With Processed World 19 we return, flushed, but
unchastened, from our special sex issue with a focus on a neglected feature of
modern life--workplace transience.
America is becoming a land of transient workers and moveable workplace. The job
turnover rate, supplemented by wave after wave of layoffs and forced early retirements,
is cresting higher and higher. In this issue, we look not so much at the movement
of work away from old-line, dying American industries, but rather at the more
aimless flow into and out of the new service, office, and electronics sector jobs.
Where is the Information Age taking us?
According to a Harper's Index item (September, 1986), the geographic center of
the U.S. population is moving west by 58 feet and south by 29 feet each day. Whether
they depart from the drying husks of Eastern factory towns or from the bulging
shantytowns of Central America and Asia, the white, black, brown, and yellow émigrés
arrive in patchwork urban habitats that offer very little community stability
and even less job security. Stability and security of this sort an going the way
of the manual typewriter and the great Amazon jungles. In place of the union hiring
hall and the "permanent" full-time worker looms a "personnel services" industry
that traffics in temporary and part-time workers, who comprise an ever larger
proportion of the labor force.
To a great extent, the new workplace transience reflects the rise of low-paying,
boring, and often dangerous "processing" jobs that no one cut tolerate indefinitely--or
even, it seems, for more than 20-30 hours a week. Likewise notorious is the upper-tier
job-hopping of salaried "professionals," whose career trajectories are described
increasingly as "lateral movement." Upward mobility, that hallowed American artifice,
is today more elusive than ever.
Does the growth in temporary and part-time work signal progress--a release from
unsatisfying, full-time work? Does increased job turnover fulfill popular aspiration
for greater individual autonomy? Probably. But what are the implications of workplace
transience for workers--and for the workplace itself?
Throughout contemporary American life, then remains much to rebel against and
to fight for. Many people might even agree on a limited agenda for social change.
But what happens when people don't stay in one place long enough to develop common
agendas, or, more important, meaningful ties to other people? Bootless people
can and do rebel. But they rarely do so in groups. Instead, the social entropy
of transience constricts the channels of rebellion to the most convenient, individual
options--quitting frustrating jobs, moving away from uncomfortable social relationships,
escaping disconcerting patronal affairs, dodging a "bad record." Drifting, like
gothic cowboys, through town after town.
Neighborhoods, communities, and work-plan associations create bonds between people,
a melding of personal and social Identity, These bonds can impede the mobility
that capital, always seeking more profitable horizons, historically has imposed
upon labor. A people unattached to one another are more likely to move when business
needs them and to pursue its exaggerated, competitively derived dreams of isolated
good fortune. This is why a transient workforce has long been attractive to western
capitalism, especially during periods of rapid structural decay and transition.
The personal autonomy to leave oppressive jobs, to "move on," is often the best
option for individuals. During the current realignment of capital and culture,
however, unbridled individual mobility gives free rein to capital's most rapacious
and speculative tendencies.
What happens when workers come and go with increasing frequency from job to job?
A cluster of articles explores this question-and raises others. In "Itinerant
Cultures, Lonely Trails, Work's Diminishing Connections," Dennis Hayes examines
the impermanence and loneliness of Silicon Valley work. Electronics has become
America's largest manufacturing sector. But unlike auto, steel and previous such
employers, volatile electronics firms rely essentially on a transient workforce.
With the deployment of Immigrant, temporary, and highly mobile professional workers,
workplace organizing-and by implication, the power to strike for better conditions,
wages, and benefits--has eluded high-tech workers. Is the workplace vanishing
as a focus for collective rebellion? As electronics products assist in the economic
transition to more servile, machine-paced office and shop work, workplace transience
is structured into more and more occupations. In "Small
Is Not Beautiful" Tom Wetzel describes the discontents and hypocrisy of the
SF Bay Guardian, a nationally known "progressive" San Francisco weekly that has
buffeted its workers with job-displacing automation and willfull neglect. Wetzel
documents failed attempts to organize among workers made transient by low pay
and by part-time job assignments.
The author is heartened by the success of the Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW), who vigorously, if temporarily, organized transient
workers early in this century. At that time, however, the spirit of rebellion
was given an immediately social outlook by the practical, often revolutionary,
trade union traditions of European immigrant workers. More recently, American
unions have lined up with banks to sell credit cards, have co-engineered CIA-backed
intrigues from the Philippines to El Salvador, and have milked dwindling pension
funds to the exclusion of workplace organizing. Today's immigrants are, as always
hopeful, But unlike their European forebears, many arrive from lands where workplace
organizing is greeted with American-supplied bullets fired by American-trained
Sophia Furia's "A Teaching Temp Talks Back" is a visceral expose of a public university/community
college system in disarray and of the milieu of underpaid and overworked part-time
teachers that increasingly populate its faculty positions. S.F. describes the
stodgy cynicism among tenured faculty, the bitter ironies that confront teachers
who care about education, and the underdevelopment of fraternity among part-time
teachers. Joni Hockert's view is "From Inside the Beast--Temporarily." A Placement
counselor for a temporary agency, Hockert tells all, including how temps and jobs
are systematically mismatched, how secret discriminations result in the "release"
of many temporary workers, and--in the author's case--how temporary temp counseling
Has a nearly unbroken chain of union betrayals impaired our ability to imagine
collective solutions to workplace problems? What happens when workers confront,
rather than sidestep, workplace problem? "Kaiser Don't
Care, SEIU Neither" is a brief account of a strike by health care workers
that ended in qualified defeat. But a special PW interview (by Lucius Cabins)
with activists critical of, yet sympathetic to their union generates provocative
dialogue and insights into the dilemma of workplace organizing. Our periodic column
Hot Under The Collar returns in this issue with a
report on the unlikely settlement of a bitter and often violent strike by Hispanic
frozen produce workers in Watsonville, California (see PW 15 and 16) and the microchip
industry's curious response to a study that found twice-normal miscarriage rates
among its workers.
Fiction is an appropriate genre for exploring the trauma of the job interview--an
occasion to which transient workers frequently must rise. Had a rough one lately?
So has David Ross, whose "Thursday Morning" gets to the clammy heart of the matter.
Vignettes of American work and its discontents are captured with angst and verve
in "All in a Day's Work" by Kurt Nimmo. In the tradition of James Thurber, G.Y.
Jennings' "Sand and Steel" depicts a bored accountant's flirtation with the boxcar
transience of hobo life--and the hobos' little surprise. Thoughtful reviews of
Cultures in Contention (Ed. D. Kahn & D. Neumaier) and Langdon Winner's The Whale
and the Reactor, poetry you'll not likely see or hear elsewhere, and your letters
round out the issue.
Our little surprise is that, in contrast to this issue's theme, a semblance of
stability has insinuated itself into the PW collective. It's not often that a
core of willful people can coalesce for long around such an unwieldy project.
Frankly we're wondering if we shouldn't begin to worry. The chaos of production
is somehow becoming more tolerable, thanks to improvements in process-and product,
we hope. We've seen the puffy face of the future-desktop publishing--and we're
still blinking. But after a cautious look, we're taking the leap.
Financial stability, however, has been less forthcoming. We've managed to contain,
and even reduce, some of our production costs. But we are about to launch--gee,
there it goes--er, just launched, a campaign to increase our circulation. That
means higher production and distribution costs once again. Wampum is what is wanted.
You could help us immediately by subscribing now, or by renewing your subscription
early, or by giving a gift subscription, or by suggesting a bookstore that doesn't
yet carry PW, or by just leaving one on a bus seat.
In the meantime, enjoy this issue, and think about contributing to the next
one,--which, among other topics, will explore the health care industry from
the inside out. Take some time to write us a thoughtful letter-we've moved letters
back to the front to emphasize PWs role as a forum for readers. And keep those
articles, poems and short stories coming--hey, we'll read anything!
HOT UNDER THE COLLAR
Chips 'n' Dips
The microchip industry's credibility regarding workers' health has dipped so low
that the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) recently invoked its own tattered
image to dodge fresh evidence of dirt in its "clean" rooms.
The evidence, which attracted national attention, issued from a University of
Massachusetts study of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) workers. The focus
was on workers who process microchips at DEC's Hudson, Massachusetts, plant. Summaries
of the study were released to DEC and the Boston Globe in December 1986. The study,
according to Globe reporter Bruce Butterfield, found "double and higher the incidences
of worker-reported rashes, headaches, and arthritis" and, among male workers,
"significantly higher incidences of nausea." The most publicized finding, however,
was of a twice-normal miscarriage rate39%among workers in wafer-etching
areas. An alarming 29% miscarriage rate was found among wafer photolithography
Liable for damages from injured worker lawsuits, the industry responded by denying,
as it has for years, a causal connection between dean room chemicals and fetal
damage. Inspired by self-interest, the industry dismisses claims that arsine,
phosphine, chlorine, and hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acidsall found in
abundance in most wafer fabscontribute to the notoriously high "systemic
poisoning" rates among semiconductor workers (for more on clean room hazards,
see "Chemicals Run AmokWhere's the Dirt?"
in PW 17). DEC promptly banned on-site interviews with workers at the Hudson plant.
Amid all the dissembling over the study's results, some firms adopted "precautionary"
policies that appeared to deal with the problem. DEC announced a policy of free
pregnancy testing and job transfers for all women of child bearing age who worked
in the high-risk areas. AT&T went furthest, mandating job transfers out of controversial
clean room work for pregnant women. Despite evidence that clean room chemicals
(such as glycol ethers) cause shrunken testicles, not to mention a variety of
disorders in male and female laboratory animals, none of the chipmakers would
guarantee transfers for exposed male workers, who, the industry explained, weren't
having the miscarriages.
Sheila Sandow is a spokesperson for the SIA. According to the Silicon Valley Toxic
News (Winter 1987) and San Jose Mercury News, Ms. Sandow responded to the DEC-sponsored
study by noting that women working in certain chipmaking areas have a "personal
responsibility" for their health and pregnancy. Accordingly, Sandow advised women
to consult their doctors (not, their lawyers) if they become pregnant. She also
allowed that DEC and AT&T'S policies of job transfers for affected women "could
create problems, especially when the industry as a whole is in a slump.
In March, the SIA assumed an even more contorted public posture by rejecting calls
from watchdog groups-and an SIA task forcefor a comprehensive health study
of the chipmaking industry. Why? Because the SIA's board doubted whether the public
would accept an SIA-sponsored study as objective. The SIA, tossing reason aside,
instead recommended that semiconductor firms perform their own, isolated studies.
But in a prior episode, both the SIA and its member firms had established their
disdain for impartial inquiry, as well as their capacity for skullduggery.
By 1980 the occupational illness rate for Silicon Valley semiconductor workers
(1.3 illnesses per 100 workers) was over three times that for manufacturing workers
(.04/100). Compiled from a California Department of Industrial Relations (CDIR)
survey, the high illness rate included managers and nonproduction employees and
thus understated the danger. The rate also discounted latent disorders, miscarriages,
and birth defects, as well as the special wear and tear exacted by this stressful
The industry's high illness rate prompted reviews and planned studies by the California
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), and, on a federal level,
by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). In response
the SIA "decided to re-evaluate" (as an SIA lawyer put it) the way it recorded
chemical "incidents." By simply changing the way it recorded injuries and illnesses,
the industry produced an apparent two-thirds drop in its occupational illness
rate. Under equally mysterious circumstances, the government agencies planning
the studies were dissuaded from conducting them.
The SIA's revisionismand the government's reluctance to challenge itallowed
the companies to avoid a legal obligation to report many work-related illnesses.
This helped establish a secular trend of declining occupational illness data that
could later be used as evidence against disabled workers' legal claims. Now, the
unpublished DEC study, which the SIA may yet seek to discredit, threatens to arm
disabled workers with new evidence against the industry's ill-gotten innocence.
NIOSH, according to the Globe, has requested a copy of the DEC study and is "considering
launching a federal health study of the semiconductor industry." California health
officials, too, are under pressure to conduct research into Silicon Valley electronics
plants. But these are dubious enterprises. In February the Wall Street Journal
reported on the progress of a $450,000 on-again, off-again VDT (Video Display
Terminal) hazards study by NIOSH. Bell-South Corp., an Atlanta-based telephone
company, enjoined NIOSH scientists from asking employees about "their fertility
history [sic] or their perception of occupational stress, a potential cause of
miscarriages." When NIOSH insisted on the relevance of these questions to the
study, Bell-South contacted the White House, whose Office of Management and Budget
then "threatened to block funding for the study unless the questions were dropped."
NIOSH relented, thus impairing the VDT study. This retreat signaled a servility
to capital's friends in high places that would likely blemish any NIOSH examination
of the semiconductor industry workplace. California health officials, according
to the San Jose Mercury News, are citing bare budgets and industry intransigence
as excuses not to study health problems in the clean room. "Industry is key to
the success of the study," according to the state's chief of epidemiological studies.
Government agencies remain an unlikely ally for labor.
The industry is biding its time.
In the aftermath of the Hudson plant study, some three dozen organizations ranging
from the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH) to IBM
Workers United and the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as union activists
and officials, sent an open letter to semiconductor firms and drafted a position
paper on "Health and Safety in the Semiconductor Industry." The groups are asking
the industry to "remove toxics, not workers" from the workplace. They also charge
that exclusionary policies such as AT&T's are short-sighted and possibly in violation
of federal laws that forbid employment discrimination on the basis of sex or pregnancy.
For more information on reproductive and other hazards in the high-tech workplace,
call the Confidential Reproductive Hazards Hotline (408) 99&4050 or (800) 4242-USA.
For copies of Silicon Valley Toxic News, contact the Silicon
Valley Toxics Coalition, 277 West Hedding St. #208, San Jose, CA 95110
or call (408) 287-6707.
A Day Older, A Dollar Poorer!
In PW #I5 "Fire and Ice" covered a strike at Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food
Company in California. The strike began Sept. 3, 1985 when the company slashed
wages from an average of $6.66 to $4.75 an hour, as well as many other take-aways
(dues checkoff, vacation pay for seasonal workers, etc.). The workers are represented
by Teamsters Local 912, were mostly Hispanic women, and struck after an 800-1
vote. The company used legal injunctions and cops in its attempt to keep operating,
but was unsuccessful. Workers refused to cross the picket lines, and the Watsonville
community supported the strike.
Despite the international union's lack of support, the strike continued for 18
months, with the workers running the finances, publicity, childcare and solidarity
actions. Scabs were paid $5.15/hr. but the company was never able to reach normal
production. Finally, in February of 1987 Wells Fargo bank began foreclosure proceedings
against the now desperate company (owing over $7 million). A group of creditors,
mostly growers in the area, formed NORCAL Frozen Foods and bought the plant. They
immediately re-opened negotiations, offering improved wages ($5.85/hr., now the
prevailing union wage in the area). The union officials approved, but the workers
refused to ratify the offer, in particular because of inadequate medical coverage.
Although the union cut off strike benefits and announced that the strike was over,
the rank-and-file had a different idea and went back out on the picket lines.
Five days later, the new owners gave in to the workers' medical demands as well
as their demands for seniority rights and amnesty for strikers (which was tantamount
to dismissing the scabs). This contract was ratified by 543-21. The plant is now
operating again, with full production expected by autumn '87. Although the new
owners appear to be an improvement it remains to be seen if they will follow words
So, after 18 months of poverty, millions of dollars drained out of a tiny community,
numerous arrests and evictions, it's back to business as usual. The workers accepted
a dollar an hour less, and otherwise are about where they were a year and a half
ago. The company, however, not only didn't get its way, it went bankrupt. The
workers gained an intangible benefitthey refused to give up, and broke their
immediate enemy. Facing union busting and take-backs from the largest cannery
in the U.S., a combative spirit and enduring tenacity carried the day.