David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The New American Workplace - Should Unions Be Allowed?
by David Bacon

SAN JOSE (1/27/94) - Some people describe the new American workplace as a kind of corporate heaven on earth. Others call it a war zone.

Which point of view you take, of course, depends largely on who you are. If you're a software designer or engineer, life in a high technology company can be pretty comfortable. But if you were caught in one of the many layoffs that have downsized the production workforce in Silicon Valley's electronics plants, this workplace feels very insecure. And if you're an immigrant worker in a contract assembly plant, your job doesn't seem very different from one in a garment sweatshop.

Since President Clinton was elected a year ago, high technology companies have been pressing for changes in labor law which would, they say, bring it into line with new realities, but which would also scrap many protections for workers. Unions and workers also would like to see changes, including enforcement of existing rights, and new legislation which would take into account the proliferation of contracted and temporary work.

The Clinton administration may have already made a decision to scrap key sections of labor law which prohibit company unions, in order to make high tech industry more "competitive." As hearings unfold across the country, the administration's Commission on the Future of Labor Management Relations seems ready to put this deal on the fast track. But whether workers and unions will also receive increased protection seems much less sure.

The Dunlop Commission (named for its chairman, John Dunlop, labor secretary under President Nixon) held its key hearing last week in Silicon Valley. The lines in the labor law debate were drawn more clearly there than in any previous hearing. In fact, one commission member, Bill Usery, labor secretary under President 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 it is no longer a significant restraint on the union-fighting activities of most companies.

But corporate executives in Silicon Valley are not content with simple inaction. They have a program which not only calls for extensive changes, but which involves a whole new philosophy and public policy for labor/management relations. The San Jose hearing pulled away the veil on their proposals. In the process, it also unveiled even further the close connections between high tech industry and the Clinton administration, and gave broad hints of the direction in labor law reform which the administration intends to pursue.

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 vicepresident of the American Electronics Association, "employees have become decision-makers, and management has practically disappeared." She called for "a new public policy for labor-management relations." Doug Henton, who represents Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, an industry/government policy group which convened the hearing, 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 century 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 cooperation." The problem, she noted, was that cooperation was only possible "when each party recognizes the legitimacy of the other."

In fact, sitting through the day's testimony, it almost seemed as though speakers were describing two entirely opposing realities.

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 contested 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, a worker at National Semiconductor Corporation's non-union Santa Clara plant. "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 organize 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 himself was due to lose his job February 11, after 16 years at the National Semiconductor plant. Over 30,000 semiconductor workers on production lines in Silicon Valley have lost their jobs in the last 10 years, including large numbers of immigrants and women. "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."

Intel Corporation's plant, on the other hand, is just a couple of blocks down the street. But it might as well be on the other side of the planet, according to Kirby Dyess, vicepresident of human relations. She led a whole panel of speakers from Intel, whose choreographed presentation, complete with bullet comments projected from an overhead projector, dwelt at length on elaborate structures in the workplace which promote productivity and efficiency.

Phuli Siddiqi, an Intel worker, presented "a worker's perspective." She described "Intel values," which included quality, discipline, risk-taking, customer orientation, 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 employee 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.

In fact, 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 Tandem, 3Com, Applied Materials, the American Electronics Association (AEA), and other companies. None of them, however, 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.

There's only one problem. Many of these new structures for labor/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 outlaw company unions like the Colorado Industrial Plan, organized by John D. Rockefeller in his Ludlow coalmines, just weeks after the infamous "Ludlow massacre" of the wives and children of striking miners. He announced at the time that "until labor and capital join hands and recognize their interest is a common interest ... there can be no progress."

But in a recent decision in the case of Electromation Corp., courts have held that workteams set up to discourage workers from organizing a separate and independent 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.

In the early 1970s, Robert Noyce, one of Intel's founders, declared that "remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies ... This is a very high priority for management." Dyess confirmed that Noyce's statement still described the company's position, and said that when workers organized unions, it was a failure of management. All of her specific comments about unions, however, were made outside of the hearing, because, she said, the AEA had told her to avoid specifics in Intel's testimony.

At National Semiconductor, according to Manan, the company's overall labor/management cooperation scheme was intended to fight unions. Manan was a shopfloor leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s of the United Electrical Workers' Electronics Organizing Committee. He 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 activists in other plants were fired as well. Although we filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, no one was ever rehired, and in many cases the board wouldn't even issue a complaint."

Ironically, the Dunlop Commission was set up under pressure from unions, who hoped that it would examine the failure of existing labor law to enforce workplace rights. Manan's example was only one among many the commission heard. Union after union came to the Silicon Valley hearing, and to previous hearings in other parts of the country, documenting wholesale violations of existing labor law. Enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act, they say, has become a joke.

Previous commission hearings in Louisville and East Lansing provided further documentation of the ways in which NLRB procedures have become an obstacle to workers in their organizing efforts. Last May, the Jobs with Justice coalition of unions and community organizations organized sit-ins at NLRB offices around the country to dramatize the board's failures, and to call for an extensive reform program.

Participants in the demonstrations and hearings discussed the endless delays in board procedures, affording employers and unionbusters ample opportunity to create an environment of terror and fear, in which workers have to decide not only the issues of organizing a union, but on the future of their jobs themselves. Fired workers have testified about the complete lack of penalties on employers. Unions and workers able to withstand the employer offensive and live through firings still have to negotiate a first contract. They recounted story after story of strikes broken by the use of permanent replacements. Companies reorganize, close and reopen, change names and owners, and union contracts get tossed out with little legal recourse.

The AFL-CIO nationally has concentrated almost exclusively on passage of the Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act, which would outlaw permanent replacements during the first 10 weeks of a strike. The two-year old strike of over 500 Teamsters from the Diamond Walnut plant in Stockton, California, has become a national symbol of the desperate need to limit strikebreaking, and the enormous leverage it's given employers.

But the Jobs with Justice program takes into account not only the need to defend existing unions and contracts, but to eliminate some of the worst obstacles to the organizing efforts of unorganized workers. It includes reforms to increase penalties on employers who fire workers in the course of organizing efforts, who are now only required to reimburse their lost wages, often years after firings take place. Jobs with Justice calls for arbitration of first contracts, and the protection of existing contracts when companies reorganize. Finally, it calls for a faster and simpler means for workers to win union recognition, pointing to the system used in Canada, where employers must recognize a union among workers when presented with union cards signed by a majority.

Like hearings and commission-sponsored forums in other parts of the country, the Silicon Valley hearing heard testimony documenting the need for a broad program of reform. But unlike hearings elsewhere, this hearing also saw unions take on another part of the dark underside of high tech employment - the contingent workforce. Silicon Valley has become the scene of problems long associated with the sweatshops of other industries, but which are a new and startling contrast to the hi-tech public image the valley projects. Stable, well-paying production jobs in the valley's large plants are disappearing, while contractors providing janitorial and food services, or assembling circuit boards for big manufacturers, proliferate. They compete for business by cutting wages and conditions.

For the last two years, labor unrest has been rising in response. Janitors have mounted militant campaigns which won agreements with contractors who clean buildings at Apple and Hewlett-Packard. The valley's first strike of production workers flared up a year ago at a contract assembly plant, Versatronex. These actions protested declining conditions for the immigrants who make up the bulk of the contracted 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 manufacturing competing over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest."

Adding to the stakes riding on the labor law reform debate is a new effort launched in January by a multi-union coalition to organize the valley's 40,000 contract workers. Instead of concentrating on a single contractor, or organizing plant-by-plant, it aims at the whole low-wage contract workforce.

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, an 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. 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.

Experiences like those at Apple and Versatronex have convinced campaign planners that traditional organizing methods are ineffective. John Barton, the campaign's coordinator, calls tactics dependent on NLRB elections part of a losing strategy. Instead, he draws on a decade of new and sophisticated thinking among progressive organizers around the country, and their experiences in Silicon Valley itself. "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, and hold manufacturers responsible for their contractors."

Based on the experience of successful organizing campaigns among janitors around the country, Garcia proposed one main priority to the commission.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 violating labor law.

Predictably, high-tech employers oppose this change, along with any other proposal to enforce organizing rights.

Which set of proposals, however, will wind up being enacted as a result of the commission's recommendations? 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?

It seems very likely that the companies will get what they want. The commission itself, although it was a product of union pressure originally, states its main mission is "to make recommendations concerning what changes, if any, are needed to improve productivity through increased worker-management cooperation and employee participation."

The lack of any ringing endorsement of union or worker rights reflects thinking high in the administration. Labor Secretary Robert Reich declared on the MacNeil-Lehrer newshour last April that "we don't want to load the deck in either direction ... I don't care whether you're unionized or non-unionized."

In a step that drew much union criticism, the Silicon Valley hearing itself was convened by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, an association of 100 top executives of the largest high-technology corporations, with a sprinkling of government officials, two labor leaders, and almost no grassroots community participation. Joint Venture acted at the request of Marty Manley, the Department of Labor's Deputy Secretary for the American Workplace. Manley bowed out of the organizing process for the Silicon Valley hearing after setting it in motion, and has become unavailable for interviews since.

Silicon Valley firms clearly have 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 campaign, and his chair of the Joint Council of Economic Advisors is Laura d'Andrea Tyson, a UC Berkeley professor with strong ties to the industry. The valley is the administration's showpiece for revitalizing the U.S. economy. That gives industry's point of view on labor law reform a lot of weight in Washington.

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 represent workers in dealing with management over wages and working conditions?

"We're not looking for someone to represent employees," responded Deborah Barber from Quantum Corp. "The concept of representation seems archaic," added Cheryl Fields-Tyler from the AEA. When Fraser asked them what alternatives 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.

Unfortunately for unions, however, the administration seems to have little enthusiasm for proposals for labor law reform which would strengthen workplace rights. The Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act lies in the Senate a few votes short of the 60 needed to override a filibuster. Despite pre-election promises, the administration has not made it a priority to get those votes, and get the bill passed. Proposals like those of Jobs with Justice go even further, and therefore seem even less likely to win administration support.

But while angry and vocal about their frustrations with the failure of current labor law to protect them, union representatives at the hearing were nevertheless optimistic about the longterm prospects for increasing labor strength. The optimists include Steven Lerner, building services director for the Service Employees union, one of the most successful union organizers in the country. Lerner led the development of the Justice for Janitors campaign strategy, bringing more than 30,000 janitors into his union nationwide in the last few years, including over 2000 in Silicon Valley.

Lerner, and the Justice for Janitors organizers, used a combination of civil disobedience, community coalition-building and targetted corporate pressure. Other effective campaigns by progressive organizers have relied on quick strike action, and well-organized boycotts. To a certain extent, they all try to identify groups of workers, including immigrants, women, African-American workers and low-wage workers, who are ready to take militant, direct action. And they all avoid the NLRB as much as possible.

That's perhaps the most telling comment about the state of labor law today - 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, Lerner emphasized the connection between labor law reform efforts and real-life organizing activity.

He recalled 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 called on unions not to wait for reforms before making much greater efforts to assist in worker organization, and called organizing unions a fundamental right. "The very fact of organizing is the most compelling argument for protecting workers' rights," he declared.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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