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