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Waymo workers form union in the latest push to organize Silicon Valley

Support staffers at some of the world's most valuable companies have been trending toward unions.
A Waymo autonomous vehicle is seen reflected in a mirror as it drives along a street in San Francisco,
A Waymo autonomous vehicle.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Food service employees at the autonomous driving company Waymo are forming a union, the latest push by support workers to organize at Silicon Valley's most prominent companies.

The cafeteria workers at the Mountain View-based company cite the high cost of living in the Bay Area and the lack of strong benefits while working for one of the world's most valuable companies. Waymo is owned by Google parent company, Alphabet.

The workers are employed by Sodexo, which contracts service work for Google and other companies. Organizers say they have a majority of union cards signed from the roughly two dozen-person bargaining unit.

"We want a voice at the table to have a part in saying how things should work," said Fernanda Martir, 28, a single mother who works in the kitchen and also as a barista at the company. "We want better treatment and benefits."

Martir currently lives in a mobile home with her mother and her son. She said she struggles to cover her family's expenses: car and phone payments, her son's day care and rent.

She would like to one day afford her own place. Her interest in unions was lit by Hasan Piker, a leftist Twitch streamer and political commentator who has a large following on sites like YouTube and Twitter.

Workers say the $24 an hour they make from the company is not enough to live adequately in the Bay Area. They also cite the prohibitive cost of the company's health plan, which has a $5,000 deductible. The living wage in the San Jose-Sunnyvale area is $27.74 for a single adult, and $52.74 for a single adult with a child, according to MIT's living wage calculator.

"We’re all motivated, and we all like to work," said Cristalyn Barragan, 26, another worker at the facility. "We've just got to push our family through."

Cristalyn Barragan smiles on the picket line.
Sodexo worker Cristalyn Barragan at a protest outside Waymo headquarters Friday.Unite Here

Sodexo, a publicly traded multinational based in France, said its representatives are in "conversations with the union and are on the verge of what we believe will be a path forward."

"Sodexo respects the rights of our employees to unionize or not to unionize, proven by the hundreds of [Collective bargaining agreement's] we have in good standing with unions across the country," the company said in a statement. "We are confident this one will also reach an amicable agreement for workers, the union, and our client very soon."

The company declined to state definitively whether it would voluntarily recognize the union.

If it does not do so voluntarily, workers will file for an NLRB election.

The workers are part of Silicon Valley's ranks of contractors who support and supplement the work at tech companies. Union campaigns have coursed through the industry as tech company profits — and the cost of living in the Bay Area — have escalated steeply in recent years.

At Google, more than 4,000 of these workers have joined unions since 2018, including 2,300 cafeteria workers at its headquarters and satellite offices in the Bay Area in 2019, according to Unite Here. Others work at dozens of other Google offices around the country.

"[Workers] see all the money around tech," said D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here. "And that's great. But they want to have a piece of the American dream."

Waymo said other vendors it worked with were unionized but declined to provide specifics or comment on the Sodexo campaign.

“We’ve been pleased with the quality of service that they provide at our locations in California," spokeswoman Katherine Barna said in a statement. "We respect the right of all to organize as they deem fit.”

Elsewhere, contract service workers at companies like Facebook, Apple and Yahoo have won prominent union campaigns in recent years.

These union campaigns have also helped inform a growing activist base within tech companies’ themselves, as white-collar tech workers have increasingly demanded more say in their workplaces, including at Google, where the Alphabet Workers Union formed in 2021 as an outlet for employees.

Nationally, organizing activity has spiked in the last year, with union representation petitions up 53% between October 2021 and October 2022, according to federal statistics from the National Labor Relations Board.

Jocelyn Arevalos, 33, who works in food service at Google, showed up to support a couple of Sodexo workers who were protesting outside of Waymo on Friday. Her team unionized in 2020, and some of them have been joining meetings with the Waymo workers to show them the ropes of organizing and talk up the union.

Arevalos said her pay went up $6 an hour after the union negotiated its first contract with the contractor, Compass, allowing her to quit a second job. She and her co-workers also won better health care coverage that allowed them to add their families to their plans for free, and other benefits like additional sick time and paid time off.

"We got more pay, and got our voices back," she said.

Compass and Google did not respond to immediate requests for comment.

Martir, speaking to a NBC News reporter outside of Waymo's headquarters, said she has come to see unions as a potential answer to the disparities in the country. She nodded in the direction of her car, a small SUV, saying she had bought it with the thought that if she ever got evicted, it would be big enough for her to live out of temporarily. 

“We look at people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, there’s just a gross accumulation of wealth,” Martir said. “We only get those because other people are exploited. And I’m one of those people.”