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Social Justice Unions Claim Deep Roots in Silicon Valley

By David Bacon

This story was drawn from a longer article, "Roots of Social Justice Organizing in Silicon Valley."

Versatronex electronics assembly plant workers on strike, September 1992. ©1992 David BaconThe Santa Clara Valley labor movement took off in the 1880s as agribusiness boomed. Huge orchards of prunes, apricots, and other fruit flourished, and alongside them, the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country and the world. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the first unions for cannery workers, including one called “Toilers of the World,” which included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers. The IWW became the first in a line of left-wing unions that would practice radical, inclusive, worker-to-worker organizing in the Valley, linking workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights, and workers’ and community struggles.

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 also the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries—some run by huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak—employed up to 30,000 people.

“The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s,” wrote historian Glenna Matthews.1 This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the Valley became famous—electronics.

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.

“We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” recalled Dorothy Healey, one of the strike organizers. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together… So we would hold these street meetings—I mean park meetings, strike meetings—at St. James Park, and the police would break them up,” said Healey, who was 16 years old at the time of the strike.2

The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” 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.

The anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and ‘50s bred a fratricidal struggle in the U.S. labor movement. This led to the expulsion of unions like the United Cannery and Agricultural and Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) and the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). UCAPAWA was destroyed, and 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. And while the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared.

Farmworker Organizing
With the anti-communist witch hunts still 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 braceros, 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.

Ernesto Galarza, who also lived in San Jose in the postwar era, organized Mexican and Filipino farm workers into the National Farm Labor Union in the late 1940s, which struck growers in the Central 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).

Bernabe later helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ‘80s. 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.

High Tech Builds Its Anti-Union Model
From the beginning, high tech workers faced an industry-wide anti-union policy. “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,” said Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corp.3 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.

A co-inventor of the transistor and founder of an early Silicon Valley laboratory, William Shockley, espoused theories of the genetic inferiority of African Americans. As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in the 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. 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.

Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated with the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, and others. Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

“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,” said Amy Newell, who helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley.Workers from USM, Inc.—largely Korean immigrants—march with other immigrant workers to protest wage theft. © David Bacon

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,” Manan 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—all without a formal union contract.

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.

UE 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. 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, the 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,” exposing 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.

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 10 years later. While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell 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.

Employers Turn to Contractors, Unions to New Tactics
In 1993, Intel built a new $1 billion plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered the company $114 million in incentives. Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing. But contractors who provided services to large companies, from janitorial and foodservices to the assembly of circuit boards, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11-14/hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4/hour. Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits.

By contrast, because contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices and workers’ wages to the lowest level possible, contract assemblers and non-union janitors got 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 Fall 1990, more than 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 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. SSEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1877 organizer Lino Pedres on the picket line. © David Baconhine’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, SEIU went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than that 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 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.”

Versatronex workers went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton. “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 public campaign 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 organized around conditions they faced on the job, they learned 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.


Text and photos © 2015 David Bacon. David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He is the author of several books about migration and globalization, most recently The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013). He was a factory worker and union organizer for two decades, including several years with the United Farm Workers, the UE, and the ILGWU.


1.    Glenna Matthews, Silicon Valley, Women, and the California Dream, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 42.

2.    Ibid, p. 266, note 15.

3.    Alan Hyde, Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-velocity Labor Market, Routledge, 2015.


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