bus drivers have become a symbol of all of it. They are not highly paid per se (I’ve seen estimates of their earnings being around $18 an hour) and many complain that working split shifts makes for very long days (although presumably not longer than the people who they are shuttling, who are also not ‘off’ between commutes). If everyone is happy that they are unionizing, that’s all good.

But make no mistake: the economy lots-of-goodies-for-some economy is in full blast, and negotiating higher pay for some workers is not going to make much difference to it. San Francisco and Silicon Valley may be the canary-in-the-coal mine right now, but there will be lots more examples to come – fair or not.


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