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Striking Facebook janitors settle contract, but more uncertainty looms

Service workers on strike at San Francisco International Airport (SFO, on Sept. 26, 2022. | Justin Katigbak for the SF Standard.

Striking janitors at struggling Facebook parent company Meta settled their contract dispute late Monday night with the company contracted to clean the tech giant’s millions of square feet of Bay Area office space, union officials told The San Francisco Standard.

But at least one union leader worries the episode signals more trouble ahead as remote and hybrid work—and the unique power of platforms like Facebook—continues to reshape the nature of office jobs.  

About 250 union janitors with Service Employees International Union Local 87 and SEIU United Service Workers West went on strike on Tuesday of last week after negotiations broke down with SBM Management, the company that employs the janitors who scrub tech workers’ toilets and clean their desks.

The situation became acrimonious when SBM laid off some janitors and then replaced them with lower-paid workers, union officials said. 

After remote negotiations proved fruitless, a shift to in-person negotiations over the weekend led to a resolution Monday, said Kim Tavaglione, the president of the San Francisco Labor Council.   

“In the end, SBM and Facebook did the right thing,” Tavaglione said. “But I feel there’s still a blatant disregard for lower-paid workers that big tech has.

“I’m going to expect the worst to happen again,” she said.

"Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, we’ve paid our vendor partners to ensure every one of their workers assigned to a Meta office was paid even if they couldn’t do their jobs from home," a representative for Meta said in an emailed statement. "We continued these payments for nearly two years."

SBM did not respond to email and telephone messages seeking comment.

The situation took a turn Friday when Meta made the “difficult decision” to shut down its Embarcadero-area offices amid boisterous union picketing—referred to in internal communications seen by The Standard as “ongoing Civil Disturbances,” without direct reference to the contract dispute. 

And in what could be a coincidence, USWW reported that its Facebook page disappeared in the middle of negotiations last week.

Hybrid work, combined with Meta’s well-publicized downsizing of its workforce and shrinking office space, is an ominous signal for the janitors, culinary workers, shuttle drivers and other low-income workers—many of them people of color—who make these physical offices go, Tavaglione said.

“They did downsize because of remote work, so there’s an acknowledgment” of potential disaster ahead for blue-collar workers at tech companies, she said. 

After more than a decade of runaway success, Meta is now experiencing one of its most difficult periods ever after posting a decline in revenue midway through the year. Shares in company stock are down 64% since a September 2021 peak and are now trading at levels not seen since 2016. 

Last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a company-wide hiring freeze, and he has previously said that the company has too many employees. More downsizing—either through layoffs or “self-selecting” exits from employees given extra or unwanted duties—are likely over the next year.

Meta’s fortunes directly affect low-wage workers that support the business, most of whom are contracted through other companies. 

In addition to employing fewer workers, the company will employ them in “a smaller venue,” John Tenanes, Meta’s VP of global facilities, told The Wall Street Journal last week. 

Meta’s offices are currently only about half full, down from 75% before the Covid-19 pandemic, Tenanes told the newspaper. 

The strike among Meta janitors last week is one of numerous labor actions in recent months involving airport workers, nonprofit case managers and others negotiating for higher pay in the Bay Area.