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Rare Employee Strike At Silicon Valley Plant

Job action at Versatronex may foreshadow new drive to organize immigrant workers in high-tech industry

By Reese ErlichSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 1992



SUNNYVALE, CALIF.

THE first strike against a Silicon Valley high-tech electronics company in many years may be a harbinger of increased organizing activity in this bastion of the non-union shop.

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About 55 mainly Latina women workers went on strike against Versatronex Corporation on Oct. 16. The company makes circuit boards.

Workers complain that they are paid low wages and receive no health care or other benefits.

According to Richard Leasia, the company's attorney, the strike is unjustified. He says the company has proposed that the National Labor Relations Board sponsor an election to determine if workers want to organize a union.

The United Electrical Workers Union says the company could stall a NLRB election for years, and says that it already has a majority of the workers signed up with authorization cards.

Union organizer David Bacon says conditions at Versatronex are similar to those at many other Silicon Valley firms.

"If workers here succeed," Mr. Bacon says, "it will encourage workers in other plants to organize."

Maria Henriquez, a striking worker with seven years seniority says that wages and working conditions at the plant are horrible.

Workers earn between $5.50 and $9 per hour, Ms. Henriquez says, and get no fringe benefits.

Versatronex workers were concerned enough about conditions, Henriquez says, that they organized themselves and then contacted the United Electrical Workers Union. They struck after the company fired a worker who had been outspoken about unionization.

Workers say they encounter discrimination as Latinos. They also complain that they must work with hazardous chemicals, but receive inadequate training and have poor safety equipment.

"I worked in an area with a special kind of glue," says Henriquez, "They provided us with very thin paper masks. We get all the fumes."

Versatronex management will not comment about the strike, referring questions to Mr. Leasia, the company attorney. He says that he cannot comment on the workers' specific charges because of litigation pending before the NLRB.

He claims that of the approximately 80 workers at Versatronex, only about half are currently on strike and fewer still regularly picket. So far the company and workers have held no negotiations.

Leasia says high-tech workers have generally rejected unions. Organized labor in California has been "just about destroyed over the past 12 years," he says. "People don't feel the need for unions."

Workers in the high-tech industries of Silicon Valley don't want unions, he says, because wages are high and working conditions good.

Workers here "are more independent, more entrepreneurial," Leasia adds.

Paul Chown, former chair of the University of California Labor Center, disagrees with Leasia's opinion, but concedes that Silicon Valley has always been difficult to organize.

As an official for the United Electrical Workers Union from 1956-1975, he has tried to unionize high-tech plants.

Chown says not all high-tech workers are well paid and entrepreneurial. "People who do the skilled work get good money," he says. "Others do low-pay work that can be learned quickly."

Despite low wages, many workers have not proved open to unionization. Companies hire workers from low-wage areas in other parts of the United States and from third-world countries. "Almost everybody in Silicon Valley is a stranger," Chown says. "They get better pay living in Silicon Valley than wherever they came from."

Nevertheless, Chown predicts that high-tech workers will eventually move toward unions. He says that because of tougher conditions, many of the early battles will occur in smaller companies such as Versatronex.

Union organizer Bacon adds that immigrant workers will most likely be in the forefront of those efforts. He notes that some Versatronex workers have previously participated in militant union struggles in Mexico and Central America.

"People have brought with them cultural traditions ... which has helped them organize this struggle here," Bacon says. For the past year the United Electrical Workers Union has been leafleting Silicon Valley facilities to help spur unionization efforts.

Union leaders are not predicting a sudden upsurge in successful organizing drives of high-tech plants, but foresee more small battles such as that at Versatronex.

Chown says that in his experience most high-tech workers would like to have unions, but when they see the tough antiunion stance of management, they back away. "General Electric and Westinghouse in the 1930s went for many years without unions," he says. "It takes quite a while for a new industry to shake down."