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: This obscure band of Facebook workers is in the middle of a heated union fight

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Like other big companies, Facebook’s parent company has an extensive mailroom operation that spans Silicon Valley, delivering and routing packages to different offices and employees in what mailroom worker Karla Vargas likens to an “internal FedEx.”

Despite fewer employees working at the office as before the pandemic, Vargas says she and her colleagues at Meta Platform Inc.’s
META,
-4.15%

Silicon Valley headquarters are overworked and “unsupported.” She and her co-workers need tools like back belts, gloves and cleaning supplies to help them do their jobs safely and more efficiently, but those haven’t been provided to them, she said.

“Personally, I’ve done everything from driving to deliveries,” Vargas said. “You get pulled left and right, but get no support when your cart is full of things.”

As their frustration grew, mailroom employees tried to unionize in December, and some of them told MarketWatch they were discouraged from doing so. The vote ended in a tie, 23 votes on each side, which the Teamsters say is due to antiunion behavior by Canon Business Process Services, the Meta vendor that employs the mailroom workers.

Now, this group of a few dozen employees is awaiting the outcome of a battle at the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, which has sided with the union and is seeking to compel Canon to negotiate with the Teamsters local that wants to represent the workers.

“Respondent has been interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in” the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB general counsel wrote in an amended complaint.

Meta’s direct employees do not belong to a union. They enjoy world-famous perks and can work remotely at least a couple of days a week. And many of them, like software engineers, have six-figure average annual salaries, according to Glassdoor. But the subcontracted janitors, security guards, bus drivers and food-service workers who work on-site at Meta’s Bay Area campuses — for about $20 and hour and up — are largely unionized.

For more: As Silicon Valley looks to cut back, service workers fear they could be first to go

Those workers are typically employed by Meta subcontractors, though, putting direct control over the employees and dealings with the union in other hands, such as Canon. Two people — one current Canon employee and one former employee who asked to remain anonymous — said that ahead of the vote, managers were calling meetings and telling workers that they would have to pay more than $1,000 to join the union.

Debra Chaplan, spokeswoman for Teamsters Local 853, said there are no initiation fees for the workers who took part in the organizing drive. For workers who join afterward, there would be an initiation fee based on their hourly wages, but “it’s definitely much less than $1,000,” she said.

Vargas, who has worked in the mailroom for three years and makes about $24 an hour, said that she felt pressure when Canon managers “pulled us into rooms one by one and told us we just want to make sure you’re OK.” What she believed they were doing was “trying to gauge the numbers of who was going to vote for what.”

“I’m not pro-union and I’m not antiunion, I’m just pro-choice and pro-accuracy,” one former employee told MarketWatch. “The facts weren’t presented clearly.”

Although Canon maintains that a majority of the workers failed to vote to unionize, spokeswoman Christine Sedlacek said the company supports the workers’ rights to vote on whether to unionize, and is acting within the law.

“Canon has always maintained that the decision to unionize is the employees’ choice and that a secret ballot election is the best way to ensure the employees’ true choice is heard,” Sedlacek said.

Sedlacek declined to comment about the allegations that workers were lied to in an effort to dissuade unionization, or that they are lacking tools necessary to do their jobs.

The mailroom workers’ fight comes as efforts to organize unions gain momentum across the nation, with hourly workers for household names such as Amazon.com Inc.
AMZN,
-4.76%
,
Apple Inc.
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-3.77%
,
Starbucks Corp.
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-3.81%
,
REI and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.
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-2.07%

among those who have recently voted to unionize. Salaried tech workers more closely associated with Silicon Valley’s tech giants have also explored unionization, such as at Google parent company Alphabet Inc.
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-5.41%

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-5.44%

In-depth: Unions’ push at Amazon, Apple and Starbucks could be ‘most significant moment in the American labor movement’ in decades

The continuing battle within Meta and the working conditions that sparked a unionization vote in the first place have caused several mailroom employees to quit, said Vargas and other workers who spoke with MarketWatch. That means an even bigger workload for those who remain, Vargas said.

Devjeet Sekhon said management of the mailroom employees was so bad that he and his team had to come up with solutions to any problems on their own. He said he asked to be demoted and transferred to a site he thought would be less stressful. Instead, he said he was sent to the Sunnyvale, Calif., shipping office, which is “the busiest one” and represents a longer commute.

“They don’t care about their employees’ mental health,” said Sekhon, who has worked at Meta for about three years and went back to making $24 an hour after his demotion.

On Oct. 11, an administrative law judge will preside over the hearing to consider the NLRB charges against Canon. The NLRB’s general counsel is seeking a bargaining order, which would require Canon to bargain with the union, because the Teamsters say a majority of workers signed authorization cards both before the vote and signed a petition to unionize after the vote.

The fact that the NLRB general counsel has requested a bargaining order is encouraging, said Doug Bloch, political director of the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents more than 100,000 members in 20 local unions in 48 counties in northern and central California, plus more than a dozen counties in northern Nevada. He said that in his 25 years of working in labor, he has seen just one bargaining order before this.

“It’s the holy grail for union organizers,” Bloch said.

William Gould, professor emeritus at Stanford Law School and a former chairman of the NLRB, said he sees this case as “an attempt by the [general counsel] to convince the Board and courts to use bargaining orders more frequently.” Gould said that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1969 that authorization cards “could substitute for the vote because misconduct made it unlikely that free choice could ever be manifested through the vote.” 

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This fight happening at Meta raises an important question, Bloch said.

“Should companies that are fighting unionization efforts be doing business with companies like Meta, where the rest of the subcontracted workers are in unions?” Bloch said.

Facebook has been a leader when it comes to the unionization of service workers, Bloch said, adding that the Teamsters helped organize about 5,000 service workers seven years ago, and “it all started with bus drivers at Facebook.”

With this Canon case, “it’s a chance for Facebook to be a leader again,” he said. Meta should tell its vendors to stay neutral when it comes to unionization efforts by their workers, Bloch added.

Jason Rabinowitz, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, said at a rally attended by different unions last week at Meta headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.: “There shouldn’t be a single worker on that campus without union rights.”

Tracy Clayton, a Meta spokesman, said Meta has seen the NLRB complaints and expressed its concerns to Canon. “Meta has a demonstrated history of supporting unions and their members,” Clayton said. “We fully recognize the right of employees to organize and encourage vendors to continue to work collaboratively.”

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