Silicon Valley On Strike! Immigrants in Electronics Protest Growing Sweat-Shop Conditions
by David Bacon
SUNNYVALE, CA. (1/17/93) Sometime in mid-February the last workers at the Versatronex plant in Sunnyvale will file out of the plant's door for the last time. The remaining machines in the plant will be turned off and loaded onto trucks. Versatronex will no longer be a living entity. But many electronics workers in Sili-con Valley, especially the immigrants, will remember the name. They will remem-ber Versatronex as the first plant where production workers in the valley went on strike, and the first plant where a strike won recognition for their union.
"It's a little sad, but we said at the beginning that if the company was going to close, let them close," said Sandra Gomez, who lost her job at the end of the Ver-satronex strike. "But as long as the plant was open, we were going to fight for our rights."
Sandra Gomez comes from a small town outside Guadalajara. She lives with her brothers in San Jose, and worked at the plant with three other cousins. Almost all Versatronex' workers are immigrants from Mexico, mostly women. Her job assembling circuit boards at the Sunnyvale factory was her first after she came to the U.S., and she worked there for almost five years.
"I went to every meeting before the strike started," she remembers, "but I was kind of young, and I didn't know what to expect. Even though I spoke on television after the strike started, I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing. But I learned a lot in those first days, and now I feel very strongly that we have to stand up for our-selves. Even if we lose our jobs here, we will keep on fighting for our rights wher-ever we work."
The closure of the Versatronex plant brings an end to efforts by workers in that particular plant to organize a union. But Versatronex is only one of a number of Silicon Valley worksites in turmoil as a result of workers' protests. Employees of another contract assembly plant, USM Inc., are demanding that they be paid for their last two months of work before their plant shut down. Janitors at the huge Litton facility in South San Jose lost their jobs when Litton switched to a non-union jani-torial service paying lower wages, and have been out in the streets in protest since then.
Silicon Valley has become the scene of prob-lems long associated with the sweatshops of other industries, but which are a new and startling contrast to the hi-tech public image the electronics industry projects. More stable and better-paying production jobs in the valley's large plants are shrinking, while contractors like Versatronex compete for business from those plants by cutting wages and condi-tions.
Yet the electronics industry in Silicon Valley is viewed by many observers as a potential model for the kind of economic growth needed to end the current reces-sion. Significantly, the invited guests to Clinton's Lit-tle Rock economic summit from northern California were almost all executives of high-technology biotech or electronics firms. They argue that the development of high-technology industry, and new approaches to the workforce designed in that industry, are the secret to U.S. competitiveness.
The architects of the new president's strategy for reviving the economy and increasing U.S. industrial competitiveness all seem drawn from this same source. U.C. economics professor Laura Tyson, Clinton's newly-appointed head of the Council of Economics Advisors, argues that government support for the electronics industry creates high-paying jobs and the conditions for economic growth. So it's worth looking at the experience on the ground - the effect in real life when Silicon Valley puts its philosophy to work.
During the recent Christmas holidays, workers employed by Versatronex, USM and Litton marched through crowds of shoppers in downtown San Jose. They noisily protested declining conditions for the immigrants who make up the bulk of the workforce employed by Silicon Valley contractors. Their protest highlighted an-other new development in the home of high technology - militant and angry demonstrations by workers from the valley's factories.
Conditions at Versatronex give credence to the accusation by labor and com-munity activists that a high tech image masks a reality of sweatshop conditions. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 - the minimum wage - and employees with over 15 years earned as little as $7.25. There was no medical insurance.
Sergio Mendoza worked in the "coil room," making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. The work process involved dipping the coils into chem-ical baths, and drying them off in ovens. "They never told us the names or the dan-gers of the chemicals we worked with," he recalls. "Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed. Women who cleaned parts with sol-vents had deep cracks in the skin on the end of their fingers." The company filed declarations with the Bay Area Air Quality Manage-ment District that it discharged 3400 pounds of ethylene dichloride, a known car-cinogen, into the atmosphere in 1991. Nevertheless, Versatronex workers allege that there was no ventilation sys-tem or scrubbers for discharges within or outside the plant.
Versatronex managers have refused to talk to the press since the strike started, but Pete DelBrocco, Versatronex president, wrote a letter to the San Jose Mercury News in which he declared that "Versatronex prides itself on maintaining a safe and clean working environment," and that the company "has made the safety of its employees its highest priority." He alleged that the company only used water to clean its circuit boards.
The conditions in the "coil room" are very different from those at IBM's own facilities in South San Jose, which it refers to as a "campus." IBM's order gave a big boost to Versatronex' contract assembly business over the company's 20-year history, and workers recall seeing IBM inspectors visiting their plant.
Another large customer who had their boards assembled at Versatronex was Digital Microwave Corp., a manufacturer of equipment for telecommunications networks. DMC also has a modern, expensive and antiseptic-looking facility in the new industrial development which took over the farmland of north San Jose. Digi-tal Microwave had total sales last year of $136 million, with sales offices in six coun-tries. It's meteoric rise from a startup in 1984 contributes to the Silicon Valley repu-tation for phenomenal growth. Yet last year it closed its own manufacturing facility in Scotland, while it became one of the main sources of work for the Versatronex plant.
At the high point of the 6-week Versatronex strike, 10 women strikers went on a hunger strike outside DMC's glittering offices. For four days they fasted to dramatize their ef-fort to hold that manufacturer responsible for their working con-ditions. Male strikers supported them by setting up tents and living around the clock on the sidewalk outside DMC's front door. Word of their action spread like an electric current through the valley's Mexican and immigrant communities.
"We went on a hunger strike against Digital Microwave Corporation because they send work to Versatronex, and then they close their eyes to the conditions we work in," explained hunger striker Margarita Aguilera. "And after our strike started, DMC sent even more work into the Versatronex plant." At the end of the fast, DMC made public a letter written to Versatronex management which said that, although it didn't intend to intervene in the labor dispute, "you should be aware that we are actively seeking alternative suppliers to fill our needs. If we find such suppliers, it may well be that we will transfer our needs to those resources on a permanent basis."
The Versatronex strike, along with protests at USM, Litton, and movements like them among other South Bay workers, are upheavals from below, according to Maria Pantoja, an or-ganizer for the United Electrical Workers. "They shine a light on conditions which are like apartheid for immi-grants and sweatshop workers in Silicon Valley."
Workers at Versatronex called in the union after they had already organized themselves to protest their conditions, and as they were preparing to stop work to demand changes. When the company heard rumors of the stoppage, they held a meeting to head off the planned action. One of the workers active in the organizing effort, Joselito Muņoz, stood up in the meeting and declared to company supervi-sors that "Se acabo el tiempo de esclavitud," which translated means "The time of slavery is over." Muņoz was fired two days later, and on October 16 Verstronex workers went on strike to win his job back.
In the course of the strike which followed, the workers and the union used tactics drawn from the ex-periences of the workers themselves, including the hunger strike. "It is not uncommon for workers in Mexico to fast and set up 'plantons' - tent encampments where workers live for the strike's duration," according to Pan-toja. "Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of their culture of mu-tual support, which they bring with them when they come to this country. Their culture is a source of strength to them, and for our union as well."
Versatronex workers ended their strike on November 25, after the National Labor Relations Board issued a formal complaint, the equivalent of an indictment, against the company for illegally firing Muņoz. The day after they went back to work, workers filed a petition with the NLRB for a union election at the plant. Then, as the union and the company were negotiating over arrangements for the election and accusations of retaliation against strikers, the company announced that it would close the factory permanently. The announcement was made the day be-fore Christmas.
Despite the announcement, workers from Versatronex, USM and Litton have continued to organize protests over contracting and declining conditions. The three groups joined forces because they are all immigrants, and are all employed by con-tractors who do business with the area's large companies.
USM workers are mostly Korean immigrants, who lost their jobs a year ago when the owner sud-denly closed the factory's doors, owing workers 2 months in back wages. Since then USM workers, supported by San Jose's Korean Resource Center, have organized protests against Silicon Valley Bank, whom they hold liable for their lost wages because the bank took control of USM's as-sets. USM workers have asked the U.S. Department of Labor to invoke federal regulations which would al-low it to embargo the circuit boards produced during the two months in which workers weren't paid.
Litton jani-tors, also immigrants, are mostly Mexican. They worked for a union janitorial contractor, and some had worked in the Litton build-ings for over 10 years. Litton brought in a new, non-union contractor, who employed a new workforce at lower wages and conditions.
The janitors workforce, repre-sented by Service Employees Local 1877, is drawn from the same immigrant workforce employed on the production lines in the electronics plants. A year ago Local 1877 made an important organizing break-through when it forced Apple Computer, and later Hewlett-Packard Corporation, to sign agreements using union janitorial contractors. Those agreements came as a re-sult of a long campaign to tie the two corporations to the poor wages and conditions of the jani-tors who clean their buildings. That campaign was spearheaded by the Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition, a local coalition of unions, churches and community orga-nizations which organized the downtown San Jose march.
Korean Resource Center spokesperson Bunshik Eom points out that the prob-lems of workers at Versatronex, USM and Litton stem from the same contrac-tor/manufacturer relationship, in which large companies control the work, and contractors compete for it by maintaining low wages and benefits in their assembly plants. "USM, Versatronex and Litton workers have a lot to gain by supporting each other, since their problems come from the same source," he explained.
In the middle of the Versatronex strike, National Semiconductor, one of Sili-con Valley's largest employers, announced that it would close its last remaining mass-production wafer fabrication line within a year. This move, which would eliminate the jobs of hundreds of workers, is part of an overall plan by National to move its main production of integrated circuits to plants in other parts of the coun-try, and to convert its Silicon Valley facilities to research and development. Other electronics companies in valley are also implementing the same strategy.
For workers on the fab lines, however, this move also eliminates stable jobs paying well above minimum wage. As the mostly Filipino fab workers lose jobs at National, they may well be absorbed by the growing number of sweatshops operated by Valley contractors. One National worker, who visited Ver-satronex workers on their picketline, explained that unemployment would eventu-ally force them to con-sider taking these jobs at low wages and conditions. "I'm sure we'll resist at first," explained Romie Manan, "but after trying to pay our bills on unemployment bene-fits, we'll have no choice."
Immigrant workers in Silicon Valley's electronics industry are clearly not sat-isfied with jobs at any price, as their protests at Versatronex, USM, Litton and Apple have made plain. For them, the trend of economic development in the valley is leading to less job security, and lower wages and conditions. The industry is being restructured, polarizing its workforce between highly-paid engineers and managers, and production workers in insecure, and increasingly less-attractive jobs. The pur-suit of competitiveness - of greater flexibility in production and lower labor costs - are leading to a increase in contracted production and indirect employment. But while flexibility and competitiveness increase the bottom line for the industry's giants, not everyone benefits, especially those on the bottom.
Part of the Silicon Valley mystique has been its aggressive proselytization of a "union-free environment." The industry's defenders have accepted the assumption that the growth of electronics companies has guaranteed a rising standard of living for electronics workers, and has removed their economic motivation for organizing unions. But as workers get caught on the downside of economic development, they are questioning that assumption. Rather than trusting that the benefits of high technology and economic growth will trickle down to them, they seem to find orga-nizing unions a better guarantee for a decent life.
Will they get support from a new president in the White House, elected with the support of unions and working people? Or will the economic strategists of the new administration hold up the "union-free industry" as the solution to the na-tion's economic woes?
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