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Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
On January 29, 1993 the last workers at the Versatronex plant in Sunnyvale 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 The image of the clean industry has been replaced by the specter of toxic contamination of the valley's water supply, and a high occurrence of chemically-induced industrial illness.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.
Part 1. Introduction
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