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Unionizing Silicon Valley: Victories and Cultural Strategies

The challenge before us -- organizing Silicon Valley and all North American cyberproles and workstation jocks -- is not going to be an easy one.
Mike Mosher

Issue #65, January 2004

Past efforts organizing engineers and recent efforts in technical trades deserve study as models for organizing "no-collar workers," the heavily exploited programmers, writers and graphic designers of the contemporary computer and Web industries. If 'Silicon Valley' is shorthand for this demographic and technological sector in any region, its characteristics are most pronounced in that Northern California hyper-wired oasis. There have been some notable organizing accomplishments since 2000, as well as risks that might derail organizing work.

Graphic by Mike Mosher In 2001 unions represented about 14 percent of U.S. workforce, or about 17 million workers. Success in the last thirty years of government employees — the Service Workers International Union among government employees, and teachers unions like the National Education Association and the California Teachers Union — show that 'symbolic thinkers' (a once-prevalent management buzz phrase) realize the need to protect themselves through organization.

There have been some organizing victories already in the twenty-first century. Most notably, the International Union of Electrical Workers and the 630,000 Communications Workers of America merged in September 2000 to form a union of 743,000 workers. The United Auto Workers and United Mine Workers unions, powerful national unions with political muscle, also courted the Electrical Workers.

Communication Workers of America (CWA) telephone unions worked to organize the wireless telcom industry at Verizon and Cingular around the issue of retraining analog workers for digital hardware. In August, 2000 they held a walkout of 85,000 CWA and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members that lasted 17 days to support Verizon's organizing effort. Over 2,000 workers won representation by IBEW, bringing the total it represented in New England to 14,000. By mid-2001, 10,000 of 30,000 Cingular workers were represented by CWA.

The CWA scheduled an election at the now-defunct in January 2001, to which the company immediately responded with layoffs. They obtained organizing help from the Northern California Media Workers Guild that filed National Labor Relations Board complaints. The same year the CWA and AFL-CIO worked to rally institutional pension-fund investors against AT&T management's planned breakup of the conglomerate's long-distance, cable and wireless service, a plan intended to boost stock price and shareholder value.

There was some organizing effort directed at computer manufacturers or system assemblers. While 'Intel Inside!' stickers still predominate on the faces of computers where a union bug should be, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers organized two small computer providers in the Midwest. There was an effort to organize overworked and underpaid warehouse and customer service workers at just before the December 2000 Christmas rush. Management responded by distributing anti-union literature and special coaching of managers to fight the union drive. In 2000 a $97 million settlement was reached between Microsoft and its 'permanent temps' who brought suit. To organize Microsoft and Amazon would be great inspirational, symbolic victories.

The organization of online content providers was one model found in the 2001 negotiation between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, where an agreement rewrote outdated pay formulas for compensation for reused work that appears on the Internet and pays residuals for Web content reused on TV.

Risky Business

One very real issue is the continuous export of programming jobs to Bangalore, India. Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, American Express have all taken advantage of workforces of highly-trained English-speaking computer science graduates. Though one US information technologists' publication claims that programmers' salaries in Bangalore have recently been as low as $550 to $650 (U.S. dollars) per annum, the website PayScale gives their range from about $8,700 to $12,000. Some industrialists have griped that these programmers are overpaid in comparison to programmers in the U.S. Though the Bay Area Labor Council had a Plant Closings Project in California in the early 1980s that investigated, publicized and organized around the issue of work moved offshore — a project of a sort lacking today — the destruction of communities when a factory of any kind moves overseas generates anger that can be harvested for community organizing and political change.

Graphic by Mike MosherConcomitant with these exports is the profligate issuance of H-1B visas. Some 195,000 H-1B visas were issued in 2001, about half of them to Indian citizens. In the year 2000 about 250,000 Indians worked in the US on H-1B visas. These programmers were supposed to go home if they were laid off, though the INS admitted in mid-2001 that it had not given pursuing them priority, though it probably has to a greater degree after 9/11.

The visas also stirred much grumbling among older workers, who felt they were being passed over for younger, lower-paid Indians and Taiwanese. Yet to raise anger against these foreign workers is a delicate issue. How could there be organizing that was free from the stink of racism which so hobbled unionization efforts in the United States in the past? One solution might be for the union to employ some high-profile ethnic Indian organizers. The albeit expensive but most honorable option is to unionize the H-1B workers as well, with some sort of inventive protection provided them, such as a guarantee that if they are laid off by the company they would be given jobs under their visas as organizers by the union!

Unscrewing the Big Screw

The average American workweek has expanded in the past two decades, and in Silicon Valley there has been a perverse pride in workweeks extending up to 100 hours. The disappearance of the standard eight-hour day is the Big Screw, the issue around which anger at exploitation should crystallize into organization. When I worked for one large computer company, my elderly aunt, employed from high school to retirement, stayed with us. One evening when I came home at 7:00 p.m she nervously asked "You get time and a half for overtime, right?" My subsequent explanation about good salary and a department fridge full of fruit juices, and T-shirts when new products shipped, sounded awfully hollow. She had never been a union member, but had worked as a secretary in the office of a unionized steel factory. It was her generation that fought for what was the standard workday for about fifty years.

Labor Panel from Grant Building lobby murals, 1095 Market Street, San Francisco, 1999 by Mike Mosher

The tech industries have some organizing problems and challenges not shared with rustbelt, smokestack America. There is the cyclical nature of the industry, where the fat times that spring from the spread of tech innovations like personal computers, of multimedia CD-ROMs and the Web boom, are followed by periods of contraction (usually occurring when the President is named George Bush). There is also the cultural mindset that prevents smart, skilled (often twenty-something) workers in T-shirts from seeing themselves as the labor proletariat. The tech industry pays well, often offering flexible scheduling, liberal vacations, and (of riskier value) stock option packages. Until the Dot Com bust, there was plenty of work. It boasts a perception of worker control of the work environment, whose contradictory reality is summed up in the phrase "You can work any eighty hours a week you like!" Engineers set the culture of the tech industry, for engineers often founded these companies. The supporting tech writers, instructional designers, graphic artists, interface designers feel part of the culture that the engineers drive. The tech industry, with its flattened hierarchies and informality, makes it easier for the programmer or Web designer to identify with the fate of the support staff. The marketing staff might be the most conservative and resistant, the support staff of administrative assistants, network technicians and loading dock workers the most realistic and progressive.

Since the first step is to change the cultural landscape, I want to see the fight take place on an accelerated scale in the realm of culture. There exists much imagery from a century ago (some collected in the 1998 book Images of American Radicalism by Paul Buhle and Edmund B. Sullivan) that besides looking cool would raise consciousness. "Fight for the 8 Hour Day" is again a resonant rallying cry suitable for T-shirts, posters, mugs, bumper stickers. Tattoos, anyone? Let's see if the goal is globally achieved before the tat fades. This rich archive of century-old organizing graphics waits to be re-purposed, updated and re-imagined. Yet artists in all fields should be invited, hosted and commissioned to generate new works to sharpen political understanding, freshen the spirit, stir the soul. The union should sponsor community murals in various neighborhoods that beautifully illuminate the issues, working conditions and potential for a better life. It should organize frequent benefit rock, hip-hop and dance concerts, events that are long on fun and short on speeches. When will each union sponsor annual labor song contests in each genre, the winning results to be spread at no cost via MP3?

Unionization needs marketing with the creation of interactive screen documents and popular websites. One hopes to see VRML worlds showing union workplaces, much as Tamiko Thiel did with a virtual World War II Japanese relocation camp. Such visualizations would be hyperlinked to case histories and organizing tools and model documents. There could also be college organizing efforts among tech support workers — the underpaid drones who keep university computer labs running — for an organized cohort would then move into industry with heightened labor consciousness and organizing skills and that special fresh energy students can bring.

In the geographic Silicon Valley the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council includes a hundred thousand workers in 110 affiliated unions. The challenge before us — organizing Silicon Valley and all North American cyberproles and workstation jocks — is not going to be an easy one. Management will respond to any organizing efforts with counter-tactics of relocations, layoffs (as if they need provocation for those!), individual firings and lawsuits. Labor must employ traditional methods like strikes, slowdowns and counter-suits, as well as creative new ones. Our new strategies and tactics must make the fullest use of the liberational potential of the technologies we labor to create.

Former Silicon Valley online interface designer Mike Mosher teaches Art and Communication Multimedia at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He joined the Service Workers International Union in San Francisco when he worked for the San Francisco Art Commission as that city's last CETA-funded community muralist.

Credits: All images Copyright ©1999, 2004 Mike Mosher.
Labor Panel from Grant Building lobby murals, 1095 Market Street, San Francisco, 1999 Copyright ©2004Mike Mosher

Copyright © 2004 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.