Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
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."
Part 1. Introduction
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