Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
After President Clinton was elected in 1992, high technology companies began using their support for him during the election to pressing for political changes. Among those they sought were ones in labor law which would, they said, bring it into line with what they called new realities. Unions and workers also wanted changes, including enforcement of exist-ing rights, and new legislation to take into account the proliferation of contracted and temporary work.
The Clinton administration set up a commission to review labor law reform, the Commission on the Future of Labor-Management Relations, known as the Dunlop commission for its chairman, John Dunlop, labor secre-tary under President Nixon. But its mandate, rather than reinforcing workers' union rights, was "to make recommendations concerning what changes, if any, are needed to improve productivity through increased worker-management cooperation and employee participation."
In a step that drew much union criticism, when the Dunlop commission's key hearing in Silicon Valley was convened by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley at the request of Marty Manley, then the Department of Labor's Deputy Secretary for the American Workplace.
Silicon Valley firms have had the ear of the Clinton administration. The president and vice-president have made numerous high-profile visits to company facilities, valley executives were prominent in Clinton's 1992 election campaign, and his chair of the Joint Council of Economic Advisors was Laura d'Andrea Tyson, a UC Berkeley professor with strong ties to the industry. The valley has been the administration's show-piece for revitalizing the U.S. economy, giving industry's point of view on la-bor law reform a lot of weight in Washington.
Ironically, the Dunlop Commission was set up under pressure from unions, who hoped it would examine the failure of existing labor law to enforce work-place rights. Union after union came to hearings in other parts of the country, documenting wholesale violations of existing labor law. Enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act, they said, has become a joke.
In Silicon Valley, the lines in the labor law debate were drawn more clearly than in the hearing which preceded it. In fact, one commission member, Bill Usery, labor secretary under Presi-dent Ford, noted that in other parts of the country most corporate testimony took the position that little reform of labor law was needed. By implication, labor law and the administration of the NLRB have become so ineffective that companies believe it is no longer a significant restraint on their union-fighting activities.
But corporate executives in Silicon Valley were not content with simple inac-tion. Their program which not only called for extensive changes, but involved a whole new philosophy and public policy for labor/management rela-tions. The San Jose hearing pulled the veil from their proposals. In the process, it also unveiled even further the close connections between high tech industry and the Clinton administration.
Under the kleig lights in San Jose's cavernous convention center, witnesses gave the commission a good first-hand look at the "high performance workplace" - at work teams, labor/management cooperation, the contingent workforce, and the new world of "corporate culture and values." According to Pat Hill-Hubbard, senior vice-president of the American Electronics Association, "employees have become de-cision-makers, and management has practically disappeared." She called for "a new public policy for labor-management relations." Doug Henton, representing Joint Venture, was even more blunt. "Unions as they have existed in the past are no longer relevant," he said. "Labor law of 40 years ago is not appropriate to 20th cen-tury economics."
Not everyone agreed. Amy Dean, the new business manager of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, warned the commission to "be cautious, that in our haste to reform, we not have the fox guarding the hen house and call that coopera-tion." The problem, she noted, was that cooperation was only possible "when each party recognizes the legitimacy of the other."
According to many workers and union representatives, the new workplace is one divided between the haves and have nots, where permanent jobs are being abolished, and low-wage jobs in contract services and manufacturing are expanding. Even in the big plants belonging to Silicon Valley's largest employers, workers con-tested the rosy descriptions of a new era in labor/management cooperation.
"The company always told us that they had to be competitive," according to Romie Manan. "Increasing the company's profitability, they said, would increase our job security. That was the purpose of our workteams - to make us efficient and productive. We became more efficient. Our yield rate on each wafer went from 80% to 95%.
"Then the company took the ideas contributed by the experienced workforce in Santa Clara, which they got through the team meetings, and used them to orga-nize new fabs with inexperienced workers in Arlington, Texas, where wages are much lower. The experienced workers lost their jobs. The team meetings stole our experience and ideas, and didn't give us any power to protect our jobs and families."
Manan lost his job after 16 years at the Na-tional Semiconductor plant. "The company chewed us up and spit us out," Manan told the commission bitterly. The workplace of the future "turned out to be the same old thing."
On the other hand, Intel Corporation's Kirby Dyess, vice-president of human relations, led a whole panel of speakers whose choreographed presentation, complete with bullet comments projected from an overhead projector, dwelt at length on elaborate structures in the workplace to promote productivity.
Phuli Siddiqi, an Intel worker, presented "a worker's perspective." She de-scribed "Intel values," which included quality, discipline, risk-taking, customer ori-entation, and holding the opinion that "Intel is a great place to work." She described "worker ownership of projects and products," and the company's program for em-ployee recognition, called "pat on the back." But missing from her presentation was any mention of wages, benefits, job insecurity, or any of the normal day-to-day job concerns that plague most workers, especially in plants where jobs seem to vanish overnight.
Dyess declared that "there are no more jobs at Intel. We just have people and work to be done."
The commission heard numerous presentations by representatives of Tan-dem, 3Com, Applied Materials, the American Electronics Association (AEA), and other companies. None of them mentioned any problems which might cause workers to organize unions. In the "high performance workplace," unions aren't necessary or desired. Work teams have taken their place, they asserted, and provide workers with a voice.
The high level of participation by electronics companies in the Dunlop hearing reflected one of their biggest problems. Many of their new structures for la-bor/management cooperation are illegal.
A key section of labor law, section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, prohibits company unions. The law was written in the 1930s, when many big US corporations tried to organize unions for their workers, in order to prevent workers from organizing independent unions of their own. Labor law was intended to out-law company unions like the Colorado Industrial Plan, organized by John D. Rocke-feller in his Ludlow coalmines, just weeks after the infamous "Ludlow massacre" of the wives and children of striking miners.
In a recent decision in the case of Electromation Corp., a federal court held that workteams set up to discourage workers from organizing a separate and inde-pendent union function as the old company unions did. Dyess was very specific about the desire of large electronics companies to modify that court decision, and to even eliminate section 8(a)(2). She said that Intel would turn the heat on in Congress to get rid of it, and expected other companies in the AEA to do the same.
At National Semiconductor, according to Manan, the company's overall la-bor/management cooperation scheme was intended to fight unions. Manan, a shopfloor leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s of the United Electrical Workers' Electronics Organizing Committee, described how National set up its scheme, telling workers that they had to team up with management in order to defeat the Japanese competition. Fear for their jobs, he said, drove workers to join the teams.
In the middle of wage cuts and National's first big waves of layoffs, "we tried to organize a union in my plant and in others," Manan told the commission. "All the union leaders in my plant except for myself were fired. Most of the union ac-tivists in other plants were fired as well. Although we filed charges with the Na-tional Labor Relations Board, no one was ever rehired, and in many cases the board wouldn't even issue a complaint."
The hearing also saw unions take on another part of the dark underside of high tech employment - the contingent workforce. Esther Thompson, a janitor who cleans Apple's buildings, told commissioners that "I need two jobs because neither pays enough to pay my rent, feed my children and pay my bills."
According to Mike Garcia, president of the valley's janitors' union, Service Employees Local 1877, "high technology manufacturing, instead of creating the high-wage, high-skill jobs that will bring prosperity to our country, will pattern itself after the service sector. The inevitable result," he said, "will be contractors in manu-facturing competing over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest."
Labor law, he said, should tie contractors to the manufacturers they work for. At present, although big manufacturers control the wages and worklives of contract workers indirectly, they have no responsibility for them. If the janitors who clean Apple's buildings, for instance, lose their jobs because Apple changes janitorial contractors, workers have no right to picket Apple itself. If they do, they themselves are violat-ing labor law.
Predictably, high-tech employers oppose this change, along with any other proposal to enforce organizing rights.
After the hearing adjourned, one of the commissioners, Thomas Kochan, an MIT management professor, was blunt about the commission's dilemma. "If we bring the administration a traditional package [of labor law reforms], it'll die on the vine." In the only real exchange between commissioners and witnesses during the hearing, both Kochan and commissioner Doug Fraser, past president of the United Auto Workers, tried to get industry representatives to agree to a tradeoff in return for concessions on 8(a)(2). Would they agree, for instance, to accept responsibility for contingent or contract workers, and allow workplace committees to really repre-sent workers in dealing with management over wages and working conditions?
"We're not looking for someone to represent employees," responded Debo-rah Barber from Quantum Corp. "The concept of representation seems archaic," added Cheryl Fields-Tyler from the AEA. When Fraser asked them what alterna-tives existed for workers unhappy with management decisions, Debra Engel, vice-president of 3-Com answered: "the company has an open-door policy."
The audience laughed.
When the Dunlop Commission finally made its report months later, it tried to placate each side in the debate. It made minor concessions to unions by recommending better enforcement of existing law, and then recommended altering 8(a)(2) to legalize labor-management cooperation programs.
Ultimately, the dilemma was turned on its head by the election of November, 1994. The Republican Party won a majority in both houses of Congress, and promptly introduced a bill to accomplish the high-tech agenda on labor law reform - the elimination of 8(a)(2) - with no concession to unions of any kind. President Clinton then promised the AFL-CIO that he would veto the TEAM Act, as the Republicans called it. No one wanted to bring up the awkward point that the administration's own Dunlop Commission had opened the door.
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