Rumblings of Organizing in Silicon Valley

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Rumblings of Organizing in Silicon Valley

By Len Gilbert in collaboration with Al Weinrub

‘Science for the People’ Vol. #8, No. #1, January 1976, p. 10 — 13 & 30 — 31

Today Santa Clara County (California) is a center of innovative technology like no place else in the world . … The dense concentration of so many scientific companies has created an innovative ferment on a scale without precedent in industrial history. Some 800 pioneering technology companies are clustered in this area, … thousands of people skilled in the newest technologies already live and work there, as does a small army of knowledgeable venture capitalists. . . . The success ratio for company founders is so high that Santa Clara County can be said to mass-produce millionaires.

Fortune, June 1974

They call it Silicon Valley. Its products are the latest thing in every advanced technology from semiconductor electronics to lasers, medical instrumentation, computers, solar power generators, pollution control devices, robot brains, and food additives. In the last twenty-five years, the number of workers in high-technology companies in Santa Clara County has grown from less than 3,000 to more than 150,000.

I became part of this workforce in October 1972 when I took a job at one of the research facilities of the Smith-Corona-Marchant (S.C.M.) Corporation, a huge diversified conglomerate.1 At the time the company was rapidly expanding its research staff to about 200 workers in order to carry out development work on an improved photocopy machine and a new line of office machines to automate secretarial work. I was hired to do solid-state physics research on photoconductivity. In the course of working for S.C.M. I became involved in a unionization drive among the chemists, physicists, engineers, and technicians in the facility. This article is an attempt to summarize and analyze that experience.

Work Conditions Far From Good

One of the first stories told me by my co-workers when I went to work at S.C.M. was of their recent clash with management, one that had obviously bred a lot of resentment. S.C.M. had acquired the research facility as a result of a merger, around 1970, with a local military microwave-research company. One year after the merger, the corporation summarily declared that the existing number of sick-leave days would be cut in half — from 20 to 10 days per year. The explanation? It was to make facility policy conform to “corporate policy.” When middle-management people protested (in response to complaints of the workers) they were told to leave if they didn’t like it.

So much for the heavy hand of top management. As to my co-workers, they were predominantly from working-class families. In their striving for upward mobility, they had overextended themselves. But this life-style, a house in the suburbs, two cars, and three children, was being made increasingly difficult to support by the combination of inflation and company attacks on wage levels. About 1/3 of the technical staff, especially a large block of engineering draftspeople and technicians, were hired as contract labor.2 Some of the workers were foreign born, some were still unmarried, and a few led a sort of counter-cultural existence.

Within the ranks of these technical workers, status depended upon the amount of education. Those who had a Ph.D. functioned primarily in a managerial capacity; the little technical work they did was esoteric, done primarily for image-building reasons. The bulk of the actual work was done by lower-degreed or non-degreed workers (usually technicians), and the greatest amount of creativity seemed to reside with them as well (an interesting commentary on the value of “higher” education). The Ph.D.’s maintained control over these workers by impressing on them their inferiority in the arcane arts of higher mathematics and physics — all pretty far removed from the research being done at the facility.

Compared to many other research and development companies in the Silicon Valley, S.C.M. had rather poor working conditions for its technical staff. The wage levels and pension benefits were below industry norms. The drive to produce was so great it led to unbearable tension and anxiety. Everyone experienced this continuous, heavy pressure. The company maintained an artificial crisis atmosphere by claiming severe urgency for almost every project. By implying a loss of job or status, the management was able to get large amounts of free overtime (“remember, you are a professional”), and justify almost constant harassment. Two fatal heart attacks of workers in their early forties occured within one year in this small facility alone, and there were several other nonfatal attacks as well.

Despite this constant speed up, the tortured solutions to various technical problems were often never even used, and frequently the research worker was merely the pawn in a competitive struggle between two different supervisors. The ability of the management to employ high pressure tactics and not lose employees wholesale was made possible by the bad U.S. economic scene, the hiring of employees without degrees, and, of course, the absence of an organized response to the bosses.

The high pressure work conditions were one side of the coin; the other was the low wage levels. Salaries, for instance, were uniformly one to two thousand dollars less than national averages for the same job categories. For example, an analytical chemist with an M.S. and no experience earned less than $11,000 at S.C.M., while the national average, according to the American Chemical Society survey of 1972, was $13,000.

The biggest joke at our facility, however, was the pension plan. No matter one’s age on joining the company, pension accruements did not start until age 30, and pension benefits could not be received before working at S.C.M. for 15 years! Based on my salary of $12,000, for example, I would only be able to collect at age 65 a pension on the order of $1,000 per year from the company and $3,000 from Social Security. Most pension plans at least match Social Security benefits.

In response to the derision heaped on this ludicrous pension plan, the management instituted a stock option plan to appease the employees. According to this plan, workers could invest up to 6% of their salary in the company and the company would donate an additional 1 1/2%. In order to receive the company’s contribution, the money could not be removed for 4 years. By comparison IBM workers have immediate access to their fund.

The company tried to keep the different pay rates secret from the employees. “Merit” differences in salary seemed to depend more on age, family size and composition, particular skills, etc. As a public-relations tactic, the company made a big to-do about its compliance with Nixon-administration wage guidelines. Management patriotically held the average wage raise at the facility to under 5.5% by reducing the raises of older workers, those with less education, etc. During the same time the cost of living rose between 10 and 13% per year.

The salary situation had remained apparently static until summer 1973, the time of the annual salary review. It was clear that the weight of events, particularly inflation, was making everyone increasingly militant. The raise procedure itself consisted of an elaborate system of categories and scaling factors designed to confuse us and to convince everyone that the company’s judgement was fair, detailed, and tailored to the individual. For the first time people were openly discussing their salaries and the process of setting them. The mood was ugly; public threats of mass resignation were made by the employees.

The raises granted by the company were significant improvements over previous years, but still did not meet inflationary increases. New employees (those with less than one year on the job) received no raise at all. Questioning the rationale for salary decisions, a few workers asked to see the management policy book. They were told that this could only be done on their own time with a supervisor present, and unfortunately, no supervisor would remain after work. Finally some of the workers were able to arrange to see this policy book. It was quite revealing. It only applied in the absence of collective bargaining agreements (the company had such agreements in its production facilities) and it made perfectly clear that there really was no policy – it was just left up to local management to determine raises as they saw fit.

Organizing Gets Underway

All these conditions — the low pay and job insecurity, crisis pressure of work, and arbitrary management decisions — pointed to the need for a strong union that could, at a minimum, protect the workers and fight against the exploitation taking place. I for one saw the necessity of trying to break through the fairly conservative worldview of most of my co-workers. During the first six months of my employment, the Watergate drama proceeded to unfold and I used every device I could think of to emphasize the relationship between government corruption and the corporate establishment. This involved putting up cartoons on company bulletin boards; it involved emphasizing embarrassing incidents (the company was found to be sabotaging competitors’ copy machines). I tried to analyze larger events, particularly inflation and energy shortages and tie them to monopoly capitalism.

I found that people were very disillusioned by what was going on in our country and therefore were quite open. I publicized small issues. using each incident to try to heighten people’s understanding of how the system works. In each instance, I lent my personal support, and protested against arbitrary management decisions. At this point, the few attempts I had made to discuss organization had been met with tales of bad experiences with unions.

Together with a co-worker I was able to discuss organization of research workers with a shop steward of the Chemical Workers Union. It seemed clear to me, considering the size and resources of S.C.M., that an established union’s assistance would be helpful. The steward, however, was not very encouraging and the union was not very interested. When I made inquiries of my co-workers to get a more specific idea of their organizational needs, I was met with vague resignation and expressions of fear of creating “trouble.”

A new opportunity opened up, however, at a workshop on labor organizing at the summer 1973 SftP conference in Berkeley. There I met representatives from Engineers and Scientists of California (ESC). They had organized some 2,000 technical workers, and seemed interested in dealing with the unusual problems of research workers. I moved quickly to arrange a meeting between the people at work and the representatives of ESC.

Twelve people attended this initial meeting. It was agreed that we should attempt to obtain a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at our facility.3 It became clear, however, that fear was to limit the participation of many of the workers. It was impossible to get volunteers to work as a steering committee beyond myself and one other worker. Although the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) legally protects a worker from dismissal for this activity, the company obviously had many ways of punishing unorganized workers, and the fear felt by most people was not unjustified.

In order to obtain an NLRB ordered and supervised election, 30% of the relevant workers (those to be in the proposed unit) must sign cards stating their desire to be represented by a legally constituted labor organization. We decided to obtain the minimal number of cards and file for an election under the sponsorship of ESC.

During these days the management, for the first time, instituted regular meetings with the employees to discuss grievances. Clearly worried, the company’s tone was solicitous and paternalistic; all involved clearly understood this to be a response to the organizing effort. Simultaneously, the company hired the best anti-union law firm available in San Francisco. The firm had already established a record of defeating organizational efforts of technical workers.

The law firm’s goal initially was to prevent an NLRB hearing from taking place. Failing that, its strategy was to have the case thrown out at the hearing, and if that was not possible, to have the NLRB designate a bargaining unit most favorable to the management (that is, a unit including as many supervisory personnel as possible). The firm’s first action was an attempt to block the hearing by artificially inflating the size of the unit (so that our signed cards would constitute less than 30%), even including the name of a dead employee! This was apparently intended to be testing and harassment move. It failed and the NLRB hearing was set.

The hearing consisted for the most part of testimony centering around the function of several supervisors. It was management’s contention that these individuals were merely professionals directing other professionals. Since there has been relatively little organizing among technical workers, legal definitions of supervisory roles are not yet established. The management, obviously fearful of organization of its technical labor, had set up its structure to make the legal defining of an individual’s management role very difficult. Legally a manager is someone who has the direct power to hire or fire or make effective recommendations in hiring or firing. The company made sure this direct power rested only in the hands of the directors of the research facility and made sure they at least saw potential employees before their hiring. The directors did all actual firing, though clearly on the recommendation of immediate supervisors.

The result of two full days of hearings and 550 pages worth of testimony was that the NLRB officer ordered an election, but with a unit which included a large percentage of supervisors. In only two out of twelve cases were we successful in having an individual removed from the unit.4 Included were people who assigned work, recommended raises, signed time cards, and recommended hiring and firing.

Meanwhile a campaign to prevent unionization had already been launched by S.C.M. management. Prior to the NLRB hearing, letters prepared by the directors of the facility and opposing organization were sent to all the employees. The letters contained general anti-union arguments (such as, “if a union came in you would lose your personal ability to bargain with management”) and constant references to the management’s open door policy (“if you have any problems, just tell us”). They also contained unsubstantiated slurs as to the sinister backing of ESC.5 All letters were signed by the directors with only their first names! Their obvious bias and anti-worker slant actually helped us. Even identified “company men” expressed disgust with these letters.

By the time the election was ordered, S.C.M. management had had enough of the directors’ ineptitude, and brought in three anti-union professionals and installed them at the facility full time.6 This huge effort was being mounted against only 50-60 technical employees seeking to organize! Immediately, long and almost daily letters were sent by the management to each employee. Again these letters attempted to discredit ESC and its MEBA backing.7 They harped on our supposed lack of leverage even if we were to unionize (“So what if some researchers strike?”). And they circulated rumors that the company would move its research facility out of the state if organization were successful (this constitutes an unfair labor practice, but the rumor hurt us, especially among the workers fearful of uncertainty in a tough job market).

Despite the strong economic incentives for unionizing (the continued erosion of salaries, cuts in sick leave, poor retirement and pension contributions, manipulation of fringe benefits), and the long-standing resentment of management’s double-dealing, it was still difficult to combat management’s anti-union propaganda. It was not certain that a strike of technical workers could cripple the company and win demands, even though S.C.M.’s ability to compete with other high-technology companies was almost entirely dependent on its technical staff. (Why else should the company be so uptight about a technical workers union?) The charges against our particular organizing agent (MEBA) were hard to refute. Other companies had moved their operations to nullify unionization attempts (Shell Oil Research moved from Silicon Valley to Houston, Texas). And a few members of the staff had moved into management positions, indicating that the road was still open, though it meant vicious competition among the staff and certain failure for most.

In countering the anti-union arguments, we had to depend on the union for secretarial assistance (preparing and mailing SO letters a day for three weeks). We soon discovered that we were but one small group of several the union was trying to organize. The letters were not written as we specified (communication of our situation was difficult) and management’s charges against MEBA were met with generalities.

As the election approached the union became increasingly fearful of a defeat somehow humiliating to them. At this point they suggested that we should decide to withdraw. We considered and rejected this, feeling that while the unit had been stacked against us by the NLRB and the campaign had gone badly, we still had a chance to win.8 In response to our decision the ESC executive board withdrew its support. This was done in spite of previous assurances of autonomy. While in a formal sense all this meant was a six-month wait before another election could be held in actuality it was very demoralizing. Most of the workers were disappointed yet somehow relieved. The consensus seemed to be that we had shown the company how upset we were, and, in some paternal way, it would reform. I could understand the frustration of the union organizers, for the worker passivity did not bode well for any successful union local. As a result of the unionizing drive, some changes have been made at the facility. A few of the particularly bad supervisors have been removed (functioning largely as scapegoats for the company). All this out of fear of the possibility of another election in six months.

Some Problems and Dilemmas

What could we hope to accomplish in such a first organizing drive and how could we transcend the limited scope of unionization? These were questions that continually came up. However obvious the contradictions between us and corporate management, there are many technical workers who still respect the company as their source of financial security and relative privilege. Yet the objective basis for this subjective orientation appears to have been largely eroded over the last ten years. Stemming from World War II, the cold war of the 1950’s and the technological competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., scientists and technical workers were given certain privileges: good job mobility, little fear of layoff, and high salary levels. Beginning with the mid-1960’s, however, the situation began to change. Job mobility was ending, layoffs started to become a real threat, and salary gains began to fall behind those of the organized craft unions, and then behind inflation. Increasing numbers of scientists were entering the job market causing a glut of unemployed workers. These trends have continued and intensified in the 1970’s,9 especially as the crumbling of the American Empire (U.S. defeat in Indochina, national liberation struggles in Africa and the Mideast, competition from Japan, Western Europe, and the U.S.S.R.) has put pressure on the U.S. domestic economy. Fewer jobs, more layoffs, less mobility, and a clear absence of bargaining strength have changed the objective economic circumstances of scientific and technical workers. But the consciousness built during the years of expansion of U.S. imperialism — especially the years of scientific plenitude (1945-1965) — changes much more slowly. It is propped up by a whole ideological structure perpetuated by educational institutions and maintained by corporate propaganda.

The unionization drive, the struggle to organize technical workers against exploitation, can serve to clarify the contradiction between the interests of workers and of corporation managers and owners. Even where it first fails, the unionization drive often serves an important educational function.

Another problem, however, in waging such organizing struggles is that the power and resources of large multinational corporations like S.C.M., combined with our inexperience and physical limitations, often pushes us to obtain legal, financial, and material assistance from established unions and union bureaucracies. These unions can provide an organizing drive with a certain legitimacy and psychological support. While union support is not always crucial, it often is very important. But most unions are characterized by a very narrow trade unionism, the kind which is limited at present to economic issues and narrow self-interest, with no broader political perspective to speak of.

ESC, for example, has been somewhat successful in effecting economic improvements for its members, but remains otherwise largely conservative or indifferent to questions of democracy and political power. The organizers I worked with had only a marginal interest in broader political questions. They enjoyed wielding large amounts of personal power and privileges of union expense accounts and high salaries. I have spoken to some marine engineers in MEBA; they expressed dissatisfaction with the highhandedness and paternalism of the union leadership. Workers belonging to ESC expressed greater satisfaction, especially with their newfound economic power, but their remoteness from union leadership was apparent.

So we are led into this difficult situation. On the one hand it is expedient, helpful, and sometimes necessary to deal with established unions in order to organize the scientific and technical workforce, and to begin moving it in progressive directions. On the other hand we are limited or held back in these attempts by the political backwardness of the existing union bureaucracies and their policies. This dilemma is even more pronounced given that our goal is not simply to establish a narrow trade unionism within the scientific and technical workforce; it is to go much further than that, to organize a political force which engages in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow imperialism. Unionization is but an important first step. Its value lies in the politicizing of scientific and technical workers and in heightening the contradictions within the present economic system — that is, in putting organized economic pressure on the capitalist class.

The general problem of how to bring a broader political perspective into organizing around concrete issues manifests itself in the day-to-day work of trying to build the unionizing drive. My own political perspective, for example, extended beyond simple unionization, and because of that I had trouble in identifying in many ways with my co-workers or with the union organizers I had to work with, and they, in turn had some trouble working with me.

I was coming from a much different place than they. I had drifted out of graduate school in early 1972 (without a Ph.D.) dissatisfied with the individualism of basic research and concerned with the oppressive uses of scientific work. While in school I had been involved in two strikes for higher wages and benefits for research and teaching assistants. These efforts were successful in terms of obtaining slightly better wages, but no continuing organization developed out of them. This was a mistake I did not want to repeat.

Industrial research work was nothing new to me — my father had done it all his adult life. Through him I gained a comprehension of the deficiencies of the traditional monetary rewards of scientific work. Upward corporate mobility and lots of money were not too meaningful to me. Freedom, dignity, and some say in the use and directions of my work were my objectives. Of course, this attitude was consistent with the fact that I lived inexpensively, had no children, and was not generally caught up in the lifestyle of middle American consumerism.

I found myself at odds with the thinking of almost all the people I had to work with. My response was to be open about my political orientation. This was initially allowed, as it is in many such facilities; “eccentricities” are permitted as long as work is not affected. I attempted on a day-to-day basis to establish some form of human contact with all employees, breaking down the taboos of “professional conduct with maintenance and support people. As I mentioned before, I took every opportunity to do political education, to discuss political issues with my co-workers.

But this practice, combined with my political orientation and life-style, made me different from the other workers, and made it sometimes hard for us to identify with one another. This came out most clearly when only one other person volunteered to work openly on a steering committee to coordinate the unionization drive. Not having a strong group to lead the struggle, the organizing attempt was limited from the start. But the other workers feared for their jobs or good favor with management. I was thus nearly alone in my willingness to take on the organizing commitment and deal with the possible consequences.

Nevertheless, the problem remained. I did not see myself dedicated to a technical career nor wishing to remain with the company for a long period of time. A unionizing drive could help politicize a number of my co-workers, but they were not in a position to take the risks that I was. So we were left with the result that without a strong steering committee, there would certainly be real problems in leadership even should a unionizing drive prove successful, especially given the economist nature of the union.

What is the future?

The difficulties encountered in the unionizing drive at S.C.M. — the resistance of scientific and technical workers, especially the so-called “professionals,” to organizing around their work and salary conditions, and the limitations in the political scope of such organizing — raise important questions about these workers’ potential for becoming a progressive political force. In analyzing the situation, we must always be conscious of the changing nature of the scientific work process as well as its relationship to capitalist economic development.

For one thing, the privileges long associated with scientific and technical work are fast disappearing. For another, the products of industrial research are bought and sold on the market, and even exported to the third world (see “Technological Dependence,” SftP vol V #4, July 1973). Consequently, the process of technological innovation is assuming the same forms as other kinds of commodity production. Scientific work is being proletarianized. All this is but another example of the way in which capitalist forms have expanded into every previously non-capitalist sphere. Changes in technical work are part of the historical development of imperialism.

Technological advance, on the broadest level, is seen by the ruling class as the method of resolving many of the contradictions of our social and economic system. But on the more immediate level as well, technological innovation has assumed major economic importance. Industrial research is a prime area of competition among capitalists; products and processes become “obsolete” after only a few years. The importance of this research is reflected in the high level of opposition we met at S.C.M. in our unionizing drive. As research is put on an increasingly production line basis, it seems likely that slowdowns and strikes along with pickets and boycotts can have immediate economic consequence.10

Research workers are only now beginning to explore these possibilities. The system is vulnerable in this area, and that should provide us some incentive to organize. More directly, the level of exploitation is significant and is increasing and should be opposed by all means possible.

References

  1. This research facility was located far away from the production facilities in Japan as well as from other S.C.M. research and development facilities in the U.S. and Europe.
  2. Contract labor is a particularly onerous form of employment used on a large scale in California research. It allows a company to hire a worker at a premium with the excess above normal wages going to the labor contractor. It gives the employee no benefits at all, and even less security than ordinary employees. It allows the company the option of employing older workers without having to worry about pension payments, since the employee is nominally working for the labor contractor. If allows the company to bring in large numbers of employees for short periods and creates artificial legal and class barriers to labor organizing.
  3. An NLRB representation election is one in which workers decide if they want to be represented by a particular labor organization. The NLRB must first set a hearing at which it determines who in a given workplace will constitute the represented unit. It then orders an election in the workplace, where a majority vote is required for the union to become the bargaining agent for that unit.
  4. The most extreme decision in this case involved an employee who served as a consultant. He was actually one of the three owners of the facility prior to its acquisition by S.C.M. He received about 1/2% of the total S.C.M. stock in this merger (total S.C.M. stock is worth over $100 million). This individual was ruled a worker in spite of his obvious ownership position.
  5. ESC is affiliated with the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association (MEBA) which provides organizing funds. MEBA (AFL-CIO) is a wealthy craft union made up primarily of marine engineers. Over a 20-year period it has made significant economic improvements for them (average salary of $36,000/year and a $600/mo. pension after 20 years). It is now putting a lot of effort into organizing engineers and scientists more generally. This is where ESC comes in.
  6. Management had been studying a book called Winning NLRB Elections – Management Strategy and Preventive Programs by Louis Jackson and Robert Lewis, from the Practicing Law Institute, New York City (Practice Handbook Series #6). It’s worth reading to get detailed management strategies.
  7. This time the letters contained detailed financial information on MEBA, including salary information on MEBA officials (around $40,000/year) and statements of financial deficits within the union (implying fraud but never so stating). This information was quite damaging, especially the union salaries, which were much in excess of what workers at our facility were getting.
  8. The unionizing drive was pretty solidly backed by the technicians, who constituted almost half of the unit. It was with the more “professional” workers that anti-union sentiment was most strongly felt.
  9. See the following articles in SftP: “Engineers in the Working Class” vol III #4 9/71 plus a letter in vol IV #1 1/72. “Some Myths and Contradictions Concerning Engineers” vol V #3 5/73 plus the rest of this issue. “Pushing Professionalism or Programming the Programmer” vol VI #4 7/74. “Engineers and Unions” vol VI #6 11/74. “Computer Workers as Professionals” vol VI #6 11/74.
  10. There is good evidence that the research and development companies in the Silicon Valley have organized to provide assistance to any one firm threatened by a unionizing drive. It is certain that they have black lists of activists, and possibly other coordinated activities just like the airline companies