Up Against the Open Shop - the Hidden Story of Silicon Valley's High-Tech Workers

Friday, 04 March 2011 11:31 By David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Up Against the Open Shop - the Hidden Story of Silicon Valley
Workers at Versatronex, a factory that assembles circuit boards for large electronics companies, went on strike over sweatshop conditions and the firing of a fellow worker, in the first strike by production workers in the history of Silicon Valley. (Photos: David Bacon)

Introduction

On January 29, 1993, workers at the Versatronex plant in Sunnyvale, California, filed out of its doors for the last time. Seventeen years have passed since, but there are still electronics workers in Silicon Valley who remember the company's name. It was the first Valley plant struck by production employees and the first where a strike won recognition of their union.

The struggle of these workers, almost all immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Philippines, demolished some of the most cherished myths about the Silicon Valley workforce. It showed workers there are like workers everywhere. Under the right circumstances, even in the citadel of high tech's open shop, people are willing to organize for a better life. "We said at the beginning that if the company was going to close, let them close," said Sandra Gomez, a leader of the Versatronex strike. "But as long as the plant was open, we were going to fight for our rights."

Unions have called the electronics industry "unorganizable." Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their workers for years that the company regarded them as a family and that they needed no union. Healthy bottom lines, they said, would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs. Economists painted a picture of the electronics industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.

The promises were worthless. Today, many of those giants of the industry own no factories at all, having sold them to contract manufacturers that build computers and make chips in locations from China to Hungary. In the factories that remain in the Valley, labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels.

While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they've dropped for thousands of workers on the production line. Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as production was moved out of the Valley to other states and countries. Companies long ago eliminated their no-layoff pledge. Permanent jobs became temporary and then disappeared entirely. The image of the clean industry was undermined by toxic contamination of the Valley's water supply and a high occurrence of chemically induced industrial illness.

Despite these obstacles, however, for three decades Silicon Valley was as much a cauldron of new strategies for labor organizing as it was for corporate management of the workforce. Workers developed important tactics to oppose inhuman conditions. Some unions, like the janitors, wielded those tactics with remarkable success. For production workers in the plants themselves, however, the road was harder and they often seemed to accept the industry's mythology that they either couldn't or wouldn't organize.

The Development of the High-Tech Workforce

One of the oldest myths about Silicon Valley is that its high-tech innovations were the brainchildren of a few, brilliant white men, who started giant corporations in their garages. In fact, the basic inventions that form the foundation of the electronics industry, especially the solid-state transistor, were developed at Bell Laboratories, American Telephone and Telegraph, Fairchild Camera and Instrument and General Electric. These innovations were products of the cold war - of the race in arms and space that began after World War Two. Long before the appearance of the personal computer, high-tech industry grew fat on defense contracts and rising military budgets. Its cold war roots affected every aspect of the industry, from its attitude toward unions to the structure of its plants and workforce.

As the electronics industry began to grow in the 1950s, a fratricidal struggle within the US labor movement led to the expulsion of many unions and union members for their left-wing politics. One byproduct of that struggle was the near destruction of the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry - the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). General Electric Corp. in particular helped ensure the fragmentation of the electrical industry workforce among 13 different unions, with a great proportion outside any union at all. As a result, while the new high-tech industry was growing, the ability of electrical and electronics workers to organize unions in the expanding plants fell to its lowest point since the early 1930s.

From the beginning, high-tech workers had to face an industry-wide anti-union policy. Robert Noyce, who participated in the invention of the transistor and later became a co-founder of Intel Corp., declared that "remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we'd all go out of business. This is a very high priority for management here. We have to retain flexibility in operating our companies. The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management which can paralyze action."

The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining "a union-free environment." Some of those techniques pioneered in Silicon Valley, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking.

Another co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, won renown as a partisan of theories of the racial inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley, Noyce, and others guided the development of the industry in Silicon Valley, they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce. In electronics plants, women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley's production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees.

By the mid-1990s, Asian workers made up 30 percent of the skilled production workforce, 47 percent of the semiskilled workforce and 41 percent of the unskilled workforce. Latinos constituted 18 percent of skilled workers, 21 percent of semiskilled workers and 36 percent of unskilled workers. Both groups together were only 17 percent of management employees and 25 percent of professional and engineering employees. The same picture held true for women. While 23 percent of management employees were women and 29 percent of professionals, women were 80 percent of clerical employees, 40 percent of skilled workers, 60 percent of semiskilled workers and 50 percent of unskilled workers. The picture painted by these statistics is still largely accurate today.

Last modified on Friday, 04 March 2011 13:54