David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Organizing Silicon Valley - Unions Begin the Biggest Job of All
by David Bacon

SAN JOSE (1/19/94) - Most union organizing drives don't start by going door-to-door in Latino barrios. Most campaigns don't speak seven languages or talk about issues as far from the workplace as housing problems or police harassment.

But in Silicon Valley, what promises to become the nation's largest union organizing drive in the last 20 years is doing just that. If it succeeds, it will change the way unions in the whole country organize. It is challenging the most anti-union industry in America - high technology electronics.

Workers call it the Campaign for Justice.

Its roots lie in two years of increasing labor turbulence and unrest in the nation's high-tech showplace. Although the Clinton administration increasingly points to Silicon Valley as a guide for renewing the economy, conditions for workers here get worse. Many big factories are closing production lines and laying off longtime employees. Low-wage jobs working for contractors proliferate. High tech workers fear they're being left in the rest area of the nation's information superhighway.

Electronics production depends on a two-tier workforce. On the top are the engineers and software designers. The visible elite. On the bottom, workers who are mostly immigrant women assemble circuit boards, clean buildings, serve food, and make the big factories hum.

They are not so visible. Most work for contractors, for $4.25 an hour, without medical care or other benefits. Campaign organizers estimate that 50,000 people hold these jobs, and form an integral part of the high tech production process.

It's a big target.

Seeds for this campaign were planted when immigrant janitors at Apple Computer and Hewlett Packard won precedent-setting union contracts two years ago. Then last year, the first strike among high tech production workers in Silicon Valley's history flared at Versatronex. Strikers say that the electronics industry closed the plant, rather than see it sign a union contract.

Last week immigrant-based unions in Silicon Valley met with community organizations and churches in a basement union hall in San Jose. Based on their experiences at Apple, Versatronex and other valley factories, they began a much broader campaign. Instead of concentrating on a single contractor, or organizing plant-by-plant, they are aiming at the whole low-wage contract workforce. While employers can close a single plant in response to organizing activity, they argue, closing many plants would be much more difficult.

Experiences like those at Apple and Versatronex have convinced campaign planners that traditional union organizing methods are ineffective. John Barton, the campaign's coordinator, calls those tactics, dependent on elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board, part of a losing strategy. Instead, he draws on a decade of new and sophisticated thinking in unions. "We're actually going back to the 1930s," he says. "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 is based on union cooperation. This marks another historic change. Four separate international unions have formed an overall strategy committee, and have contributed researchers and organizers to a common pool. They include the janitors' union, the Teamsters, the hotel and restaurant workers, and the clothing workers. Thousands of immigrant workers already belong to these unions, where they form a base pushing forward new, immigrant leadership.

The heart of the campaign is a community-union alliance, evolving in Silicon Valley since the late 1980s. Two community representatives sit on the strategy committee, making joint planning decisions with union representatives.

Jorge Gonzalez, head of the Raza Si community organization, joined the steering committee because he concluded that union drives in the valley were affecting the way immigrant workers deal with problems away from work. "We have janitors," he said, "who were afraid and shy before, who now can confront their landlord and demand better conditions, and even stand up to the police or the migra if they're harassed." Gonzalez calls unions "the best anti-poverty programs" for immigrant workers in Silicon Valley.

Instead of starting by leafletting factories and workplaces, organizers work farmworker style, going door-to-door in the huge apartment complexes housing the valley's immigrant workforce. They say that San Jose is like Detroit. In Motor City, autoworkers are everywhere. In San Jose you can't walk down the block in poor, working-class neighborhoods without meeting electronics workers.

While Latino workers are the most active segment of the campaign, other nationalities are being drawn in. At one contract assembly plant, Solectron, different Asian nationalities make up over 75% of the workforce, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Koreans and Filipinos. To cope with such a diverse workforce, organizers have been brought on staff who speak those languages and know those communities.

The campaign is developing a core of committed workers in many plants. Worker activists are already pressing for small improvements, such as lighting in parking lots at night to discourage attacks on women workers.

As the campaign heats up, some have already begun to lose their jobs. Daniel Garcia, a campaign activist, was fired after working for a landscaping contractor at the plants for 4 years. He and other workers protested working 9.5 hours for 8 hours pay. "What's happening to us isn't right," he said. "We all want to be members of a union if it's a union like this. We need it."

While firings like Garcia's sometimes inspire greater commitment, the threat of job loss is still the primary obstacle to workers who want to join unions, not just in Silicon Valley, but across the country. Nationwide, one in every ten workers involved in an organizing drive today loses their job.

The Clinton administration has created a commission which should protect them, the Dunlop Commission, established to recommend reforms in labor law. Unions are calling for reforms which would penalize employers for firing workers like Garcia.

The Dunlop Commission is coming to Silicon Valley to hold hearings. Will the administration have the political will to reform the law, giving the Campaign for Justice a chance to challenge some of the most powerful companies in the U.S. today? Or will it be blinded by the polite fiction that Silicon Valley is filled with smiling, happy workers?

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