Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
Many unions have lost faith in the ability of workers to use the legal process for winning union representation, especially the election process administered by the NLRB. One worker out of every ten involved in a union organizing drive was fired as a result in the last ten years. Employers can shift production, spend hun-dreds of thousands of dollars on expert anti-union consultants, and use the fear of job loss to exert enormous pressure on workers. Although technically illegal, these hardball tactics go effectively unpunished when unions and workers rely exclu-sively on the NLRB's legal process.
Tactics like those used at Apple and Versatronex are at the cutting edge of the labor movement's search for new ways to organize. They rely strongly on close al-liances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers. They use organizing tactics based on action by workers themselves, rather than on a lengthy propaganda war during a high-pressure election campaign, which companies almost inevitably win.
Grassroots tactics respond well to the basic issues of low wages and bad conditions prevalent in contract and sweatshop employment. They also contribute to the character of a social movement. As workers organize around conditions they face on the job, they learn organizing methods they can use to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.
The movement to challenge exploitive conditions for contract employees took an important step when janitors united with workers from Versatronex and USM in a march through downtown San Jose, demanding an end to exploitive condi-tions for immigrant workers. Workers, unions and community organizations rec-ognized that it is impossible for any single organization to challenge high tech in-dustry alone.
That point was brought home later, when Versatronex closed its plant in Jan-uary, 1993. Workers ended their strike the previous November, and filed a petition for a representa-tion election in December. "We believe that when the company knew they would lose the election, they decided to close," Pantoja says. "In an industry as anti-union as electronics, I assume that the manufacturers told Versatronex that they would no longer get any orders if workers successfully organized a union in the plant."
Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry seems to have drawn a line be-tween outside services, and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry's basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they cannot.
Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to challenge high tech industry successfully, and to win the right for workers to organize effec-tively in the plants. Combined organizing efforts, in which unions seek to organize many contractors at the same time, would limit the ability of employers to cut off a single contractor like Versatronex.
A step towards this kind of unity was taken when unions and community organi-zations came together in 1993 to protest plans by high tech industry to impose its own blueprint for economic development on the future of Silicon Valley. The industry effort, called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, brought together a coalition of over 100 industry executives and representatives of local government bodies. Together, they projected initiatives to shape public policy on subjects like regula-tory relaxation, education, and resources for technological development.
The labor/community coalition pointed to issues unaddressed by Joint Venture. It drew up a Silicon Valley Pledge, calling on companies to respect the rights of work-ers and communities, and deal with them as equals. Ernestina Garcia, a com-munity activist in San Jose's Chicano community since the 1960s, explained that "we've never felt that the electronics industry had the interests of our communities at heart. If they plan the future of the valley, they're going to do it for their benefit, not ours."
"What we have here are different interests," according to Jorge Gonzalez, chairperson of the Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition. "Economic development in Silicon Valley has historically served the interests of the few. We want devel-opment that serves the interests of the many. Just protecting the competitiveness and profitability of big electronics companies will not necessarily protect our jobs and communities, a safe environment, our right to form unions, or our schools and public services. We don't want anyone telling us that higher profits for big electron-ics companies will give us jobs, and that we should be happy with that."
After their experiences at Apple, Versatronex and other valley factories, unions also tried to organize a much broader, more comprehensive campaign, called the Campaign for Justice. Initiated by the janitors' union, instead of concentrating on a single contractor, or organizing plant-by-plant, it aimed at the whole low-wage contract workforce. While employers could close a single plant in response to organizing activity, organizers argued, closing many plants would be much more difficult.
John Barton, the campaign's coordinator, called for discarding tactics dependent on elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board, saying they were a losing strategy. Instead, he advocated the community-based approach used against Apple and Versatronex. 'We're going back to the 1930s," he said. "We're going to combine strong and militant action in the workplace with effective corporate campaigns. We're going to hold manufacturers responsible for their contractors."
Rather than competing against each other, drawing jurisdictional lines in the sand among the valley's unorganized workers, the Campaign for Justice was based on union cooperation. Four separate interna-tional unions, including the janitors' union, the Teamsters, the hotel and restaurant workers, and the clothing workers, formed an overall strategy committee and contributed re-searchers and organizers to a common pool. Two community representatives also sat on the strategy committee, making joint planning decisions with union representa-tives.
Ultimately, however, the pressure for immediate results led unions other than the janitors to pull out. Local 1877 pushed forward with a drive aimed at the landscape gardeners in the valley's industrial parks. The campaign won the support of many workers, some of whom were fired in the process. Workers marched through the streets and brought community pressure to bear on contractors and their corporate clients.
The campaign was eventually folded into the effort to renew union contracts for the valley's janitors. In Justice for Janitors style, immigrant workers organized sit-in demonstrations blocking streets and expressways. They also threw the union's resources into the statewide effort to defeat the anti-immigrant initiative on the 1994 ballot, Proposition 187. Local 1877 organizers were the backbone of the anti-187 effort in Silicon Valley, which was headquartered in the union's office.
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