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