Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers
by David Bacon
Perhaps the most telling comment about the state of labor law today is that the most effective organizing activity among workers is that which depends on the law the least. While it seems that this activity has given up any immediate hope of reform, labor law reform efforts ultimately depend on real-life organizing activity.
Steve Lerner, architect of the national Justice for Janitors strategy, recalls that the National Labor Relations Act was only passed in the 1930s in response to large-scale strikes and organizing drives. "Workers will get better laws," Lerner said, "not because that's a good idea, but because the level of conflict is so disruptive that a rational system is better. Labor law won't change unless there's a demonstrated need." He calls on unions not to wait for reforms before making much greater efforts to assist workers who want to organize unions. "The very fact of organizing is the most compelling argument for protecting workers' rights," he declares.
In the fall of 1995, a new leadership was elected to head the AFL-CIO. John Sweeney, who had been president of the Service Employees, and a staunch supporter of Justice for Janitors, became the federation's new president. During the struggle over leadership Tom Donahue, the interim AFL-CIO president whom Sweeney defeated, tried to convince convention delegates that the federation was really a narrow "trade union movement." He attacked his opponents for supporting a "labor movement," or "social movement," one which would move away from Washington and into the streets, organizing and speaking for immigrants and low-wage workers, in unions and out of them.
Donahue called on delegates to "build bridges, not block them," a slap at Sweeney's union, the Service Employees. The organizing tactics of the union's showpiece campaign, Justice for Janitors, bring low-wage and minority workers into the streets, blocking thoroughfares and getting arrested.
Donahue tried to label his opponents as advocates of civil disobedience, in much the same way his predecessors redbaited the opposition of the past. Militancy, he said, "marginalizes" the labor movement. Debating him on the floor of the convention, Sweeney advocated a new commitment to use direct action tactics where necessary to organize workers on a much larger scale. In the end, most AFL-CIO delegates saw Donahue's vision as the source of labor's marginalization, not the solution to it, and elected Sweeney instead.
In many ways, the Sweeney program for change is more limited than the movement which propelled it into office. It seeks to solve most problems by hiring staff, and organizing committees and taskforces within the AFL-CIO structure, in a strategy called by one supporter "revolution from above." Sweeney and his supporters still inherit the mental framework which sees organizing drives primarily as the product of paid staff, rather than as an upsurge among workers themselves. But that framework will be challenged, and perhaps changed, in the course of the large-scale campaigns he proposes.
The new leadership of the AFL-CIO is not likely to assign vast new resources to help organize the electronics industry in Silicon Valley as it first priority. Other campaigns, particularly large-scale, immigrant-based drives in Los Angeles are already underway and are first in line for money and organizers. But Silicon Valley is the citadel, the fortress of the country's most anti-union industry. Overcoming it has the same strategic necessity that organizing the steel and auto industries in Pittsburgh and Detroit had to the great industrial union upsurge of the 1930s.
For the working-class and minority communities of Silicon Valley to assert their own interests, and to ensure that economic development meets their needs, the workers in the valley's plants must be organized. High tech industry dominates every aspect of life in Silicon Valley, and its voice is virtually unchallenged on questions of public policy, because the workers who have created the valley's fabulous wealth have no voice of their own.
Strong, democratic, rank-and-file unions in the electronics plants will give them that voice, and in the process will change every aspect of political and economic life. The basic decisions on issues of living standards, job relocation, toxic pollution, housing, discrimination, and economic development must be made by the people those decisions affect the most, not made for them by employers or public officials, whether well-intentioned or not.
This is the challenge of Silicon Valley. This is the goal sought-after by its working people for three decades. While it hasn't been achieved yet, the struggles which will lead to it are already taking place.
Biographical note: David Bacon worked at National Semiconductor for a number of years until he was fired in 1982. He was president of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee from 1978 to 1983, and coordinated the three UE organizers assigned to the Versatronex strike.
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