Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
On January 29, 1993 the last workers at the Versatronex plant in Sunny-vale filed out of the plant's door for the last time. The machines in the factory were turned off and loaded onto trucks. Versatronex was no longer a living entity. But many electronics workers in Sili-con Valley, especially immigrants from Mexico and Central America, still remember the name. They remember that Versatronex was the first plant in Silicon Valley struck by production workers, and the first plant where a strike won recognition for their union.
"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."
The struggle of Versatronex workers against their sweat-shop conditions, and for their right to organize a union, became a symbol of the growing turmoil among workers in Silicon Valley. That turmoil has demolished, one after another, the most deep-seated myths and stereotypes about the high tech workforce.
Unions have called the electronics industry "unorganizable." Corpora-tions like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor have told their workers for years that the company regarded them as a family, and that they needed no union. Healthy bottom lines, they said, would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs. Economists in the Clinton administration paint a picture of the electronics industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.
But working life in Silicon Valley has become problematic for thousands of people. While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they drop for thousands of workers on the production line. Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the line entirely, as production leaves the valley for other states and countries, while companies eliminate their historic no-layoff pledge. Permanent jobs have become temporary. The image of the clean industry has been replaced by the specter of toxic contamination of the valley's water supply, and a high occurrence of chemically-induced industrial illness.
Silicon Valley's high-tech workers are finding important new tactics for orga-nizing to oppose these conditions. Some groups, like the janitors, have wielded these techniques with remarkable success, winning groundbreaking achievements. For others, including production workers in the plants themselves, the road seems longer and harder. But the level of organized activity is higher than it has been for over a decade.
The Development of the High Tech Workforce
One of the oldest myths about high technology industry is that it was the brainchild of a few, brilliant (white) men, who started in their garages the giant corporations which now dominate economic life in Silicon Valley. In fact, the basic technological innovations which form the foundation of the electronics industry, such as the invention of the solid-state transistor, took place in the laboratories of such corporations as Bell Laboratories, American Telephone and Telegraph, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, and General Electric.
These innovations were products of the Cold War - of the race in arms and space which began after World War Two. Long before the appearance of the per-sonal computer, high tech industry grew on defense contracts and rising military budgets.
Its Cold War roots affected every aspect of the industry, from its attitude to-wards unions to the structure of its plants and workforce.
As the electronics indus-try started to grow in the 1950's, the fratricidal struggle within the U.S. labor move-ment, which led to the expulsion of a number of unions and many union members for their leftwing politics, reached its height. One byproduct of that struggle was the near-destruction of the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry - the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). General Elec-tric Corp. in particular, helped to ensure the fragmentation of the workforce in the electrical industry among 13 different unions, with a great portion of workers outside any union at all. As a result, while the new high-tech industry was growing, the ability of electrical and electronics workers to organize unions in the expanding plants was at its lowest point in decades.
From the beginning, high tech workers had to face an industry-wide anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who participated in the invention of the transis-tor, and later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that "remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we'd all go out of business. This is a very high priority for management here. We have to retain flexibility in operating our companies. The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions be-tween workers and management which can paralyze action."
The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-man-agement techniques for maintaining "a union-free environment." Some of those techniques pioneered in Silicon Valley, like the team-concept method for organizing workers on the plant floor, were then used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto-manufacturing to steel-making.
Another co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, won renown as a partisan of theories of the racial inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided the development of the industry in Silicon Valley, they in-stituted policies which effectively segregated its workforce. Silicon Valley electron-ics plants employed a production workforce in which women were the overwhelm-ing majority, in plants where the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the valley's production lines, while engineering and management jobs went to white employees.
Today, Asian workers make up 30% of the skilled production workforce, 47% of the semiskilled workforce, and 41% of the unskilled workforce. Latinos consti-tute 18% of skilled workers, 21% of semiskilled workers, and 36% of unskilled workers. Both groups together are only 17% of management employees, and 25% of professional and engineering employees. The same picture holds true for women. While 23% of management employees are women, and 29% of professionals, women are 80% of clerical employees, 40% of skilled workers, 60% of semiskilled workers, and 50% of unskilled workers.
African-American workers were frozen out almost entirely. Although unemployment in the African-American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels, African-Americans are not above 7.5% of the workforce in any category, and below 3% in management and engineering.
Karen Hossfeld, a sociologist at San Francisco State University who has writ-ten extensively on the status of women in high tech industry, explains the segrega-tion as a conscious decision on the part of manufacturers. "Employers assume for-eign-born women will be unlikely to agitate for pay hikes," she says.
The First Effort - Organizing Semiconductor Workers
The historic base for organizing activity among the high tech workforce for many years were the workers in the semiconductor plants. Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated to the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants, or factories which supplied raw materials to those plants.
One participant in this upsurge was a young woman who helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at the Siliconix plant in the early 1970s. Amy Newell eventually became the national secretary-treasurer of the United Electrical Workers (UE), the highest-ranking woman union officer in the U.S. at the time.
She recalls that "although I got my job at Siliconix by chance, we concentrated on the larger plants because the level of capital investment by the companies was so large there. They were the big players, and we wanted to go for the heart. Neverthe-less, it was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of pow-erlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome."
To organize unions in the large electronics manufacturing plants, Newell says "it seems ob-vious that there has to be a long term effort and commitment, with an industry-wide approach. It's hard to imagine organizing any of the plants without a much larger movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communi-ties in which the workers live."
By the early 1980's, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to involve a signed-up core membership of over 500 workers, who were participants in a number of union campaigns.
Romie Manan was an active member of the committee through the early 1980s, organizing other Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at Na-tional Semiconductor Corp. Manan remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice, in three languages - English, Spanish and Tagalog. Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, and in front of other plants where union members were afraid to make their union sympa-thies public. "A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union," he recalls.
The union depended on the activism of workers in the plants themselves. For a number of years there was no union staff person assigned to Silicon Valley, and at the height of its activity, a single union organizer, Michael Eisenscher, was the committee's link to the national union and its chief organizational resource, running the union mimeograph machine in his own garage.
The strategy of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee envisioned a pro-longed struggle to win the loyalty and commitment of a majority of workers in the semiconductor plants. Committee members challenged the companies on basic questions of wages, working conditions, discrimination and job security. It won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals.
Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semicon-ductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dis-persed as its members sought work where they could find it. The main strategic question which the committee sought to answer remains unresolved.
In large elec-tronics manufacturing plants, employing sometimes more than 10,000 workers, the process of organization is not something which takes place overnight. For a long period of time union-minded workers, especially active ones, are a minority of the workforce. Their organization has to be active on the plant floor, winning over the majority of workers as it fights around the basic conditions which affect them. In the process, it has to be able to help its members survive in an ex-treme anti-union climate.
This kind of long-term perspective is very different from the organizing style found in most unions today, which still view union organizing as a process of win-ning union representation elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Since the prospects at present of successfully fighting a union election cam-paign inside a semiconductor or computer-building plant are extremely remote, most unions have simply abandoned the idea of helping workers in those plants to organize at all, saying that they are "unorganizable."
Toxic Contamination and Runaway Jobs
Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions in the plants and winning bargaining rights, the U.E. Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity, out of which other organizations developed.
The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, included members of the U.E. committee who left the plants to work on its staff. It built broad ties with other unions, with occupational health and safety experts, and with community ac-tivists. It fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the rights of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically-induced industrial ill-ness.
Under pressure from SCCOSH and other health and safety groups, the Semi-conductor Industry Association sponsored a study of 11 plants in 1992, to disprove any connection between the high miscarriage rate among women in the industry, and their job conditions. The SIA study, however, proved exactly the opposite. It found a direct connection between the use of ethylene glycols and high miscarriage rates. SCCOSH then began a Campaign to End the Miscarriage of Justice, to force an end to the use of these chemicals.
"When we talk about organizing," explains Flora Chu, Director of SCCOSH's Asian Workers' Program, "we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for in-stance, aren't used to organizing in groups at work. SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively, instead of as individuals, when they want to confront their employer on issues relating to chemical use. The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, and help workers, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants."
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns which ripped apart the image of the "clean industry." The Toxics Coali-tion won national recognition when it exposed the large-scale contamination of the water table throughout Silicon Valley by electronics manufacturers. Coalition ac-tivists organized the communities surrounding the plants, and forced the Envi-ronmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list.
Communities elsewhere in the country became aware that jobs brought by the construction of new electronics plants came at a potentially high cost. In many areas environmental standards and requirements were increased as a result. The Toxics Coalition also worked with the local labor movement and city governments to force manufacturers to list the chemicals used in the factories, and develop plans for handling the possible release of toxic chemicals in fires or other disasters.
The UE committee's last campaign in 1982 foretold much of the future for semiconductor workers. The committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry's policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. Today, that policy has taken its toll, as over 30,000 semiconductor production jobs have been relocated to other parts of the U.S. and Europe. In 1983 the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 work-ers ten years later.
While the number of engineers and managers has increased slightly, job losses have fallen much more heavily on operators and technicians. "What this re-ally means," according to Romie Manan, still working as a production techni-cian at National Semiconductor, "is that Filipino workers in particular have lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group." Manan himself lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the valley in 1994.
Rapidly-evolving technology in electronics production has a big effect on the lifespan of semiconductor plants. A wafer fabrication line, the basic unit of the pro-duction process, has a useful life of about 10 years. Then it can no longer compete with newer, more automated lines which produce more efficiently. When technol-ogy evolves so rapidly, semiconductor companies must build new plants and new fabs constantly. For workers whose jobs are dependent on the production line, the location of these new plants and lines is a life-and-death ques-tion.
Howard High, a public relations spokesperson at Intel Corp., states flatly that "I really don't think we'll see more semiconductor manufac-turing in Silicon Valley in the future." In 1993 Intel built a new $1 billion plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico instead of California. High says that the company decided to locate it outside Silicon Valley because New Mexico offered Intel an industrial revenue bond worth $1 billion, to help finance the plant's con-struction. California put in a bid as well, but couldn't match the subsidies offered by New Mexico.
Manan and other semiconductor workers believe that lower wages are the de-termining factor. "The truth of the matter is the company can hire workers in New Mexico much more cheaply because wages there are much lower," he says. "New workers also earn a starting wage, around $6-7/hour, unlike those of us with many years in the plants here, who earn more as a consequence. That's why National and other companies won't allow workers to transfer to the other plants."
Whether the main factor is wages or industrial revenue bonds, large electron-ics companies have been able to initiate bidding wars, in which communities around the country compete to win new production facilities by guaranteeing a combination of cost savings, the relaxation of regulations, and direct tax subsidies. In Silicon Valley, that competition is creating a two-tier workforce. The more per-manent jobs in the large manufacturing plants are disappearing. But contractors who provide services to the large companies, from janitorial and food services to the assembly of circuit boards, employ more workers every year.
The New Wave - Organizing the Contractors
Conditions for janitors and contract assemblers are a far cry from those associ-ated in the public mind with high tech manufacturing. Workers losing jobs on wafer fabrication lines in the semiconductor plants make as much as $11-14/hour for operators, and more for technicians. Companies provide medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits. By contrast, contract assemblers and non-union janitors are paid close to the minimum wage of $4.25/hour, have no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all. The decline in living standards has made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the new focus for workers' organizing activity.
In effect, workers in the service and sweatshop sector have been fighting to win wages and benefits close to the level of those won by semiconductor workers at the time of the previous peak in organizing activity ten years earlier. Over that period of time, the workforce of Silicon Valley has been forced to take a giant step backward.
The spark which set off this new wave was the campaign to organize the jani-tors at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. Over 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine in the fall of 1990.
When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal residence in order to keep their jobs. The company cited the requirement, under the em-ployer sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, that it maintain written proof of employees' legal sta-tus. When almost none of Shine's workers could present the required documents, they were fired. The com-pany never questioned the documentation provided by workers when they were hired, or at any other time until the union drive began.
Shine's actions ignited a year-long campaign, which culminated in the signing of a contract for Apple janitors in 1992. After the firings, the union called a meeting of activists in San Jose's large Latino community, along with church and political figures. "We told them that we had taken our struggle as far as we could - that the labor movement is limited because the law hurts workers who want to organize more than it helps them," explained Mike Garcia, president of Lo-cal 1877. "So a community coalition went to picket when our union couldn't, sup-ported the workers with a hunger strike, and started a boycott of Apple prod-ucts." That community effort grew into the Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition.
According to Garcia, understanding the position of immigrant workers was an important part of the successful campaign at Shine and Apple. "Apple spends a lot of money on its image," he explained, "and our strategy attacked it. We helped people to understand that the company was exploiting immigrant janitors, and we forced Apple to take responsibility - we told Apple 'it's your system - you control the contractors; you're causing the exploitation."
The campaign at Shine and Apple was closely watched by other employers in the valley. Using the same strategy, the union went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than those at Apple. The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.
In September of 1992, janitors were joined by electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp., who used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly 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."
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 orders gave a big boost to Versatronex' contract assembly business for 20 years, and workers recall seeing IBM inspectors frequently visiting their plant.
Contract assembly provides a number of benefits for large manufacturers like IBM. Contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers' wages, to the lowest level possible. Manufacturers can place new orders on a moment's notice when production demands increase, without having to hire any workers themselves. When production needs decrease, they can simply cut orders. If workers lose their jobs, the manufacturer will have no responsibility for them.
Workers at Versatronex called in the UE after they had already organized themselves to protest these 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 worker, Joselito Munoz, stood up in the meeting and declared to company supervi-sors that "se acabo el tiempo de la esclavitud," which means "the time of slavery is over." Munoz was fired two days later, and on October 16 Versatronex workers went on strike to win his job back.
In the course of their strike, workers focussed on a large customer whose boards were assembled at Versatronex - Digital Microwave Corp. The year before the strike DMC closed its own manufacturing facility in Scotland. Its orders became a main source 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 the manufacturer responsible for their working con-di-tions. Male strikers supported them by setting up tents and living around the clock on the sidewalk outside its front door. Word of their action spread like an elec-tric current through the valley's immigrant Mexican community.
"We went on a hunger strike against Digital Microwave Corporation because they send work to Versatronex, and then close their eyes to the conditions we work in," explained hunger striker Margarita Aguilera. Aguilera was a student activist in Mexico, and used her experience in student strikes at Versatronex.
In the course of the strike, the workers and the union drew from these ex-periences workers brought with them from Mexico, including the hunger strike. "It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up 'plantons' - tent encampments where workers live for the strike's duration," accord-ing to Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer and Mexico City native. "Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mu-tual support, which workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is a source of strength for our union."
As workers at Versatronex were striking for their union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly factory, USM Inc., began a similar struggle for justice. Their employer closed the factory doors owing them two weeks pay, not an uncommon event in the lives of contract laborers in many industries.
USM workers turned to the Korean Resource Center, a community service agency in Silicon Valley's growing Korean community. Through the winter and the following spring, they organized a series of demonstrations in downtown San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over the assets of the closed factory and refused to pay the workers. "The bank refused to pay because they said the workers had no power," according to Bumshik Eom, a KRC staff member.
In the course of their struggle workers formed an organiza-tion to provide services, job referrals and education programs to Korean immi-grants. "Although some workers wanted to form a union, the belief which others brought from Korea was that unions are communist," Eom says. "But workers could agree on forming an organization to help each other, and to educate each other on their rights as workers."
Despite differences in union experience among different immigrant national-ities, many trade unionists believe that the immigrant workforce is fertile ground for the message of unionism. Immigrant workers are on the bottom, they say, in terms of wages, working conditions, and the quality of life in immigrant communi-ties. The Versatronex strike, and movements like them among other South Bay workers, are upheavals from below, according to Pantoja. "They shine a light on conditions which are like apartheid for immi-grants and sweatshop workers in Sili-con Valley."
According to SEIU organizers, immigrants are the vast majority of building maintenance workers in many U.S. ci-ties. That poses special problems for the union, but it also creates important advantages. Immigrants have a harder time, they explain, standing up for their rights in front of the employer, because they are often unaware of their rights as workers. In addition, sanctions and the threat of deportation make the risk of losing a job much higher than for non-immigrants. Vulnerability to the employer, and the weakness of legal protections, are primary reasons why Justice for Janitors, SEIU's national organizing strategy, doesn't rely on elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board.
Instead, the union combines intense community pressure with an all-out attack on the parent corporation. Marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and other mass ac-tions mobilize the pressure of workers against the employer. The militant history of many immigrants becomes a positive advantage for the union. Eliseo Medina, an-other SEIU leader, explains that "when you come from a country where they shoot you for being a unionist or a striker, then getting fired from your job doesn't seem so bad. Immigrants from Central America have a much more militant history as unionists than we do, and the more militant work-ers are, the more the union can do."
New Obstacles and New Tactics
Many unions have lost faith in the ability of workers to use the legal process for winning union representation, especially the election process administered by the NLRB. One worker out of every ten involved in a union organizing drive was fired as a result in the last ten years. Employers can shift production, spend hun-dreds of thousands of dollars on expert anti-union consultants, and use the fear of job loss to exert enormous pressure on workers. Although technically illegal, these hardball tactics go effectively unpunished when unions and workers rely exclu-sively on the NLRB's legal process.
Tactics like those used at Apple and Versatronex are at the cutting edge of the labor movement's search for new ways to organize. They rely strongly on close al-liances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers. They use organizing tactics based on action by workers themselves, rather than on a lengthy propaganda war during a high-pressure election campaign, which companies almost inevitably win.
Grassroots tactics respond well to the basic issues of low wages and bad conditions prevalent in contract and sweatshop employment. They also contribute to the character of a social movement. As workers organize around conditions they face on the job, they learn organizing methods they can use to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.
The movement to challenge exploitive conditions for contract employees took an important step when janitors united with workers from Versatronex and USM in a march through downtown San Jose, demanding an end to exploitive condi-tions for immigrant workers. Workers, unions and community organizations rec-ognized that it is impossible for any single organization to challenge high tech in-dustry alone.
That point was brought home later, when Versatronex closed its plant in Jan-uary, 1993. Workers ended their strike the previous November, and filed a petition for a representa-tion election in December. "We believe that when the company knew they would lose the election, they decided to close," Pantoja says. "In an industry as anti-union as electronics, I assume that the manufacturers told Versatronex that they would no longer get any orders if workers successfully organized a union in the plant."
Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry seems to have drawn a line be-tween outside services, and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry's basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they cannot.
Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to challenge high tech industry successfully, and to win the right for workers to organize effec-tively in the plants. Combined organizing efforts, in which unions seek to organize many contractors at the same time, would limit the ability of employers to cut off a single contractor like Versatronex.
A step towards this kind of unity was taken when unions and community organi-zations came together in 1993 to protest plans by high tech industry to impose its own blueprint for economic development on the future of Silicon Valley. The industry effort, called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, brought together a coalition of over 100 industry executives and representatives of local government bodies. Together, they projected initiatives to shape public policy on subjects like regula-tory relaxation, education, and resources for technological development.
The labor/community coalition pointed to issues unaddressed by Joint Venture. It drew up a Silicon Valley Pledge, calling on companies to respect the rights of work-ers and communities, and deal with them as equals. Ernestina Garcia, a com-munity activist in San Jose's Chicano community since the 1960s, explained that "we've never felt that the electronics industry had the interests of our communities at heart. If they plan the future of the valley, they're going to do it for their benefit, not ours."
"What we have here are different interests," according to Jorge Gonzalez, chairperson of the Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition. "Economic development in Silicon Valley has historically served the interests of the few. We want devel-opment that serves the interests of the many. Just protecting the competitiveness and profitability of big electronics companies will not necessarily protect our jobs and communities, a safe environment, our right to form unions, or our schools and public services. We don't want anyone telling us that higher profits for big electron-ics companies will give us jobs, and that we should be happy with that."
After their experiences at Apple, Versatronex and other valley factories, unions also tried to organize a much broader, more comprehensive campaign, called the Campaign for Justice. Initiated by the janitors' union, instead of concentrating on a single contractor, or organizing plant-by-plant, it aimed at the whole low-wage contract workforce. While employers could close a single plant in response to organizing activity, organizers argued, closing many plants would be much more difficult.
John Barton, the campaign's coordinator, called for discarding tactics dependent on elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board, saying they were a losing strategy. Instead, he advocated the community-based approach used against Apple and Versatronex. 'We're going back to the 1930s," he said. "We're going to combine strong and militant action in the workplace with effective corporate campaigns. We're going to hold manufacturers responsible for their contractors."
Rather than competing against each other, drawing jurisdictional lines in the sand among the valley's unorganized workers, the Campaign for Justice was based on union cooperation. Four separate interna-tional unions, including the janitors' union, the Teamsters, the hotel and restaurant workers, and the clothing workers, formed an overall strategy committee and contributed re-searchers and organizers to a common pool. Two community representatives also sat on the strategy committee, making joint planning decisions with union representa-tives.
Ultimately, however, the pressure for immediate results led unions other than the janitors to pull out. Local 1877 pushed forward with a drive aimed at the landscape gardeners in the valley's industrial parks. The campaign won the support of many workers, some of whom were fired in the process. Workers marched through the streets and brought community pressure to bear on contractors and their corporate clients.
The campaign was eventually folded into the effort to renew union contracts for the valley's janitors. In Justice for Janitors style, immigrant workers organized sit-in demonstrations blocking streets and expressways. They also threw the union's resources into the statewide effort to defeat the anti-immigrant initiative on the 1994 ballot, Proposition 187. Local 1877 organizers were the backbone of the anti-187 effort in Silicon Valley, which was headquartered in the union's office.
Electronics Companies Press for Political Changes
After President Clinton was elected in 1992, high technology companies began using their support for him during the election to pressing for political changes. Among those they sought were ones in labor law which would, they said, bring it into line with what they called new realities. Unions and workers also wanted changes, including enforcement of exist-ing rights, and new legislation to take into account the proliferation of contracted and temporary work.
The Clinton administration set up a commission to review labor law reform, the Commission on the Future of Labor-Management Relations, known as the Dunlop commission for its chairman, John Dunlop, labor secre-tary under President Nixon. But its mandate, rather than reinforcing workers' union rights, was "to make recommendations concerning what changes, if any, are needed to improve productivity through increased worker-management cooperation and employee participation."
In a step that drew much union criticism, when the Dunlop commission's key hearing in Silicon Valley was convened by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley at the request of Marty Manley, then the Department of Labor's Deputy Secretary for the American Workplace.
Silicon Valley firms have had the ear of the Clinton administration. The president and vice-president have made numerous high-profile visits to company facilities, valley executives were prominent in Clinton's 1992 election campaign, and his chair of the Joint Council of Economic Advisors was Laura d'Andrea Tyson, a UC Berkeley professor with strong ties to the industry. The valley has been the administration's show-piece for revitalizing the U.S. economy, giving industry's point of view on la-bor law reform a lot of weight in Washington.
Ironically, the Dunlop Commission was set up under pressure from unions, who hoped it would examine the failure of existing labor law to enforce work-place rights. Union after union came to hearings in other parts of the country, documenting wholesale violations of existing labor law. Enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act, they said, has become a joke.
In Silicon Valley, the lines in the labor law debate were drawn more clearly than in the hearing which preceded it. In fact, one commission member, Bill Usery, labor secretary under Presi-dent Ford, noted that in other parts of the country most corporate testimony took the position that little reform of labor law was needed. By implication, labor law and the administration of the NLRB have become so ineffective that companies believe it is no longer a significant restraint on their union-fighting activities.
But corporate executives in Silicon Valley were not content with simple inac-tion. Their program which not only called for extensive changes, but involved a whole new philosophy and public policy for labor/management rela-tions. The San Jose hearing pulled the veil from their proposals. In the process, it also unveiled even further the close connections between high tech industry and the Clinton administration.
Under the kleig lights in San Jose's cavernous convention center, witnesses gave the commission a good first-hand look at the "high performance workplace" - at work teams, labor/management cooperation, the contingent workforce, and the new world of "corporate culture and values." According to Pat Hill-Hubbard, senior vice-president of the American Electronics Association, "employees have become de-cision-makers, and management has practically disappeared." She called for "a new public policy for labor-management relations." Doug Henton, representing Joint Venture, was even more blunt. "Unions as they have existed in the past are no longer relevant," he said. "Labor law of 40 years ago is not appropriate to 20th cen-tury economics."
Not everyone agreed. Amy Dean, the new business manager of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, warned the commission to "be cautious, that in our haste to reform, we not have the fox guarding the hen house and call that coopera-tion." The problem, she noted, was that cooperation was only possible "when each party recognizes the legitimacy of the other."
According to many workers and union representatives, the new workplace is one divided between the haves and have nots, where permanent jobs are being abolished, and low-wage jobs in contract services and manufacturing are expanding. Even in the big plants belonging to Silicon Valley's largest employers, workers con-tested the rosy descriptions of a new era in labor/management cooperation.
"The company always told us that they had to be competitive," according to Romie Manan. "Increasing the company's profitability, they said, would increase our job security. That was the purpose of our workteams - to make us efficient and productive. We became more efficient. Our yield rate on each wafer went from 80% to 95%.
"Then the company took the ideas contributed by the experienced workforce in Santa Clara, which they got through the team meetings, and used them to orga-nize new fabs with inexperienced workers in Arlington, Texas, where wages are much lower. The experienced workers lost their jobs. The team meetings stole our experience and ideas, and didn't give us any power to protect our jobs and families."
Manan lost his job after 16 years at the Na-tional Semiconductor plant. "The company chewed us up and spit us out," Manan told the commission bitterly. The workplace of the future "turned out to be the same old thing."
On the other hand, Intel Corporation's Kirby Dyess, vice-president of human relations, led a whole panel of speakers whose choreographed presentation, complete with bullet comments projected from an overhead projector, dwelt at length on elaborate structures in the workplace to promote productivity.
Phuli Siddiqi, an Intel worker, presented "a worker's perspective." She de-scribed "Intel values," which included quality, discipline, risk-taking, customer ori-entation, and holding the opinion that "Intel is a great place to work." She described "worker ownership of projects and products," and the company's program for em-ployee recognition, called "pat on the back." But missing from her presentation was any mention of wages, benefits, job insecurity, or any of the normal day-to-day job concerns that plague most workers, especially in plants where jobs seem to vanish overnight.
Dyess declared that "there are no more jobs at Intel. We just have people and work to be done."
The commission heard numerous presentations by representatives of Tan-dem, 3Com, Applied Materials, the American Electronics Association (AEA), and other companies. None of them mentioned any problems which might cause workers to organize unions. In the "high performance workplace," unions aren't necessary or desired. Work teams have taken their place, they asserted, and provide workers with a voice.
The high level of participation by electronics companies in the Dunlop hearing reflected one of their biggest problems. Many of their new structures for la-bor/management cooperation are illegal.
A key section of labor law, section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, prohibits company unions. The law was written in the 1930s, when many big US corporations tried to organize unions for their workers, in order to prevent workers from organizing independent unions of their own. Labor law was intended to out-law company unions like the Colorado Industrial Plan, organized by John D. Rocke-feller in his Ludlow coalmines, just weeks after the infamous "Ludlow massacre" of the wives and children of striking miners.
In a recent decision in the case of Electromation Corp., a federal court held that workteams set up to discourage workers from organizing a separate and inde-pendent union function as the old company unions did. Dyess was very specific about the desire of large electronics companies to modify that court decision, and to even eliminate section 8(a)(2). She said that Intel would turn the heat on in Congress to get rid of it, and expected other companies in the AEA to do the same.
At National Semiconductor, according to Manan, the company's overall la-bor/management cooperation scheme was intended to fight unions. Manan, a shopfloor leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s of the United Electrical Workers' Electronics Organizing Committee, described how National set up its scheme, telling workers that they had to team up with management in order to defeat the Japanese competition. Fear for their jobs, he said, drove workers to join the teams.
In the middle of wage cuts and National's first big waves of layoffs, "we tried to organize a union in my plant and in others," Manan told the commission. "All the union leaders in my plant except for myself were fired. Most of the union ac-tivists in other plants were fired as well. Although we filed charges with the Na-tional Labor Relations Board, no one was ever rehired, and in many cases the board wouldn't even issue a complaint."
The hearing also saw unions take on another part of the dark underside of high tech employment - the contingent workforce. Esther Thompson, a janitor who cleans Apple's buildings, told commissioners that "I need two jobs because neither pays enough to pay my rent, feed my children and pay my bills."
According to Mike Garcia, president of the valley's janitors' union, Service Employees Local 1877, "high technology manufacturing, instead of creating the high-wage, high-skill jobs that will bring prosperity to our country, will pattern itself after the service sector. The inevitable result," he said, "will be contractors in manu-facturing competing over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest."
Labor law, he said, should tie contractors to the manufacturers they work for. At present, although big manufacturers control the wages and worklives of contract workers indirectly, they have no responsibility for them. If the janitors who clean Apple's buildings, for instance, lose their jobs because Apple changes janitorial contractors, workers have no right to picket Apple itself. If they do, they themselves are violat-ing labor law.
Predictably, high-tech employers oppose this change, along with any other proposal to enforce organizing rights.
After the hearing adjourned, one of the commissioners, Thomas Kochan, an MIT management professor, was blunt about the commission's dilemma. "If we bring the administration a traditional package [of labor law reforms], it'll die on the vine." In the only real exchange between commissioners and witnesses during the hearing, both Kochan and commissioner Doug Fraser, past president of the United Auto Workers, tried to get industry representatives to agree to a tradeoff in return for concessions on 8(a)(2). Would they agree, for instance, to accept responsibility for contingent or contract workers, and allow workplace committees to really repre-sent workers in dealing with management over wages and working conditions?
"We're not looking for someone to represent employees," responded Debo-rah Barber from Quantum Corp. "The concept of representation seems archaic," added Cheryl Fields-Tyler from the AEA. When Fraser asked them what alterna-tives existed for workers unhappy with management decisions, Debra Engel, vice-president of 3-Com answered: "the company has an open-door policy."
The audience laughed.
When the Dunlop Commission finally made its report months later, it tried to placate each side in the debate. It made minor concessions to unions by recommending better enforcement of existing law, and then recommended altering 8(a)(2) to legalize labor-management cooperation programs.
Ultimately, the dilemma was turned on its head by the election of November, 1994. The Republican Party won a majority in both houses of Congress, and promptly introduced a bill to accomplish the high-tech agenda on labor law reform - the elimination of 8(a)(2) - with no concession to unions of any kind. President Clinton then promised the AFL-CIO that he would veto the TEAM Act, as the Republicans called it. No one wanted to bring up the awkward point that the administration's own Dunlop Commission had opened the door.
Perhaps the most telling comment about the state of labor law today is that the most effective organizing activity among workers is that which depends on the law the least. While it seems that this activity has given up any immediate hope of reform, labor law reform efforts ultimately depend on real-life organizing activity.
Steve Lerner, architect of the national Justice for Janitors strategy, recalls that the National Labor Relations Act was only passed in the 1930s in response to large-scale strikes and organizing drives. "Workers will get better laws," Lerner said, "not because that's a good idea, but because the level of conflict is so disruptive that a rational system is better. Labor law won't change unless there's a demonstrated need." He calls on unions not to wait for reforms before making much greater efforts to assist workers who want to organize unions. "The very fact of organizing is the most compelling argument for protecting workers' rights," he declares.
In the fall of 1995, a new leadership was elected to head the AFL-CIO. John Sweeney, who had been president of the Service Employees, and a staunch supporter of Justice for Janitors, became the federation's new president. During the struggle over leadership Tom Donahue, the interim AFL-CIO president whom Sweeney defeated, tried to convince convention delegates that the federation was really a narrow "trade union movement." He attacked his opponents for supporting a "labor movement," or "social movement," one which would move away from Washington and into the streets, organizing and speaking for immigrants and low-wage workers, in unions and out of them.
Donahue called on delegates to "build bridges, not block them," a slap at Sweeney's union, the Service Employees. The organizing tactics of the union's showpiece campaign, Justice for Janitors, bring low-wage and minority workers into the streets, blocking thoroughfares and getting arrested.
Donahue tried to label his opponents as advocates of civil disobedience, in much the same way his predecessors redbaited the opposition of the past. Militancy, he said, "marginalizes" the labor movement. Debating him on the floor of the convention, Sweeney advocated a new commitment to use direct action tactics where necessary to organize workers on a much larger scale. In the end, most AFL-CIO delegates saw Donahue's vision as the source of labor's marginalization, not the solution to it, and elected Sweeney instead.
In many ways, the Sweeney program for change is more limited than the movement which propelled it into office. It seeks to solve most problems by hiring staff, and organizing committees and taskforces within the AFL-CIO structure, in a strategy called by one supporter "revolution from above." Sweeney and his supporters still inherit the mental framework which sees organizing drives primarily as the product of paid staff, rather than as an upsurge among workers themselves. But that framework will be challenged, and perhaps changed, in the course of the large-scale campaigns he proposes.
The new leadership of the AFL-CIO is not likely to assign vast new resources to help organize the electronics industry in Silicon Valley as it first priority. Other campaigns, particularly large-scale, immigrant-based drives in Los Angeles are already underway and are first in line for money and organizers. But Silicon Valley is the citadel, the fortress of the country's most anti-union industry. Overcoming it has the same strategic necessity that organizing the steel and auto industries in Pittsburgh and Detroit had to the great industrial union upsurge of the 1930s.
For the working-class and minority communities of Silicon Valley to assert their own interests, and to ensure that economic development meets their needs, the workers in the valley's plants must be organized. High tech industry dominates every aspect of life in Silicon Valley, and its voice is virtually unchallenged on questions of public policy, because the workers who have created the valley's fabulous wealth have no voice of their own.
Strong, democratic, rank-and-file unions in the electronics plants will give them that voice, and in the process will change every aspect of political and economic life. The basic decisions on issues of living standards, job relocation, toxic pollution, housing, discrimination, and economic development must be made by the people those decisions affect the most, not made for them by employers or public officials, whether well-intentioned or not.
This is the challenge of Silicon Valley. This is the goal sought-after by its working people for three decades. While it hasn't been achieved yet, the struggles which will lead to it are already taking place.
Biographical note: David Bacon worked at National Semiconductor for a number of years until he was fired in 1982. He was president of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee from 1978 to 1983, and coordinated the three UE organizers assigned to the Versatronex strike.
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