AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler traveled to Northern California last month to convene an exchange between Reiner Hoffmann, Chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation, and California labor leaders. I was joined by Shelley Kessler, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the San Mateo County Central Labor Council; Ben Field, Executive Director of the South Bay Labor Council (San Jose); and Angie Wei, Chief of Staff of the California Federation of Labor.
We met at the infamous Buck’s restaurant in Woodside by the California coast, the funky roadside restaurant where, rumor has it, all Silicon Valley deals are brokered. We were joined by Andrea Nahles, the German Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, and the San Francisco German Consulate staff.
The Germans were in town for short visits in Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area to explore and study the Silicon Valley technology models of business. They titled their visit “The Internet of Things.” They had toured Google and Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco and Mountain View before meeting us for dinner.
The German labor movement is an accepted part of the fabric of commerce and acknowledged as the “voice at work” in Germany. Labor, management and government still have a commitment to cooperate and find ways to solve economic issues. Unlike America, where Republicans and a large portion of the business community spend incredible resources to destroy and eliminate our unions, the German economy still deems workers and their unions as true partners.
It was inspirational to see Labor Minister Nahles and Labor Chair Hoffman traveling as equals in this government delegation. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka would never be paired as equal partners by the Obama administration to participate in an international delegation like this.
That being said, our conversation over dinner from the American delegation was pretty one-sided. The Germans were informed that the Silicon Valley business model does not value American workers. Independent contractors, third party outsourcing, and non-employee-type models that don’t include health care costs and retirement plans is not a way of doing business that values a sustainable life in California.
The technology and innovation to make workers’ lives more efficient is exciting and worth being part of, but if the cost of this innovation drives more people into poverty – janitors, food service workers, security officers, construction workers, truck and bus drivers – then we have a problem.
The wealth created in Silicon Valley is not shared and the Labor Movement is working to fix that.
Thank you Liz Shuler, Chairman Reiner Hoffmann, and Labor Minister Nahies for listening to the workers’ perspective.