Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
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.
Part 1. Introduction
PEACE & JUSTICE
WORKPLACE | STRIKES | PORTRAITS | FARMWORKERS | UNIONS | STUDENTS
Special Project: TRANSNATIONAL WORKING COMMUNITIES
HOME | NEWS | STORIES | PHOTOGRAPHS | LINKS
photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999
website by DigIt Designs © 1999