Living on the Edge in Silicon Valley
In 2005 San Jose, California replaced Detroit, Michigan as the 10th largest city in the United States. This shift was symbolic of the passing of the old industrial manufacturing center of the Rust Belt by the ascendancy of the high-technology sector centered in the San Francisco Bay Area. With apocalyptic speed this process continues to transform all other sectors.
The Santa Clara Valley, once called the Valley of Heart’s Delight because of the blossoming orchards, was a center for surrounding rural areas until the early 1970s. The rise of military research and development brought in companies such as Lockheed Martin and the chemical company, FMC. That laid the basis for the “Silicon Valley” of IBM, Hewlett Packard, and National Semiconductor, where many were employed in manufacturing.
Since that time the population has skyrocketed. Even as electronics manufacturing and assembly were scattered to all parts of the globe and robotized, computer systems design and related services have exploded throughout the entire San Francisco Bay Area. This “Silicon Bay” is dominated by the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Oracle, Yahoo, and Cisco.
Silicon Valley corporations celebrate their “disruption” of society, touting their innovations as the way to a new, better and brighter world. Their technological advancements reach far beyond technology consumer gadgets to a whole retooling of production with industrial robots, as well as replacement of service and knowledge workers on a global scale. But this “disruption,” instead of leading to a better world for all, is further polarizing society between rich and poor and driving down the level of workers worldwide to that of the robots that can replace them, including in tech’s own back yard. Until it was recently destroyed by city officials, the largest homeless camp in the United States was located in the heart of San Jose, the self-proclaimed “Capital of Silicon Valley”.
A Polarized Economy
The area known as Silicon Valley has a relatively low unemployment rate due to the economic engine of the tech industry. Yet a study by Working Partnerships USA has highlighted the polarized employment situation. While technical professional employees average $62 an hour, support workers such as the contract employees who clean, guard, maintain, and cook on tech campuses have an average wage of $13 an hour. An extraordinarily high cost of living generated by the tech industry has created a situation where 30% of Santa Clara County households live below the Basic Self-Sufficiency Standard of what it takes to make ends meet in the Valley – $19.36 per hour for a family of four with two full-time workers.
With the influx of highly paid tech workers driving housing prices through the roof, low-wage workers of all nationalities are living on the edge, and the most vulnerable are forced into homelessness. Whole families are crowded into rooms, and individuals rent closets, sofas, floors and even half of a bed. In San Francisco, one-bedroom apartment rents rose by 13.4% in 2014 alone, for a median price of $3410 per month. Between 2010 and 2013, Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco increased 170% to over 100 per year. (The Ellis Act evades rent control by allowing a landlord to evict tenants to sell the property, most likely to developers who will then charge exorbitant rents). Oakland and other parts of the East Bay are finding the same gentrification process at work: an influx of tech workers or others seeking refuge from San Francisco, with long-time low-income residents being pushed out of the city. Workers make impossible commutes from more affordable housing in the agricultural Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area.
All these features of the crisis we are experiencing in Silicon Valley – the suffering of hundreds of thousands who are living on the edge – are caused by the fundamental antagonism between the revolutionary, electronic means of production that are designed (in large part) right here, and the capitalist relations of production that organize the way we distribute the social product. In fact, the antagonism is becoming so pronounced, with huge sections of Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland reduced to wastelands, that it is beginning to become clear that capitalism as an economic system cannot continue to function much longer under these conditions. The electronic means of production are creating a whole new section of the working class that is actually being discarded and separated from the production process.
Taxes and Public Funds
As more and more workers are plunged into poverty, commodities cannot circulate – and the crisis deepens. Corporations refuse to pay taxes to support jobs, housing, health care, and education for workers that they no longer need – and the crisis deepens further. Without jobs, property or a safety net, more and more workers become destitute and are forced to fight the system just to survive.
Silicon Valley corporations have some $500 billion in cash reserves and have been relentless in fighting for tax breaks to drive their profits even higher, including a “tax holiday” for repatriating their profits held overseas. Supported by both Democrats and Republicans, these reduced taxes keep public coffers low and have led to barbaric austerity policies.
In California, MediCal reimbursement rates are so low, that even as MediCal eligibility has been expanded, waiting time for treatment is very long, because very few providers accept MediCal. Hours have been cut for both recipients and workers of In-Home Support Services for seniors and the disabled. The mentally ill are warehoused in prisons. Child care funding has been severely cut, and cash assistance is just $700 a month for a family of three. Funds for affordable housing have been slashed at the federal, state, and local levels. Although it would take only one-tenth of one percent of the Valley’s corporate cash reserves to end homelessness here, the economic and political status quo refuses even to consider it.
Included in these austerity measures are attacks on public employees. In 2011 the City of San Jose imposed 10-12% across-the-board cuts to city worker wages, the state of California mandated furloughs on essential state employees, and in 2014 BART workers faced stonewalled negotiations and were forced to strike. The most virulent onslaught is against public workers’ pensions on all fronts.
The tech industry hides its ruthless austerity agenda behind a liberal façade of “progressive positions” on social issues. Eighty percent of the valley’s political contributions go to Democratic candidates, and Silicon Valley led all other regions in 2012 presidential fundraising. This creates an objective split with the Democratic Party’s traditional working-class base. High tech’s support of education is generally limited to charter schools, that are a step toward privatizing education, and its support for immigration reform is driven by its demand for H-1 visas, to allow employment of highly educated immigrant technology workers.
Response of our Class and Tasks of Revolutionaries
Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area workers have pushed back with their own disruption. In 2013 in San Francisco and Oakland, resentment against the gentrification of neighborhoods and the loss of homes led community leaders and residents to blockade “Google buses” carrying tech employees to work. In San Francisco there have been many demonstrations and direct action related to Ellis Act evictions. In January people protesting gentrification and displacement in Oakland disrupted a home auction scheduled to happen at the Alameda County Courthouse.
In San Jose housing and homeless leaders fought against the eviction of 300 from the homeless encampment referred to by all as “The Jungle”; they also won a limited Housing Impact fee to get funds for more low-income housing under the slogan “people who work here should be able to live here.”
The City of Palo Alto was forced to strike down its car-camping ban after much protest. Several cities have recently joined San Jose and San Francisco in raising the minimum wage to $10- $15 an hour, and Santa Clara County has passed a Living Wage Ordinance to pay their workers and contractors $17-19 an hour. There are also current union campaigns to organize security guards at Apple and Google, and to get a contract for the drivers organized at Facebook.
Despite its limited gains, the battle for the immediate demands of Silicon Valley Bay’s workers is being organized primarily around slogans like “rebuild the Democratic Party” and “rebuild the middle class.” These concepts not only continue to tie the workers to the Democratic Party, they foster the dangerous illusion that the capitalist economy can somehow bring back prosperity to a section of the workers. As a strategy, this can only lead to further subordination to the dead-end politics of corporate capitalism: more austerity, more division in the working class, and a perpetual defensive stance.
The only effective approach is not unity with Democrats, but unity of the workers fighting for jobs, housing, health care and education. As we participate in the day-to-day struggles of this class to secure the necessities of life, revolutionaries point out that there is no solution to poverty within the private property system. We have to build a cooperative economy based on public ownership of all the essential means of production, and distribute wealth based on need. The only way to get to this cooperative society is to educate and organize the new class of workers being pushed out of production. We have to communicate a vision of what is possible, and the political line of march needed to get there. Part of this means building an organization of revolutionaries dedicated to understanding this situation and teaching what is to be done.
We hold fast to the vision of a world where technological advances are no longer used to tighten the tyranny of private property, but instead to meet peoples’ needs, preserve the planet, and build a better world for our children and grandchildren.
May/June 2015 Vol25.Ed3
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011