David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Silicon Sludge
Immigrant Filipino workers fight toxic working conditions in anti-union Silicon Valley
by David Bacon

SILICON VALLEY, CA (10/29/97) -- In Redwood City, Calif., a working-class town halfway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, a string of railroad tank cars sat for days on a track at the waste transfer station belonging to Romic Environmental Technologies. The used solvents they contained had long since been pumped away, leaving a sludge of accumulated toxic waste so thick that gravity alone couldn't drain it out.

Someone had to climb into the tanks, and shovel the sludge down to the drain valve, the company decided. The first six cars were cleaned by Romic employee Luis Lopez. He later told investigators from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA), that he normally used an MST breathing apparatus, which was supposed to pump air into his mask while he was down inside the railcars. But after the apparatus began continually setting off alarms for dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide, Lopez says the company told him to stop using it. He then quit or was terminated.

Then the company called Rodrigo Cruz, and on the morning of Feb. 15, 1995, he reported to the Romic facility.

Cruz declined to be interviewed, but in statements he gave to CalOSHA and in legal depositions, he explained he had worked for the company for a little over a year, at the main toxic waste storage yard in East Palo Alto, 15 miles away. He'd never gone into a railroad car to clean one before, or used the MST breathing apparatus.

Nevertheless, he put the apparatus on, pulled a protective tyvek suit over his clothes, and went in.

According to a statement he gave to CalOSHA, after pushing the sludge toward the drain for a couple of hours, Cruz came out and took a break. He says he complained that he wasn't getting enough air, and a company statement to CalOSHA says that "Rodrigo commented to Rudy that he wanted a little more air." Then, when he went back in, he experienced severe breathing problems. In his later statements, he describes that he could get no air at all. Somehow he didn't fall into the sludge and begin breathing the gasses in the tank, which almost certainly would have killed him.

Instead, he managed to get himself back down the dark tank until he was under the hatch where he'd entered, and caught the attention of another employee above. He was hauled out.

He stripped off the breathing apparatus and his suit, now smeared with waste from the tank. The company's CalOSHA statement says that after he sat in the back of a truck for five minutes, "Rodrigo started experiencing difficulties breathing and then laid over onto his side." Cruz lost consciousness and collapsed. Someone called 911. Police arrived on the scene, followed by paramedics, and he was taken away in an ambulance. The police discovered that duct tape had been wrapped around the coupling connecting the air hoses and the breathing apparatus, and cut it off as evidence.

Cruz didn't die, but the effects of that morning will last the rest of his life. He has excruciating headaches and no sense of balance. His reflexes are shot and he can't drive or ride a bike. He has difficulty remembering things. Allergies and waves of depression repeatedly sweep over him, according Amanda Hawes, who represented Cruz in a civil action.

Doctors have concluded that he suffered from oxygen deprivation in the railcar. In addition, CalOSHA found the sludge contained xylene, benzene, methyl ethyl ketone, and trichloroethane, all dangerous but commonly used solvents in electronics. They can cause cancer and liver damage over time. Cruz has no way of knowing what he may suffer years from now.

Chris Stampolis, Romic's community relations manager, described the Romic's operations generally in an interview, but would not answer questions about the incident involving Cruz, citing legal reasons. "The company has proper procedures if someone has a problem," he said. He described the tank's contents as "alternative fuels residue," because the solvents contained in the railcar are burned in a cement plant.

Rodrigo Cruz's case has become a nightmare legend for thousands of Silicon Valley's immigrant Filipino workers. They discuss it in whispered conversations up and down the factory production lines and in the tiny Asian groceries that dot the home of high tech.

The sludge at the bottom of the tank car, effluent accumulated from semiconductor and computer assembly plants, is the valley's toxic residue. "Half of the material processed by Romic is generated by Silicon Valley companies," says Stampolis.

Cruz worked at the bottom of this industry. He was one of thousands of Asian immigrants who do the jobs that include the most chemical exposure and pay the least. In the high-tech workforce, According to a study by Lenny Siegal, director of the Pacific Studies Center in Mountain View, Asian immigrants make up 30 percent of skilled production workers and 47 percent of semiskilled workers, and fill 41 percent of unskilled jobs like the one Cruz performed. Of the many Asian nationalities in the plants, Filipinos make up the largest group by far.

For three months following that morning in the tank, Cruz traversed a gauntlet of Silicon Valley lawyers and social-service agencies looking for help. Romic fought his workers' compensation insurance claim, and he was worried about how he would live. He was unable to work, perhaps for the rest of his life. One afternoon, he walked through the door of the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, an old house converted into movement-style offices, across the street from San Jose's city hall.

SCCOSH, founded in 1979 by electronics workers and health and safety activists, has a long history of battling the electronics industry over toxic contamination. In two decades it has become the main educational resource for Silicon Valley workers fighting to protect their health on the job.

Lawyers working with the center have repeatedly sued and filed workers' compensation claims against most of the large manufacturers on behalf of workers disabled by toxic exposure. The list includes the giants of the industry - Intel, National Semiconductor, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Phillips, and others. During the 1980s, SCCOSH organized a Disabled Workers Group, and it successfully forced the industry to stop using dangerous solvents like 1,1,1 trichloroethylene.

In 1992, years of relentless pressure from SCCOSH and its allies finally forced the Semiconductor Industry Association to sponsor a study of toxic dangers in 11 plants. The SIA study, performed by University of California researchers, investigated the relationship between the high miscarriage rate among women in the industry and the conditions in which those women work. It found a direct connection between the use of ethylene glycols and miscarriages. SCCOSH then began a campaign to force an end to the use of these chemicals.

At SCCOSH Cruz met two other Filipino immigrants, Raquel Sancho and Romie Manan. Both are veteran organizers, with roots stretching back to the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines. When they met Cruz, they were looking for a campaign to give life to a network of Filipino electronics workers they had carefully organized over the previous year under the name HealthWATCH (for Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards).

Sancho was an organizer in Manila's women's movement and still recruits U.S. supporters for Gabriela, a left-wing women's organization in the islands. She was hired by SCCOSH in 1994 to direct its campaign against glycol ethers.

"It was hard getting immigrant workers to picket the plants without having a long period of involvement with them around this issue," she says. "No one would join us." So Sancho set out to build a base of workers. She went to karaoke bars and sang with them. She went to malls to meet their families. She got herself invited to picnics and family occasions.

"I used to sell Saladmaster, sort of the Rolls Royce of pots and pans, going from friend to friend like people sell Amway or Tupperware," Sancho says. "I used the same style."

Slowly she developed a core of interested workers. At WATCH meetings they discussed the chemicals used at work and the possibility of changing conditions in the plants. When Rodrigo Cruz showed up at the SCCOSH office, the group's members were ready to listen to his story and to take action to support him.

Manan was a key worker and organizer in the WATCH network. In the 1970s, he was a unionist in the Philippines, in one of the most militant and turbulent labor movements in Asia. After martial law was declared by then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Manan had to leave.

In Silicon Valley he found a job at National Semiconductor and began recruiting his Filipino coworkers into the Electronics Organizing Committee of the United Electrical Workers.

"Every worker in Silicon Valley knows that if you try to organize a union, a right which federal law is supposed to guarantee, you will probably lose your job. The electronics industry is the most anti-union industry in America," he says. Most of the leaders of that UE committee were fired in the early 1980s. Manan somehow survived; since then, he has participated in most of the union drives in the valley. Today he works at another high-tech plant, producing manufacturing equipment for the industry.

Electronics manufacturers maintain an industry-wide anti-union policy. In a 1984 book, Silicon Valley Fever, Robert Noyce, who helped invent the transistor and later co-ounded Intel Corp., described that policy, saying "remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies.... This is a very high priority for management here."

The repression facing Silicon Valley union supporters requires organizers to depart from traditional methods. Manan and other activists advocate a long-term approach geared to developing factory-floor leaders and building on the immigrant culture of the valley's workforce. He believes that Filipinos are vital to activists seeking to organize production workers. They are generally favorable towards unions, which are very popular in the Philippines, where a much higher percentage of workers are organized than in the United States.

But like other immigrants, he says, many members of the same Filipino family often get jobs in the same plant, making them reluctant to rock the boat. "We understand why Rodrigo went into the tank car when he could see the danger," Manan says. "He was thinking of his family, of all the people he had to feed. Workers aren't stupid, but we'll do desperate things, despite our misgivings, for fear of losing our jobs."

WATCH meetings used Cruz's case to convince workers that they owed no debt of gratitude to electronics companies for hiring them. "To them we're just cheap labor," Manan says bitterly. "They don't have to spend money on the right equipment, and if there's an accident, we pay the price."

Workers took the case into the electronics plants. Some, brave enough to face company disapproval, began wearing buttons supporting Cruz and ribbons to show solidarity.

SCCOSH and WATCH also found allies in East Palo Alto, the African American and Latino community surrounding Romic's main site. They formed an alliance with the Ujima Security Council, a group of neighbors unhappy living next to a toxic waste site. Together they organized demonstrations against company expansion plans.

Their activity led to a larger investigation of Romic. At the East Palo Alto site, California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA) inspectors found numerous health and safety violations and issued 22 citations against the company for failing to label hazardous chemicals, failing to store chemicals properly, and failing to have an emergency response plan or a trained fire brigade.

Because these conditions endangered the surrounding neighborhood, Ujima became a complaining party in the CalOSHA proceedings, an unusual step for a community organization.

CalOSHA's legal unit initially attempted to settle the East Palo Alto citations for $6,300 fine, which health and safety advocates and community members called insufficient. WATCH and its allies mobilized community pressure and media attention on John Howard, head of the division of the state Department of Industrial Relations responsible for CalOSHA. Howard refused to approve the attempted settlements. On July 30, some citations were dropped and others settled with a fine of $11,900.

"We wanted a full investigation and prosecution, not a deal," said SCCOSH director JoLani Hironaka. "Romic was cited for serious problems that could have resulted in death or permanent impairment." A statement by company vice-president Brad Lamont said that "we obeyed the regulations as we understood them, but OSHA's interpretation was different from ours."

Cruz's case, however, has yet to be heard. CalOSHA filed a separate set of 25 citations against Romic over the railcar incident, which weren't considered together with those involving the East Palo Alto site. One count alone would assess the company $62,500 for failing to give Cruz an adequate breathing apparatus and another $37,500 for failing to provide a way to rescue him from the tank. Other counts assert that he wasn't properly authorized to enter the railcar and that the company had no written procedures identifying acceptable conditions for him to enter the confined space.

The trial over these citations has been put off until February. In the meantime, as a result of the CalOSHA investigation, SCCOSH and WATCH also discovered that Romic's tank-cleaning operation was unmonitored by both federal and state environmental protection agencies. Despite the transfer of thousands of pounds of chemicals at the Redwood City railcar site, Hironaka says that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District didn't even know the facility existed.

To SCCOSH, the failure to monitor Romic is further evidence that the high-tech industry and its chemical handlers get kid glove treatment while workers get the brunt of chemical exposure, on the job and at home. "Workers should be able to define the standards for health and safety protection," Hironaka concludes.

To win that power, SCCOSH organizers believe, Silicon Valley workers will need a union. They hope workers will learn how to get organized from WATCH's campaign around Rodrigo Cruz's case, and that they will eventually make changes in the workplace around issues beyond toxic contamination.

"We're trying to teach workers the value of leading their own organization," Manan says.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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