On January 29, 1993, workers at the Versatronex plant in Sunnyvale, California, filed out of its doors for the last time. Seventeen years have passed since, but there are still electronics workers in Silicon Valley who remember the company’s name. It was the first Valley plant struck by production employees and the first where a strike won recognition of their union.
The struggle of these workers, almost all immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Philippines, demolished some of the most cherished myths about the Silicon Valley workforce. It showed workers there are like workers everywhere. Under the right circumstances, even in the citadel of high tech’s open shop, people are willing to organize for a better life.
While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they’ve dropped for thousands of workers on the production line. Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as production was moved out of the Valley to other states and countries. Companies long ago eliminated their no-layoff pledge. Permanent jobs became temporary and then disappeared entirely. The image of the clean industry was undermined by toxic contamination of the Valley’s water supply and a high occurrence of chemically induced industrial illness.
Another co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, won renown as a partisan of theories of the racial inferiority of African-Americans. As Shockley, Noyce, and others guided the development of the industry in Silicon Valley, they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce. In electronics plants, women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men. Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley’s production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees.
By the mid-1990s, Asian workers made up 30 percent of the skilled production workforce, 47 percent of the semiskilled workforce and 41 percent of the unskilled workforce. Latinos constituted 18 percent of skilled workers, 21 percent of semiskilled workers and 36 percent of unskilled workers. Both groups together were only 17 percent of management employees and 25 percent of professional and engineering employees. The same picture held true for women. While 23 percent of management employees were women and 29 percent of professionals, women were 80 percent of clerical employees, 40 percent of skilled workers, 60 percent of semiskilled workers and 50 percent of unskilled workers. The picture painted by these statistics is still largely accurate today.
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 not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category and below 3 percent in management and engineering.
Karen Hossfeld, a sociologist at San Francisco State University, who has written extensively on the status of women in high-tech industry, explains the segregation as a conscious decision on the part of manufacturers. “Employers assume foreign-born women will be unlikely to agitate for pay hikes,” she says.