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Roots of Social Justice Organizing in Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

Versatronex electronics assembly plant workers on strike, September 1992. ©1992 David Bacon










California’s next-to-last lynching (the last was an African-American man lynched in Callahan in 1947) took place in St. James Park, in downtown San Jose, in 1933. Radical labor lawyer Vincent Hallinan, representing two accused kidnappers, Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes, called Governor Sunny Jim Rolph, urging him to send in the National Guard as a lynch mob of thousands gathered in front of the county jail. Rolph did nothing, and the two men were hanged from a tree in the park.

The South Bay has its history of violence, structural racism and worker exploitation. But it also has a long history of resistance—of courageous organizers who built movements that have had an impact far beyond the Santa Clara Valley.

Thirty-nine years after Thurmond and Holmes were killed, Angela Davis, African American revolutionary feminist and then-leader of the Communist Party (CP), was also held in the same Santa Clara County Jail near St. James Park. There she went on trial, charged with kidnapping and murder, accused of providing the guns used by Jonathan Jackson in an attempt to free his brother, George, a leader of the Black political prisoners’ movement. The jury declared Davis not guilty. The jury foreperson, Mary Timothy, hugged her afterwards and later wrote a book about the trial.

The verdict was the product of an international campaign that put a spotlight on Santa Clara County. It succeeded because a strong local committee mobilized support, headed by another African-American Communist, Kendra Alexander. To back up Davis’ legal team, the committee, including veteran radical Virginia Hirsch, researched every person named as a potential juror. Although researchers were careful not to have any direct contact with jurors, their work ensured the jury included people open and fair about the prosecution’s accusations. This kind of community research, giving the defense lawyer daily reports as the jury was being seated, has since become a powerful tool in other trials of political activists. It was the first time such intensive background research on the jury pool was employed by the defense in a criminal trial.

Indigenous Resistance
The Santa Clara Valley's social movement history began with the indigenous resistance to colonization, followed by the annexation of California after the war of 1848.The original indigenous Ohlone people living at the south end of the San Francisco Bay were torn from their communities, and then enslaved in the missions built by the Spanish colonizers. But those communities fought the Spaniards and the land grant settlers. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes that in the civil rights era of the 1960s, California indigenous people researched this resistance. “They found that no mission escaped uprisings from within or attacks from outside by communities of the imprisoned along with escapees,” Ortiz writes. “Indigenous guerrilla forces of up to two thousand formed. Without this resistance, there would be no descendants of the California Native peoples of the area colonized by the Spanish.” After Mexico freed itself from Spain in 1820 (throwing out the Franciscan friars who operated the missions), Valley residents rose in opposition to conquest by the United States in 1848. Tiburcio Vasquez, who led a rebellion against the U.S. in the years after the war, was born in Monterey and fought with Joaquin Murrieta from the Santa Clara to the San Joaquin Valleys. After Vasquez was captured, he was tried in the Santa Clara County Courthouse, and hanged in St. James Park.

The growth of the South Bay’s population really began with the development of huge orchards of plums, nuts and other fruit in the late 1800s, and then the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country. By 1930 the Santa Clara Valley was the fruit processing capital of the world, owing to the labor of thousands of immigrant workers.  It was the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries included huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak, employing up to 30,000 people.

Researcher Glenna Matthews says, “The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s."  This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the valley became famous—electronics. The pollution of the South Bay’s water also has a long history prior to the emergence of the electronics industry in the 1970s. By 1930 ranchers and canneries were pumping so much water from wells that salt water from the bay had leaked into the aquifers. Even earlier, the disposal of organic waste from canneries had caused serious pollution of the bay itself.

Worker-to-worker Organizing Wins the Canneries
To oppose the canneries, the Valley’s labor movement was launched in the 1880s with material support from the San Francisco Federated Trades Council. The Wobblies—the radical anarchist Industrial Workers of the World—organized the first unions for cannery workers, including an early one called “Toilers of the World.” It included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers.

Then, in August 1931 every cannery from the border of San Mateo County to south San Jose went on strike, organized by a Communist union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union. Its main organizer was Elizabeth Nicholas, a Serbian immigrant and Communist, who won the support of the local labor council in 1929. Another strike organizer was Dorothy Healey, at the time sixteen years old. “We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” she later recalled. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together. The police brutality was of a far greater level than anything that the people have seen in later years. So we would hold these street meetings—I mean park meetings, strike meetings - at St. James Park, and the police would break them up.”

The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” Nicholas later worked for the union, but besides her there were hardly any full-time organizers. Meetings were held in people’s homes, and membership cards passed along through family networks in the plants. Despite obstacles, by the end of the 1930s the San Jose canneries were all unionized, and remained so until they closed six decades later. Healey became a vice-president of the United Cannery, Agricultural and Packinghouse Workers of America (UCAPAWA), as well as a national leader of the CP. Nicholas remained in the valley, where she spent the rest of her life advocating for workers.

In the red scares of the late 1940s and 1950s, however, UCAPAWA was expelled from the CIO for its radical politics and destroyed. Its union contracts in the canneries were taken over by the Teamsters Union, with the support of the companies who wanted to be rid of leftwing unions. Also expelled from the CIO were the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which organized food processing workers in dried fruit plants in the Santa Clara Valley, and the United Electrical Workers (an expulsion that would later have a profound impact on the future of unions in the Valley's electronics industry.)

After World War II, while the anti-communist witch-hunts were taking place, radical Chicano labor and community leaders began work in San Jose. Bert Corona, the father of the modern immigrant rights movement, moved there after being blacklisted by the Coast Guard on the Los Angeles docks. He and Lucio Bernabe, a cannery organizer, encouraged strikes among bracero contract farm workers brought from Mexico to work in U.S. fields as semi-slave labor. The pair organized food caravans when braceros stopped work, and tried to prevent their deportation.

Corona organized the local chapter of the Asociación Nacional Mexicana Americana (ANMA), a radical community organization fighting discrimination. He also belonged to the Community Service Organization, where Cesar Chavez got his original organizers’ training. Chavez’ family lived in San Jose for several years on 21st Street near the Sal Si Puedes barrio, and he and Corona both worked there with the CSO. But Corona also disagreed with “one of its [CSO’s] stated reasons for organizing ... to keep the ‘reds’ from establishing a base in the communities.” Veteran San Jose activist Fred Hirsch says, “Fear that the CP might establish a base in communities was not unfounded. In fact, it had a base, and used it to strengthen community actions and organizing by workers in the canneries and fields.”

Lucio Bernabe fought off one of the most notorious political deportation cases of the era with the help of the leftwing American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born and local members of the CP. He eventually helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ’80s, with another left-winger, Mike Johnston. The CWC challenged discrimination under the Teamsters contracts. Mexican workers, mostly women, had only temporary jobs working on the line during the season, while white workers, mostly men, had the permanent jobs in the warehouses and maintenance departments.

Ernesto Galarza also lived in San Jose in the postwar era. Galarza worked with Mexican and Filipino farm workers starting in the late 1940s, organizing the National Farm Labor Union and striking growers in the San Joaquin Valley. That union’s successor, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, began the great grape strike in 1965 under the leadership of Larry Itliong, and later merged with the National Farm Worker Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Galarza wrote several influential books about farm labor and Chicanos, particularly Merchants of Labor, which exposed the abuses of the bracero program.

In the 1960s the upsurge of the civil rights and anti-war movements transformed the politics and social movements of the Santa Clara Valley. In part, this reflected growing population and changing demographics. In 1950 Santa Clara County’s population was 290,000, and 12 percent were people with Spanish names. By 1970 the population had grown to over a million, and while Spanish-named people were still 12 percent, their numbers had swelled to 129,000. As significant, the 2,333 Filipinos in the county in 1960 had exploded to 28,000 in 1980, and 60,000 in 1990, as they became one of the most important parts of the workforce in the electronics industry of Silicon Valley. By 1990 the Hispanic category used by the Census that year included 307,000 people—now over 20 percent of the population.

Key among the organizers of the civil rights era was Sofia Mendoza. She and her husband Gil fought discrimination in San Jose from the time she was a student in college. In the 1960s she and other Chicano community activists in the East San Jose barrio began organizing against the Vietnam War. “I was extremely bothered because not only were they killing our young men in Vietnam, they were also killing them here in the streets of San Jose,” she later explained.

1960s Chicano Movement Mobilizes Against Police Brutality
The first of the Chicano student blowouts, which helped launch the Chicano movement, took place at San Jose’s Roosevelt Junior High in 1968. Rosalio Muñoz came up from Los Angeles to support the students, and talked with Mendoza. He then went back to LA where he, Carlos Muñoz and other activists started the student walkouts there. Rosalio Muñoz later became a primary organizer of the huge Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War up Whittier Boulevard, where Ruben Salazar was shot by Los Angeles police and killed.

In San Jose the movement began organizing marches on City Hall, and formed a committee to stop police brutality, the Community Alert Patrol. “We just had it,” Mendoza remembered. “We had reached our limit. The police had guns, mace and billy clubs. They were always ready to attack us. It seemed as if nobody could stop what the police were doing.”

But CAP did stop them. One march mobilized 2000 people. Its members monitored police activity, much as the Panthers were doing in Oakland, documenting police beatings and arrests. Students organizing for ethnic studies classes at San Jose State University became some of CAP’s most active members, at the same time fighting to get military recruiters off the campus. CAP had the participation of Communists, socialists, Chicano nationalists and other leftwing groups.

Mendoza, her comrade-in-arms Fred Hirsch, and others saw that the area needed a multi-issue organization to confront the many problems people faced in the barrios—discriminatory education, lack of medical services, poor housing, and of course the police. “We wanted an organization that was not limited to one ethnic group, that would organize our entire community,” she later recalled, “so we called ourselves United People Arriba—United People Upward. We liked the term ‘United People’ because it got the idea across that people from different ethnic backgrounds were coming together in San Jose to work for social change—Blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and whites working together in one organization.” Today organizations in Silicon Valley carry on the legacy of UP Arriba and the anti-deportation fights—from Silicon Valley De-Bug’s Albert Covarrubias Justice Project to the community organizing of Somos Mayfair to the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network.

Mendoza went to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam during the U.S. military interventions, and in 1973 she went to Moscow as a delegate to a congress of the World Peace Council. She was motivated, not just by the deaths of young Chicanos in Vietnam, but by the transformation of her valley by the Cold War. The Westinghouse plant in Sunnyvale was making nuclear missile tubes for Trident submarines. The plant where Gil worked started making farm equipment, but then switched to building tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Most of all, she saw food processing replaced by the growth of the huge electronics industry. Del Monte finally closed its Plant 3, at one time one of the largest and most modern in the world, in 1999—the end of the canning industry in San Jose. The last of the big canneries is today a condominium complex.

Defense Contracts Feed Tech Industry
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 arms race after World War II. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded in 1958 and provided basic research at taxpayer expense that enabled the electronics industry—especially chipmakers—to launch startups that were then fed by military contracts. 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 towards unions to the structure of its plants and workforce.

As the electronics industry began to grow in the 1950s, a fratricidal struggle within the U.S. labor move­ment led to the expulsion in 1949 of unions like UCAPAWA and the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Only the ILWU and the UE survived as independent unions, and the UE went from 650,000 at the end of World War II to about 60,000 at the beginning of the 1980s. As a result, while the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared.

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. ... The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management.” The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining “a union-free environment.” Some of those techniques, 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. While many techniques were developed in Japanese plants for driving workers for more production and efficiency, and were referred to as the “Japanese model,” other techniques were pioneered in Silicon Valley itself.

Another co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, was an advocate of racist theories of the inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development 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. African-American workers were frozen out almost entirely. Although unemployment in the African-American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels, African-Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering.

UE Challenges Anti-Union Electronics Giants
Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated to the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, Signetics, Intel, AMD and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants, or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

Workers in the UE asked the Department of Labor for the workforce demographic information the companies were forced to file as recipients of Federal contracts. They sought to document systematic discrimination and racial, national and sex segregation practiced by employers. The Federal Office of Contract Compliance refused to turn over the information, saying that these giant corporations considered demographic breakdowns of their workforce a trade secret. Essentially, there was no enforcement of civil rights anti-discrimination laws in the industry, since both the government and the companies themselves hid the information that would have supported charges.

Amy Newell helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix. Two decades later she became the UE’s national secretary-treasurer, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley. She recalls, “It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of pow­erlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome ... It seems ob­vious that there has to be a long term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communi­ties in which they live.”   

By the early 1980s, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers. Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, The Union Voice, in three languages - English, Spanish and Tagalog. Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers. “A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union,” he recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals. At the height of its activity, organizer Michael Eisenscher was the committee’s link to the national union, running the union mimeograph machine in his garage. “It was the workers who brought the UE into the industry,” Eisenscher recalls. “They had to run a campaign to convince the union to move me from Los Angeles to San Jose in 1980.”

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it. The main strategic question, which the committee sought to answer, remains unresolved. In large electronics manufacturing plants, union-minded workers are a minority for a long period of time. Their organization has to be active on the plant floor to win over the majority of workers by fighting around the basic conditions that affect them. But it has to be able to help its members survive in an extreme anti-union climate.

This long-term perspective is very different from the organizing style of most unions today. Many view union organizing as a process of winning union representation elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Others try to use outside leverage to force management to remain neutral while workers sign union cards, and eventually negotiate a contract. In high tech, however, huge corporations insulate themselves from their production workforce so well that outside pressure has little effect on them. Most unions have simply abandoned the idea of helping workers in those plants to organize at all, saying that they are “unorganizable.”

Because of the weak interest by unions themselves (aside from the UE), and the high level of repression inside the plants, an important reason for the survival of the UE Committee for so many years was a commitment by the Communist Party. The party set up a collective to help workers build a union structure inside the plants and organize community support outside them. One party member joked that it was easier to distribute the Communist paper The Peoples’ World than the union committee newsletter, “since everyone knew you could get fired for joining the union, and reading the PW seemed a lot less dangerous.” The committee also included members of other left political parties, including the Communist Labor Party.

In plants where a large percentage of the workers were immigrants, it attracted people who’d been active in Communist and left parties in their countries of origin, especially the Philippines. Some played a leading role in the UE committee because they’d played a similar one back home, where they’d been educated politically in their own revolutionary traditions. And because of the repressive conditions there, they had experience in working in what was, inside the Silicon Valley plants, essentially an underground environment.

Union Spurs Organizing for Worker and Community Safety
Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed. Semiconductor production is basically a chemical process, and uses extremely dangerous and toxic gasses and solvents. The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace. SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness. The group’s lawyer Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee) is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

“When we talk about organizing,” explained Flora Chu, a former director of SCCOSH’s Asian Workers’ Program, “we have to talk in a new way. Many immigrants, for instance, aren’t used to organizing in groups at work. SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively. The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants.”    

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the “clean industry,” and exposed the large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers. Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list. Workers were the canaries in the valley - what afflicted them was eventually visited on the surrounding community.

Because of the concentration of immigrant workers in the electronics industry, the UE Committee became one of several organizations that opposed growing immigration raids in Silicon Valley at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. Together with Mike Garcia, then an organizer with the janitors’ union, James McEntee of the county’s Human Relations Commission and others, they picketed employers who cooperated in turning over undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities for deportation. The activists focused on electronics plants like the circuit board assembler Solectron, and on the local garment plant belonging to Levi’s.

This activity led to hearings before the county Board of Supervisors, and eventually to the formation of People United for Human Rights. When Congress began debating immigration bills that eventually resulted in the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986, PUHR and its member organizations opposed them. PUHR supported the bills’ immigration amnesty, but warned that employer sanctions (the provision that forbids employers from hiring undocumented workers) would criminalize work for the undocumented.  PUHR also warned that the bills would restart bracero-type programs, and militarize the U.S./Mexico border. Even some local unions joined this opposition, defying what was then support of employer sanctions by the national AFL-CIO.Workers from USM, Inc.—largely Korean immigrants—march with other immigrant workers to protest wage theft. © David Bacon

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry’s policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. In 1983 the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 workers ten years later. While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell much more heavily on operators and technicians. “What this really meant,” said Romie Manan, “was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group.” Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the valley in 1994. “It was the union that developed the analysis of the industry’s runaway strategy,” Eisenscher notes, “and we warned what the consequences on production jobs would be for the Valley. Those warnings were not heeded and our predictions unfortunately were proved correct.”

Corporations Turn to Contractors, Unions to New Tactics
In 1993 Intel built a new plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered $1 billion to help finance construction. Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing. But contractors that provided services to large companies, from janitorial and food services to circuit-board assembly, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11–14 per hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4 per hour. Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits. By contrast, contract assemblers and non-union janitors were paid close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.  The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers’ organizing activity.

 In the fall of 1990 over 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters. When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. Shine’s actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple. Using the same strategy, the union went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than those at Apple. The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.          

In September of 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories. The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. There was no medical insurance. Sergio Mendoza worked in the “coil room,” making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years. “Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed,” he said. The conditions in the “coil room” were very different from those at the facilities IBM’ had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a “campus.”

Contract assembly, the kind of production done at Versatronex and similar plants, provides a number of benefits for large manufacturers. Contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers’ wages, to the lowest level possible. Today the contract assembly system, then in its infancy, has come to dominate high tech industry. Corporations like Hewlett-Packard and Apple have no factories at all. Their entire production is carried out by contract manufacturers in plants around the world.       

‘Our Culture is Our Source of Strength’
Workers at Versatronex went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton. One of the hunger strikers was Margarita Aguilera, a former student activist in Mexico who used her experience to organize workers. “It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons, tent encampments where workers live for the strike’s duration,” said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City. “Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country. Our culture is our source of strength.”

As workers at Versatronex were striking for their union, Korean immigrants at another contract assembly factory, USM Inc., launched a similar struggle after their employer closed their factory owing them two weeks’ pay. They marched through downtown San Jose against Silicon Valley Bank, which took over the assets of the closed factory.

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement’s search for new ways to organize. They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.  Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win. As workers organize around conditions they face on the job, they learn  to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors. Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry’s basic production process. In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be. Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves.

Industry Domination of Valley Development
“We’ve never felt that the electronics industry had the interests of our communities at heart. If they plan the future of the Valley, they’re going to do it for their benefit, not ours,” charged Ernestina Garcia, a longtime Chicano community activist in San Jose.

“What we have here are different interests,” said Jorge Gonzalez, who chaired the grassroots Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition. “Economic development in Silicon Valley has historically served the interests of the few. We want development that serves the interests of the many. Just protecting the competitiveness and profitability of big electronics companies will not necessarily protect our jobs and communities.”

In the heyday of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee, the National Semiconductor plant had almost ten thousand workers, working directly for the company. By the time Romie Manan was laid off, employment had fallen to 7000. Over half worked for temporary employment agencies, including almost all production workers. Manpower, the temp agency, had an office on the plant floor. According to Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877, “High technology manufacturing doesn’t create high-wage, high-skill jobs. It patterns itself after the service sector. Contractors in manufacturing compete over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest.”

Twenty years later Silicon Valley remains the fortress of the country’s most anti-union industry. High tech dominates every aspect of life. Its voice is largely unchallenged on public policy, because the workers who have created the valley’s fabulous wealth have no voice of their own. Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their workers and communities for years that healthy bottom lines would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs. Economists still paint a picture of the industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.

The promises are worthless. Today many giants of industry own no factories at all, having sold them to contract manufacturers who 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.SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1877 organizer Lino Pedres on the picket line. © David Bacon

Apple Corp. has cash reserves in excess of $1 billion, while San Jose voters are told that there is no money to pay for the pensions of workers who’ve spent their lives in public service. The productivity of industry in the Valley went up in the first decade of the current century by 42 percent. But at the same time, average annual employment went down 16 percent. The upper income stratum of the Valley benefited from this productivity growth, but there was no corresponding growth in jobs. Fewer people produced wealth for fewer people. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of households with incomes under $10,000 more than doubled, from 11,556 to 26,310.

To make the economy serve the needs of working families, they must be organized. It’s not enough to have a voice “speaking truth to power” or a “place at the table.”  Silicon Valley’s 99% need the organized ability to effectively fight for their needs, in the face of corporate resistance. And despite obstacles, for its entire history Silicon Valley has been as much a cauldron of resistance and new strategies for labor and community organizing as it has been an engine for the production of fabulous wealth. Workers have opposed inhuman conditions. Community organizations have fought for social justice and equality. They will keep on doing that.

Left organizers played a vital role
“A thread runs through Santa Clara Valley’s history of labor and community organizing, from the days of the canneries up through the heyday of industrial production in the high tech industry,” says Fred Hirsch. “Very little organizing or political activity occurred spontaneously. There was always a small group of left-wing, class-conscious, Marxist-oriented workers who met regularly, exchanged experiences, and planned campaigns. It was not one single group. New people came in and others moved on. Many simply got old, retired and died. Through much of the time an important strand of that thread was the Communist Party and the many friends with whom its members worked. But other groups with similar left ideas also organized and sought to influence people’s ideas.”

Hirsch spent his own working life as a plumber. When he first came to Santa Clara County and joined the Plumbers’ Union, at the height of the Cold War, he was attacked by right-wing leaders of his union. But he persevered, and eventually his local elected progressive officers and had a membership often open to radical ideas. It passed resolutions supporting immigrant rights, and even made a donation to U.S. Labor Against the War—the network of unions opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. Hirsch himself became a delegate to the South Bay Labor Council, and a respected voice and officer in his own local.

For Hirsch, learning the radical history of the Santa Clara Valley isn’t just about the past. He believes this experience points a direction for the future, to today’s movements committed to deep and structural social change. “The real lesson is that we need to build an organization with a clear focus on a socialist and democratic future in a world without war,” he says. “It has to be an organization that deals with injustice in our communities and worksites, our nation and our planet. It must point the way for the labor movement to fight the racism and sexism embedded in the institutions and culture of our society. Its members should be active, take leadership from the people around them, and be willing to shoulder responsibility themselves.”

For Hirsch and the Party members of his generation, the CP brought together those who’d been active in the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, with the activists of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. That allowed one generation to pass on to the next the political theory, the culture of organizing and resistance, and even the history of peoples’ movements themselves. A similar organization, he says, “should do its best to promote serious education about the process for social change and organize people to take to the streets. In other words, we need an organization like the Communist Party we dreamed and worked for so many years ago, but that’s more effective than we were. Without it wonderful working class leftists will continue making enormous efforts to build progressive movements that ebb and flow, but won’t develop a strategy and build a base of their own.”

Disclosure: David Bacon was chair of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee for several years, the UE organizer assigned to Versatronex, and treasurer of People United for Human Rights.


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