When union leader Samuel Kehinde organized a few dozen security officers to dress up like Apple store employees (in bright blue t-shirts and slacks) and picket the electronics store in downtown San Francisco, he expected the usual tepid response from passersby.
Instead? Crowds of strangers joined right in. They wanted to stand with the banners, which asked Apple to allow its security officers to unionize and demanded the company pay back the $15 billion the union said it has saved through tax breaks.
“That never happens at one of our protests. Not once,” said Kehinde, a vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “People that live here, people that work here, tourists, they wanted to hold the banner and take pictures with us.”
What did that mean to him?
“This is our moment.”
On a recent rainy morning at the Powderface Cafe in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, Kehinde ordered a Naked Juice and a slice of pound cake before heading to his SEIU office upstairs to chat about the Apple store uniforms and their plans going forward. His goal is to unionize the 5000 security officers working in Silicon Valley. Just today, he and his team are launching their online game Tech Can Do Better, meant to show gamers how hard it is to survive on an average Silicon Valley security officer’s salary (about $30,971, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). And it’s not getting better: From 2000 through 2012, median earnings for Santa Clara County workers fell from $50,100 to $43,993.
“The image of Silicon Valley is that people here are doing good. I’ll be in Boston or Chicago and say that I’m from the Bay Area and people are like, ‘Oh wow, you must be doing great, man,'” the 31-year-old Kehinde said. “This is the land of Tim Cook and Google and Facebook. And look at their campuses. They’re just beautiful.”
He spread his arms out wide — “beautiful.”
“And yet the officers have to line up at the food bank,” he said. “And yet they hire contractors and don’t hire full time.”
After leaving Nigeria to move in with his uncle in Daly City, Kehinde started working as a security officer at an Oakland condo complex making $9 an hour. It dropped to $8.75 an hour. He led efforts to unionize and, after 19 months of demonstrations, succeeded and started making $10.25 an hour. The union hired him. In 2007, he led a successful push to unionize security officers in the Financial District. In 2009, he got Kaiser nonunion workers to unionize.
But the tech campaign, which Kehinde launched in 2010, will be his biggest challenge, he said.
“Tech is harder to unionize than other industries. First of all, Silicon Valley is so spread out,” Kehinde said. “And they’re instructed by the companies not to talk to us.”
“And they are always watching,” he said. “The officers have microphones on their uniforms, and someone is always listening for us. I was in the parking lot of Outback Steakhouse in Cupertino with an Apple security guard, and in less than three minutes eight security cars ambushed us. We weren’t even on Apple property. They’re listening. It’s kind of scary.”
Apple declined to comment on the record regarding the alleged Outback Steakhouse incident.
Kehinde pointed to a photo of Tim Cook that he keeps on his wall.
“They are the icon. They can lead by example,” he said. “If Tim Cook said, ‘yes, unionize,’ other companies would follow.”
What are his plans?
“I’ve got the Google shareholder meeting on May 14th, then we also have the Apple developer conference coming up June 2nd in SF,” said Kehinde, who now lives by Lake Merritt and runs a soccer league on the weekends. “We’re still developing what kind of costumes we want to wear.”
His briefcase was open by the desk. Inside was a gold iPhone 5s still in the box. He keeps it in the box?
“Yes, I’m very excited about it,” he said of his new phone. “They’re a beloved brand. But are we beloved by them? Do they take care of us as well as we take care of their products? No.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.