Rodney Smith played a key role in winning the first union contract for such drivers in Silicon Valley, where the growing income gap has spurred organizing at several tech companies.

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BELMONT, Calif. —

Raised on the mean streets of Watts and East Oakland, Rodney Smith learned early on to stand up for himself. More recently, as a Bay Area union leader and Teamsters organizer, he’s also gotten pretty good at fighting for others.

“I guess it just comes natural to me,” said Smith, 49, who led a highly publicized union campaign with Facebook shuttle drivers in Silicon Valley demanding better wages and working conditions.

Rodney Smith

Age: 49

Position: Lead organizer for Teamsters Local 853, which represents about 11,000 drivers, printers and other workers in Northern California

Education: Solano Community College, Fairfield, Calif.

Family: Wife Latonya, children Andria and Rodney Jr.

Quote: “This was the first group of tech company drivers to organize, but it set a precedent in Silicon Valley for the transportation industry.”

Source: San Jose Mercury News, Local 853

“Some people don’t know how to stand up for what they believe,” he said. “So they need people like me to stand up for them.”

As a union organizer for Teamsters Local 853, Smith played a key role in winning the drivers their first union contract in February. In the process, the father of two helped pull off a precedent-setting vote that targets the growing income gap in Silicon Valley.

In an interview, Smith spoke about his background and his union work. His comments have been edited for clarity and space.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: The day I finished sixth grade, my mother took my sister, my brothers and me to Oakland. I was born in L.A. but there was a lot of gang activity in the projects we lived in that my mom wanted to try to shelter us from. My father wasn’t around.

My neighborhood in East Oakland had groups of kids doing stuff, but the gangs weren’t as bad as they’d been in L.A. I’ve always been sociable, so I made friends quickly, first in the neighborhood, then in elementary school, where I was voted “Most Popular” and then ran for class vice president in seventh grade.

Q: What came next?

A: My mom passed away in 1987 from an illness; that was a hard time in my life, and I was sort of a wanderer, going in a direction she had been trying so hard to help us avoid. I went down a couple of wrong paths but then moved to Fairfield (between San Francisco and Sacramento) with my aunt, because she thought if I stayed in Oakland I’d get into more trouble. I stayed with her about a year, then moved back to Oakland and started working for Coca-Cola where I started as a merchandiser. That was my first union job.

Q: Is that when you first took on a role as a union activist?

Tech companies’ drivers winning raises

Facebook: Under the Teamster contract ratified in February by drivers at Loop Transportation, hourly wages now range from $21 for a first-year minibus driver to $29.15 for a more experienced double-decker bus driver on a split shift.

Google: Google told its five shuttle contractors to pay drivers an average of $24 per hour, with the increase depending on the shuttle company and what workers made before. It also is funding a 15 percent premium for drivers who work a split shift.

Apple: In March said it will raise hourly wages for its more than 150 drivers by about 25 percent and give them a split shift premium and access to break rooms.

Others: Shuttle drivers for some of the contractors for Yahoo, Apple, Genentech, eBay and Zynga voted to join the Teamsters in February.

Source: San Jose Mercury News

A: Yes. I was pretty involved in the union and I upset some of the managers, mostly because I was simply trying to enforce the contract for others who couldn’t stand up for themselves. I left there and got my commercial driver’s license, drove for 7UP for two years, and then an old manager at Coke wanted me to come back because he liked me and knew I could get the job done. So I started driving for Coke.

Q: Fast-forward to 2011, when you get a job working directly for the Teamsters. How did that happen?

A: I started working at the Teamsters office as an organizer. I’d come from the soft-drink and brewery industry as a driver, and I’d always been a leader and pretty outspoken. I lost several jobs because of that, but then the union offered me a position as organizer and I accepted.

Q: What do you do for the union?

A: My job is to attempt to organize the unorganized, to educate workers to help drive up wage standards, even if they don’t end up joining the union. I try to help them get more money and a better health-care package. My primary function is to help make a difference in their work conditions.

Once they reach out to us, I broker a meeting with the workers and tell them what they might expect from their employer once they start talking about unionizing, about union dues and strikes. Eventually, we’ll get them to election day when they can vote on whether to join the union. Of those I’ve met with, the majority of the time we do get to an election.

And I’m now 9-and-3, which means of the people who’ve reached out to us, we’ve won nine elections and lost three.

Q: The election and union contract you helped the Facebook shuttle drivers get was a real precedent here in Silicon Valley, where tech companies make huge profits while many of the service-industry workers that support them can barely afford to survive in the Bay Area on what they make.

A: We’d helped organize school-bus drivers in Oakland as well as dairy drivers and warehouse workers. In early 2014, the Facebook drivers called us to talk. The next day, two colleagues and I went out there and passed out fliers. The following day, their employer gave everyone an 80-cent hourly raise. The drivers thought that was great, but I said it’s not going to last, because it’s not in a contract.

By the summer, they called back and said their routes had been cut back and they had to pay more for health care and in the end they were really losing.

Q: And then what?

A: We held numerous meetings with the drivers, and then last November they had an election and voted 48 to 23 to join the Teamsters. This was the first group of tech-company drivers to organize, but it set a precedent in Silicon Valley for the transportation industry. Because we’ve since had drivers for eBay, Apple, Genentech and others calling us to meet.