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 rate—39%—among workers in wafer-etching areas. An alarming 29% miscarriage rate was found among wafer photolithography workers.

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 acids—all found in abundance in most wafer fabs—contribute to the notoriously high "systemic poisoning" rates among semiconductor workers (for more on clean room hazards, see "Chemicals Run Amok—Where'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 force—for 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 work.

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 revisionism—and the government's reluctance to challenge it—allowed 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, 760 N. First St., San Jose, CA 95112 or call (408) 287-6771.

—Dennis Hayes


A Day Older, A Dollar Poorer!

In PW #15 "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 with actions.

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 benefit—they 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.

—Primitivo Morales