Processed World #19

Issue 19: April 1987 from

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Table of Contents

Talking Heads
processed world editorial

from our readers

Work's Diminishing Connections
analysis of workplace transience by dennis hayes

A Teaching Temp Talks Back
tale of toil: 2-year college teacher, by sofia furia

From Inside The Beast, Temporarily
tale of toil: temp agency counselor, by joni hockert

Sand and Steel
fiction by g .y. jennings

All In A Day's Work
fiction by kurt nimmo

Kaiser Don't Care! SEIU Neither!
interview on kaiser hospital strike, by lucius cabins

Hot Under The Collar:
* Chips 'n' Dips more dirt on "clean rooms" by dennis hayes
* A Day Older, A Dollar Poorer! update on cannery workers' strike settlement, by primitivo morales

by tom wayman, william talcott, tom clark, squirrel bates & joseph raffa

Thursday Morning
fiction by david ross

Small Is Not Beautiful
tale of toil: typesetting at the bay guardian, by tom wetzel

Byting Into Books
review of cultures in contention, by jeff goldthorpe
review of the whale and the reactor, by tom athanasiou

Talking Heads

processed world editorial

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 police.

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 can be.

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

more dirt on "clean rooms" by dennis hayes and
update on cannery workers' strike settlement, by primitivo morales

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, 277 West Hedding St. #208, San Jose, CA 95110 or call (408) 287-6707.

—Dennis Hayes


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 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

Work's Diminishing Connections

analysis of workplace transience by dennis hayes

America's electronics industry cultivates the fabric cubicle partition. Rising to the height of stockyard pens, the partitions, in all shapes and colors, intrude nearly everywhere. They connect and isolate circuit-board assemblers, shipping clerks, systems programmers, and marketing analysts. Alongside windows, even managers and vice-presidents sequester themselves in the fabric corrals.

Enclosing assembler and executive alike, the partitions confer the appearance of social similarity, suggest the unity of entrepreneurial purpose. But the impermanence of the partition design--its quick assembly and disassembly--reveals deeper meaning. Expanding and contracting with the fortunes of each company, the partitions shape the fragile edifice of Silicon Valley. They are an emblem for the transience of its workers as well as the profound loneliness of its work.
The industry has adapted the partitions and those who work within them to its volatile project--makng new technologies for which there often is neither precedent nor market. Small or large, the electronics firm must cope with disruptive forces: instant success, ill-fated market debuts, compressed development schedules, sudden product obsolescence, unexpected and unrelenting competition, unforeseen "bugs" and disloyal financial sponsors. These erratic forces prompt each firm to insist on flexible constellations of workers and managers--in effect, to pass on its instability to the labor market.

Electronics employers are fickle. They fire and hire to automate a labor-process here, relocate a plant there, work overtime on a product today, cancel or postpone it in favor of another product tomorrow. It is as if America's largest manufacturing industry, after decades of development, still cannot make up its mind what, exactly, it will make, how and where it will make it, or whether it is in it for the long run. This is why electronics firms favor the impermanence of the cubicle partitions.

Instability imbues the computer-building workplace with an urgency that outsiders interpret as the inspired effort about which so much has been written. There are sublime moments of excitement, of unity between workers and their work. But it is the brief excitement of frenzied effort, the soldierly unity of a military campaign. Volatile circumstances create and dissolve, more than sustain, the fabled communities of work in Silicon Valley. Suddenly or gradually, temporarily or permanently, the firm's growth slackens, the market evolves away from its products, the work subsides, and the workers are reassigned or withdrawn from the front. The ephemeral fabric partition ebbs and flows while, expandable and expendable, the itinerant worker comes and goes.

Following the trails blazed by microelectronics capital, the itinerant worker travels from one company to another, finding work where it can be had and working fiercely until a layoff or another job looms. The itinerant worker spans the occupational gamut from microchip fab operator to systems analyst, from assembler to engineer. The itinerant's working conditions, status, pay, and workday culture vary widely too. His or her immediate guises include the temporary worker, the immigrant worker, even the skilled "professional." Many are likely to quit, transfer, or be laid off within a year or two--provided their department, division, or company lasts that long. Those who last longer watch a revolving door of new workers arriving and old ones exiting.

Doris is a single, 38-year-old working mother who grew up in Silicon Valley. In twenty years, Doris has worked as a circuit board assembler and production expediter in eight jobs with half a dozen Silicon Valley electronics firms. Though her Fortune 500 employers have been among the most stable, Doris has been laid off twice, fired once, and has collected unemployment insurance three times. (She qualifies for, but declines, welfare assistance.) Her longest stint at one job lasted nearly four years, her shortest, several weeks. The day after our interview, she lost her most recent job, which had lasted nine months. Doris is an itinerant worker.

Victor is an itinerant worker, too. Victor is a single 30-year- old systems programmer who moved to Silicon Valley from New York in 1980. Victor's first electronics employer "flew me out to California and shipped my car in a big moving van." Since then, according to Victor, "it's been one new company to get in bed with after another." In less than seven years, Victor has held four jobs. Unlike Doris, he has never been laid off or fired. Instead, he has carefully picked his next job on the basis of his technical interest in the projects each offered. Victor's interest in his current project is waning, and so he contemplates his next move.

As with Doris and Victor, expendability affects the forms a worker's transience assumes; in Silicon Valley, the Dorises are laid off much more often than the Victors. Programmers' and engineers' career-hopping is more likely voluntary--planned to minimize financial and emotional trauma. When salaried workers move on, it is typically through a web of "professional friends," a far-flung network of instrumental acquaintances who are periodically consulted and polled for access to a new job. Firms encourage the networks (which sometimes include wage workers), offering bonuses to employees who bring new workers "on board."

The networks, and the cavalcade of changing jobs, breed disinterest in the more traditional connections between workers. For better or for worse, a group of workers is no longer "stuck" with each other at a workplace year in, year out. Instead, a wandering itinerary fragments and truncates shared experience. In the shifting soil of short-lived employment, the itinerant worker's roots must be shallow, retractable.

Job turnover rates--the percentage of full-time employees who resign or transfer each year--provide a glimpse of the furious labor migration within the electronics industry. In 1980, the American Electronics Association (AEA) surveyed its (roughly) one thousand member firms and reported an industry average 26% turnover rate--twice the national 13.2% turnover rate. The following year, a Dun's Review report put the Valley's turnover rate at over 30%. Engineers, it was said, were "averaging a mere two year at any one company."

The turnover estimates are based on nonexhaustive surveys, and should be taken with the precautions that all statistics require. But the numbers suggested a pattern: workers were not staying long at the new jobs they were finding in the electronics industry. This insecurity casts doubt on the heralded role as a refuge from Rustbelt unemployment.


Emerging in Silicon Valley, perhaps with more intensity than anywhere else, is the deployment of temporary workers as a substitute for permanent workers "When you're dealing with volatile industries like semiconductors and electronics," explained the head of the Valley's temporary agency trade group, "the role of the temporary has changed to a detached workforce actually planned for by personnel departments." A Silicon Valley worker is more than three times as likely to be a temporary worker than elsewhere; within the computer-building and related industries, this figure rises. "The general consensus for a lot of high-tech companies is to have 10 to 15 percent of their labor force temporary," according to a Valley agency spokesperson. One computer maker, Convergent Technologies, uses temporaries for nearly 30% of its workforce. The temps' assignments include the traditional ones of filling in for full-time clerical/secretarial workers on vacation or sick leave. But far more often, "temps" are electronics assemblers and other production workers as well as programmers, accountants, technical illustrators and writers. The assignments can last weeks or months, but increasingly are open ended in accord with the inconstant demands of the computer corporation.

Permanent workers may be dragooned by their employer into the ranks of impermanence. In a practice known as "employee leasing," Corvus, a computer-storage firm, fired its technical writers and then offered to "rehire" several of the now jobless ex-employees at lower expense as temporary workers. Other firms less systematically displace permanent employees with part-time staff.

Startup computer companies, liable to expand wildly but tentative about their future, are a natural employer for the easily- riddanced temporary worker, who supplements a core of dedicated "founder" workers. But large, mature computer corporations also rely heavily on temporary workers as well as "supplemental" workers--part-time personnel hired directly by the employer. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Control Data Corporation are among the largest users of temporary and supplemental workers. H-P maintains its own temporary agency and also contracts with nearly a dozen outside agencies, spending millions to keep temporary workers on its payroll, mainly for production and clerical work, but also for programming, technical writing, and other esoterically skilled work. The rationale? When there is a slowdown, as one agent put it, "you don't have those layoffs that put you on the front page"--merely the orderly and predictable release of temporary workers. For example, in 1985, IBM-San Jose, according to a full-time production worker, quietly laid off "several hundred" supplementals.

These unannounced dismissals are no less tragic for going untallied in local and national media, and for eluding those who calculate official joblessness; on-again, off-again temp workers cannot always petition successfully for unemployment compensation or simply do not bother. The statistical fictions of Reagan's Department of Labor have been compounded by both IBM and H-P's claims of "never having a layoff anywhere," since the hundreds of temporary and supplemental workers each employs and dismisses every year are not, strictly speaking employees, and thus are not counted by these clever firms as layoffs.

The advantages of employing temporary help are not reducible merely to greater labor flexibility. As the executive president of the National Association of Temporary Services, speaking of the booming Silicon Valley temporary market, put it, the temp "provides a buffer zone" to a company's full-time workers, "shield[ing] them from the ups and downs" of the economy. This observation, really a recommendation, is saturated with the worst paternalism, but it also locates the temp worker in an economic class that is well beneath that of the permanent worker.

As a rule, the temp is hired to do the worst (i.e., most boring, repetitive, tedious, or physically demanding) jobs on the slowest, clunkiest equipment, under the least comfortable conditions. Thus situated, temps are expected to perform to the exaggerated standards advertised by their agencies and to exude the unctuousness of the cheerful subordinate. To make matters worse, the temp is often exempted from informal work rules and rituals, such as the permanent worker's longer lunch breaks, late morning arrivals, early Friday afternoon departures, and extended breaks. Moreover, the temp may be an unwelcome guest at the usual gossip and kaffee klatsches. This is the special "detachment" of the temporary worker, whose natural allies, fellow workers, are often unapproachable at first.

The enduring tragedy is the temporary worker's isolation not only from the permanent worker, but also from other temps, who are freshly dispersed with every assignment. No one is better suited to ameliorate the temp's abused status than temp workers themselves. Within this fragmented itinerant culture, there is great potential, but little occasion, for solidarity. Divided, they cope.

In the tumult of the electronics industry's widely varying fortunes, as well as the tentative atmosphere of the economy at large, the temporary agency promises to reduce production costs and is therefore a growth industry. This promise is secured by the isolation of the temp worker from mainstream work cultures.

Undocumented Workers: Here Today...

The least publicly acknowledged itinerant culture is that of the undocumented immigrant. No one knows with certainty how many undocumented workers reside and work in Silicon Valley, which officially hosts 320,000 Hispanics and thousands more Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos. But in the barrios of East San Jose, counterfeit "green cards"--actually white, with red and blue printing--are available for $50-250, some boasting the secret codes of the genuine article.

Biased estimates abound. In 1984, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opened a special branch office in Silicon Valley, claiming that 25% of the workforce--nearly 200,000 workers--were there illegally, that more were on the way, and that it was high time something was done about it. This was a staggering calculation and a threat of wholesale inquisition; both were inflated, probably deliberately. A year later, the Wall Street Journal put the numbers slightly lower, between 10% and 20%. But by then, the INS, as it has nearly everywhere, had dashed its inquisitional designs. Instead, it had capitulated to a familiar bloc of Sunbelt political and corporate interests who traffic in what the Journal calls the "cheap, docile, and abundant" undocumented worker. The traffic continues, pushing, as it does, the terms of and prices in the United States labor market down toward the subsistence levels of the Third World.

Much of Silicon Valley, as well as huge swaths of the American Southwest, have become a de facto Export Processing Zone (EPZ)-- an entrepreneurial no-man's land where the civilized pretensions of the above-ground labor market are checked at the shop door. In EPZs in Malaysia and the Philippines, or in the maquilladoras along the Mexican-U.S. border, an electronics firm escapes the taxes, enjoys the presumption of abridged labor organizing and safety precautions, and employs young, mainly female, first-time wage workers for as little as 70 cents an hour. In the United States, by informal decree of the INS, the same firm, or its subcontractors, receives similar advantages. In the Valley, the middling-to-small shops of metal plating, printed circuit board assembly, landscaping and janitorial service muster the undocumented worker for $2.50 an hour or lower. Even the Journal noted that "10,000 illegals [are] estimated to be manufacturing printed circuit boards in Silicon Valley, often at below the minimum wage." Without them, the WSJ speculated, the local economy "might collapse."

The parallels between the foreign EPZs and the underground neo- serfdoms being carved out in the Valley run long and deep. For speaking out against workplace dangers, company-store markups, or a foreman's sexual advances in the Philippines, a worker risks both current job and general blacklisting within the EPZ. Not only can dissident undocumented workers in Silicon Valley be summarily fired; they must also be wary of the dogs, handcuffs, and searches of immigrant police agents. At intervals dictated by the complex politics of immigrant labor, these agents may suddenly round up hundreds of hapless workers, preventively detain them, and send many of them to the unfriendly or indifferent governments of their homelands. The raid, like the blacklist, severs the workplace connections to the immigrant's potentially most helpful companions--resident fellow workers. Even the rumor of a raid can result in preemptive withdrawal from one's job so as to avoid arrest.

The temp's workplace rights and conditions are shabby, confined by once-removed ties to the labor market; the underground immigrant electronics worker's rights are nonexistent and workplace conditions generally much worse. This despite the frequent deduction of worker's compensation, job disability and unemployment contributions from the immigrant's pay--for benefits he or she will never see. As one employer put it, "Whenever there's an accident..., the Chicano [Mexican-American] will stay home and ask for worker's compensation. The Mexicans, they work."

The Diminishing Connections

Transient cultures saturate the electronics industry, creating an atmosphere of impermanence among its workforce. That electronics is now our largest manufacturing employer may be prophetic. Thanks in large part to the electronics industry, job descriptions in the '80s and beyond read like recipes for workplace transience.
Electronics products play a crucial role in the growth of service-based industries that offer low-wage, part-time jobs as well as automation technologies that reduce the manufacturing workforce. According to a recent Joint Economic Committee of Congress by Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, more than half of all new jobs are paying less than $7000 per year, a "disproportionate" number are part time, and, we can safely infer, most are unchallenging to jobholders and vulnerable to automation. These are the conditions that favor workplace transience, as the rising national job turnover rates and layoffs tend to confirm.

Some workers, even in Silicon Valley, manage to stay on at firms year after year. But permanent workers cannot escape the consequences of a transient workforce around them. If their fellow workers are forever shifting, the complexion of their departments, shops, or labs can change significantly within one to three years. The contagion of transience may not infect every worker, but, as with the quarantined survivors in Camus' The Plague, life is not the same for those who remain.

Transience clearly affect the forms employee resistance assumes. When management policies inspire employee resistance, its collective character is often preempted or aborted in favor of individual measures. For example, at a computer graphics company in the Valley, several technical writers, including myself, quit as a result of an overbearing manager. The departures were staggered, and came after the foundering of a quasi-organized rebellion against the manager's crude wielding of authority. The failure reflected our inexperience in collective resistance, but also the less troublesome option of finding another job while biding our time as best we could. This escape route was conditioned by the availability of jobs but also by a shared itinerant perspective: none of us had planned on staying with this company. No one plans on staying with an electronics company indefinitely, even when one would like to do so.

Whether our jobs are taken from us or whether we leave them voluntarily, we may or may not improve our lots by finding work elsewhere. But by looking elsewhere, we are less and less likely to address work problems collectively, an option that is fading from the realm of the familiar and feasible. It's not that collective undertakings are spurned, but more that they're difficult to imagine while in the flow of an itinerant culture. Transience is difficult to share.

--Dennis Hayes

This article is an abridged version of the original which appeared in PW 19. The full length analysis is best read in Hayes' book, Behind The Silicon Curtain (South End Press, 1989).

Kaiser don't care! SEIU neither! The Kaiser hospitals strike, 1986

An account of the strike against the introduction of a two tier pay system at Kaiser hospitals in California in 1986, including interviews and a discussion with two participants.

Rank & File Activists Talk About the Kaiser Strike

"The strike slogan was 'Kaiser Don't Care' and they don't care about the patients. We care about the patients and that's how they get the work out of us and that builds resentment in us... They [Kaiser] know we'll get in there and work our butt off." --Blanche Bebb, X-ray technician, Committee for a Democratic Union (CDU), negotiating committee member, SEIU Local 250.

"Kaiser is the perfect example of waste because every time a problem comes up, their solution is to hire a new supervisor--I've worked at Merrill Lynch and American Express. They are huge, totally worthless corporations and Kaiser is more top-heavy with supervisors than they were."--Denny Smith, Nurse's Aide, Committee for a Democratic Union (CDU), SEIU Local 250 member.

From October 27 to December 13, 1986, 9,000 Kaiser Hospital workers through-out northern California were on strike. The strike's key issue was Kaiser's goal of imposing a two-tier wage system (i.e. where new hires are paid less than current workers), a goal they ultimately achieved in spite of workers voting it down: at first by a 4-1 margin and then by 55-45% after nearly six weeks on strike. The rank and file members of Local 250 bitterly resisted two-tier, rejecting Kaiser's contention that the company needed it to remain competitive. "If they wanted to do something about their so-called competition, they wouldn't have patients waiting three months to see a doctor," said Bebb.

In late October, after two months of negotiations, SEIU Local 250 struck against a contract proposal that would have imposed a 30% lower wage on new hires in about half of Kaiser hospitals and clinics (those in the suburbs north of the Bay Area and in the Central Valley around Sacramento and Stockton). Striking workers included licensed vocational nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, x-ray techs, clericals, and housekeepers. Another 700 optical workers and medical technologists from two smaller unions were also on strike.

On December 4 these two smaller unions accepted a 20% wage cut for new hires. However, most of these workers stayed off the job until the settlement with the larger Local 250 ten days later, which provided 15% less for new hires. Up to 200 workers from five other unions, as well as several hundred registered nurses, also honored picket lines. Sympathy walkouts by as many as 65% of Kaiser RNs during the first weeks led Kaiser to get a legal injunction to prevent the California Nurses Association from engaging in such actions. In response, CAN members formed an ad hoc group separate from the union, RNs for Quality Care, to organize their support for the strike.

In spite of this support for the strike from other workers, some Kaiser workers blamed the union for not organizing more support.

In a post-strike S.F. Chronicle piece on Dec. 19, a Committee for a Democratic Union activist, John Mehring (a psychiatric technician at another hospital) said: "If the SEIU was involved early on in the negotiations, why was the organization of the strike so haphazard and inconsistent? Why weren't strike benefits extended? If the handwriting was on the wall that two-tier was becoming more prevalent in Local 250 contracts, why wasn't more effort done early so a united front could have been made?"

Many Local 250 members believe the International sabotaged the strike. After collecting some $25 million in union dues over the last six years the International paid back $2.2 million in strike benefits. At the end of six weeks on strike, and two contract rejections by rank and file vote, SEIU announced (about two weeks before Xmas) that strike benefits would be cut from $60 to $45 for that week, and cease altogether the following week. With no prior warning about diminishing strike funds, workers had no chance to develop outside strike funding from the community and other workers and unions. [just as we go to press, SEIU has blamed the exhaustion of strike benefits on a "breakdown" in management of members' dues by Local 250 officials--SF Chron. 3-23-87.]

In a wide-ranging interview with Blanche Bebb and Denny Smith, activists in the rank-and-file Committee for a Democratic Union (CDU), it became clear that the militance of Kaiser workers was very much in spite of the SEIU International. "99% of picket line activities were organized by the rank and file" said Bebb. "The union was only interested in the corporate campaign (i.e. pressuring directors and other companies to withdraw from their normal transactions with the struck firm) which is the New Strategy for Unions'."

The International came in to run the local some weeks before the strike actually began and since the strike's unsuccessful conclusion it has put the Local, which is some $800,000 in debt, into trusteeship. Since late 1986, it has suspended all meetings of the Local executive board and trustees.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, by far the largest independent Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) (controlling over 58% of the market compared to its nearest competitor at 9%), is growing nationally and the Kaiser contract is a pacesetter for many of SEIU's other medical contracts. After a lousy settlement three years ago in which part-timers lost extra pay and comp time for holiday work, disgruntled members elected seven rank and file activists on the CDU slate to the executive board of Local 250. The International came in at this time because its officials feared that a bad contract would allow CDU to take over the Local in the elections scheduled for this spring. Now that the International has presided over a bad settlement, it is using its ability to suspend democracy in the union.

The International officials poorly organized the strike. According to Bebb and Smith, officials ineffectually trained new shop stewards and a 49-member bargaining committee. "The training was more like est training--they didn't really talk about negotiations and what we were up against," said Bebb. The people designated by the union to head the negotiations had never negotiated with Kaiser before: an attorney and a representative from the Washington D.C. office of the International.

In spite of its mistrust of union officials, CDU agitated among the workers to support the union and the strike. CDU urged a fight against the two-tier wage structure, while the International tried to make "quality patient care" the main issue. Smarting from past media portrayals of striking hospital workers as callous, uncaring and selfish, the International pushed the idea for a joint labor-management patient care committee to improve quality. The original proposal was for a tripartite Local 250/management/community committee: the negotiators ended up with an annual one-day seminar in which Raiser managers and workers discuss patient care, with no community involvement. The International claimed this as a victory, a foot in the door, but Bebb says she'd rather not have it. She argues that this was an intentional distraction from the importance of resisting the two-tier: "Two-tier is about patient care, because morale will plummet when the two-tier is implemented."

"I feel really proud that we twice rejected the two-tier [during this period]," Smith says. Bebb: "The International had to really get behind it and sell it. They shoved it down our throats. We forced them out of the closet, though." The International accepted a 2-tier proposal from Kaiser and pushed it through the bargaining committee with 'no recommendation,' hoping that the members would accept it, so they could blame the members for not being strong enough. When workers rejected the contract on Dec. 4 by a 55-45% margin, the International was forced to really sell the next proposal, with " "Heavy-duty speakers" at every meeting. It won ratification on Dec. 13 in spite of being voted down by a slim majority in San Francisco and by a 2-1 margin in the East Bay.

At this point our interview digressed beyond the strike. Local 250 members have already been taking direct action to address patient care at SF Kaiser. Two workers circulated a petition to create an AIDS only ward after ongoing difficulties in providing adequate care for AIDS patients. Combined with pressure from the SF City Human Rights Commission (which in turn was being pressured by dissatisfied, Kaiser-insured gay city employees), the workers' initiative succeeded.

Denny Smith: The union, typically, wanted to do it top-down. Our business agent, Sal Roselli, wanted to handle everything himself. He wanted to call the hospital administrator and work things out... Our AIDS-Action committee had to constantly keep him in check so that decisions were made by the rank and file, because it was our idea in the first place. His whole approach, like the union's approach to everything, is to pick up the phone and call some topdog in the hospital, which is probably the way contracts get signed. The AIDS Ward is working now, and because it has pressure from the workers and community, it works pretty well.

Smith is a charter member of CDU, which was formed in 1981 after several years of informal rank and file caucuses in the late 70s. CDU's core consists of 10 - 20 activists, with many more supporters throughout the local. Smith characterized the breakdown of attitudes among CDU's rank and file allies as follows: those who are angry because they didn't get a raise from the strike; those who are angry because they see the union is undemocratic and is going downhill; those who would join CDU but are intimidated by redbaiting; and those who would be activists but for kids at home and/or two-job schedules. I asked Smith and Bebb to describe their fondest fantasies if they were to get rid of the current leadership and change the union. The discussion kept on widening in scope from that point on.

Blanche Bebb: I think the strike has that our members are so full of energy and imagination and ideas that they never any chance to express... We want to see the rank and file get liberated and really see the union as theirs and use it. To some extent that happened during the strike--people were going down there and taking the initiative... The main thing is that we wouldn't be afraid of the rank and file. That's a big difference. We believe in and trust the members, and we're not into having a job in a bureaucracy. We could have creative picket lines and cultural activities at meetings, not just read the minutes from the last meeting.

Denny Smith: These guys make (meetings) as dead as possible. They couldn't be more lethal.

Processed World: In talking about all this stuff it's very easy to get bogged down in all the immediate details--the contract, working conditions. But the longer view is that U.S. health care delivery is being dramatically restructured. Part of that is the concentration of capital in megahospital corporations, and another is a major push by insurance companies, government and these hospital corporations to maintain the private control of health care profits. There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to restructure health care toward not-for-profit, human need. Are there any embryonic committees within CDU which are trying to address this bigger picture? Maybe from the point of view of developing an alternative agenda and based on alternative values?

D.S.: Health care in the U.S. is such a fucked-up system. Any fair-minded person would have to support some kind of national cradle-to-grave health care system that doesn't depend on profits or the greed of some chairmen of the board. We've had some brainstorming sessions about what our caucus might do if we won some powerful position in the union: home care for the homeless; a hiring hall for unemployed health workers; political action to push for a national health plan; political action to push for better care for geriatric and nursing home patients...

B.B.: Unions are tied into the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) idea. A lot of unions control the trust funds that pay the money and they have a vested interest in the current set-up. It won't be easy to get unions out of HMOs, just like it won't be easy to get unions to take a progressive stand on anything! This is the AFL-CIO: top, top, top. SEIU International is part of that. That's what these Internationals and the AFL-CIO are about: keeping us in line as workers.
But on the other hand, workers need unions-we have to be in unions. I'm scared about three years down the line, depending on when the members are at, if they let it be known that they're not ready to strike, we may lose our seniority, in which case, well hell, we won't have a job.

D.S.: .When it comes to fundamental things like union democracy or strong political action that would change the way health can is delivered in this country, the unions an reactionary. They just take easy positions on things that won't cost them any union dues.

PW: Internationals and most locals associated with the AFL-CIO are so wrapped up in capitalism and such staunch defenders of The Way It Is Now because the officials are making $50-$60,000 a year. Why would they want to fight against that? They get to drive around in big cars, hang out with important people, get talked about in the newspapers. Which raises a difficult question for rank and file activists like yourselves: what's to prevent the next person in charge from being corrupted by that status and privilege and power? If you get elected into that same system, it seems to be quite difficult to abolish that power you finally won after all those years of trying to get it.

B.B.: I don't think you can do it just within one local... I just have to be optimistic. God knows when it'll happen, but there is a movement... Local 1199 in N.Y.C. is a good example. Since a rank and file committee took over they've done a lot--they do theater, they've put people through medical school, even housekeepers. But this is the exception, and anyway, anytime you get anywhere, the International comes in.

PW: And trusteeship is not far behind...What are unions doing essentially but bartering the terms of slavery?that's the old ultra-left line,' which we could argue about to the end of time.

BB: But it is the organization of the working class... You can't just run out and create something else...

PW: Most unions, as you have pointed out in this interview, have very little to do with what the workers they represent are actually doing on a day-to-day basis, and often times, they put themselves in active opposition to what the workers want. The union becomes a different entity with different interests. When workers an trying to find new methods they invariably find their International and/or Local right in the way. It's one of the first obstacles they have to overcome. So to talk about the Local as the organization of those workers isn't really accurate. If those workers are organized, that's their organization, whether it be informal or something like CDU. Whereas the Local is a remnant of an earlier effort that became separate from what gave it its original impetus, and now comes back as an obstacle.

D.S.: As CDU we're definitely pro-union. This has come up because the union has spread rumors that we're anti-union
and want to decertify and we have to tell people: "No, we just want to take back our union, because the union is ours."

B.B.: During the strike we were left on our own on the picket lines, and then people kept saying: 'We are the union'--I heard a lot of that. It's the classic one they're always telling us: "What an you complaining about the union for? You an the union," of course knowing that we're not. But during the strike, we wore, we kept the committees going, we raised the money, we did all the work, we picketed. How do we take that and keep it going?

PW: So that's the living union as opposed to the dead union--the legal entity that has all the money.

B.B.: On the shop floor level, the shop stewards can do a helluva lot. You can organize about anything you want, call meetings about anything, demand to see anyone. They can say 'No,' and then you can organize an action with 20 people--but in order to be protected and not get your activists fired, you need the protection of the union. You know you'd be out the door if you did these things and you weren't a shop steward, or if it weren't a union shop.

PW: That's a good example of how you get some legal protection from the union, but there are also numerous examples of people getting the axe with the complicity of their union, and they're gone, that's the end of it.

B.B./D.S.: Yeah, it's true.

PW: Unless you have that extremely strong rank-and-file movement that will get out there right away and strike or act on behalf of the person who got axed with the union's complicity or whatever the issue may be, then the union is ephemeral, it doesn't really exist. The union is action, living action by the workers, and without that what have you got?

D.S.: Sometimes I feel like if [the unions] are rotten to the core then the whole thing needs to be scrapped and [we need to] start over with some new form of workers' organization. But in the strike, the scabs would always say: 'Look what your union did last time, why would you be out on the sidewalk if that's what they're going to do to you?' And then the people who were really willing to fight would counter that with: This is my union and I'm gonna be out there because I'm the one who's gonna be screwed. It was the vocabulary of the day that we had to deal with. I think other forms may arise, perhaps not in the near future...

B.B.: That's why I say you have to be flexible, ready for any opportunity, to make alliances with everybody you can, and just be there at the time. It's like this strike, we could have said 'SEIU is gonna sell you out anyway, so why bother?' but we said, 'Oh no, jump in there, get involved.' And I think we gained a lot, lost money but gained more.

PW: We have these arguments within the PW collective all the time. Even if you are critical of the existing bureaucratic union, nevertheless (and your case is a good example) the union provides a context in which people can organize and talk to other. Even if they find themselves having to talk about being in opposition to that union, they've already linked up that way. It creates certain channels of communication that are very hard to establish from scratch. Then the problem becomes vocabulary, and finding a language that breaks through the conceptual baggage. For example, putting out the word 'union' as an "association of individuals getting together for their mutual interests in opposition to the labor laws which have been written specifically to prevent them from getting anywhere," might change the whole complexion of that word.

The interview then disintegrated into a general conversation on working class politics around the world. A month after this interview was conducted, Local 250 was put into trusteeship in spite of strenuous efforts by Bebb, Smith and CDU to avert it. CDU will have to wait up to eighteen months before there is a union election. A lot of grassroots organizing will have be maintained and consolidated in order for them to bring a new direction to Local 250 in the future.

--Interview conducted by Lucius Cabins

Small is not beautiful: Working at the San Francisco Bay Guardian

An account of work and industrial conflict at the alternative newspaper the San Francisco Bay Guardian written by typesetter Tom Wetzel in 1987.

It's 9:00 Friday night. The last stragglers from the editorial department have departed. The other typesetter and I have the Bay Guardian building to ourselves. Two piles of manila folders sit on the typesetting machine, to my left. They contain the order slips for classified ads. One pile gradually dwindles as the folders are moved to the other pile, marking my progress. The machine occasionally clanks as it changes type style or size.

"Love is friendship caught fire!" appears at the top of the video screen. Ah, yes. Tire relationships section. This, the fattest of the file folders, should keep my fingers busy for the rest of my 9-10-hour-long shift. When I first began typesetting the classifieds, I found the relationships section sort of poignant. "All those people out there looking to connect with somebody." I thought about the care some people take in choosing just the right words. But as the Friday nights came and went, I soon became jaded and the words slipped through my fingers in a blur. The San Francisco Bay Guardian was founded by Bruce Brugmann and his wife, Jean Dibble, in 1966. Unlike other alternative papers of that era, such as the Berkeley Barb and the L.A. Free Press, the BG wasn't countercultural. Nor did it follow the political currents of the '60s New Left, as did the National Guardian in New York. Brugmann's journalistic background was in the commercial dailies.

Nonetheless, the Bay Guardian has always had political pretensions, and its pages uphold various leftist causes-environmental protection, abortion rights, rent control, unions, anti-Manhattanization--and expose monopolistic abuses. To the BG "politics" is primarily a matter of elections, and, thus, of the politicians who control the top-down machinery of American government. The paper has been supportive of such groups as Democratic Socialists of America, Berkeley Citizens Action, and Tom Hayden's now-defunct Campaign for Economic Democracy. In 1971 the Bay Guardian was "a chronically struggling business," writes James Brice, "with a spare 17,000 subscribers paying for the four issues it managed to publish" that year. Dibble and Brugmann hoped the paper could make money, says Brice, "if it went weekly" but they lacked the necessary capital. Ironically, they got it from their arch rivals the big dailies.

Like a number of other papers in the Bay Area, the BG had filed an antitrust suit in the late 60's against the two remaining dailies in San Francisco, the Hearst-owned Examiner and the Chronicle. The two dailies had merged their advertising and production operations, an action authorized by the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1965, which granted a special antitrust exemption to daily newspapers. In May 1975, Brugmann and Dibble dropped their lawsuit in exchange for an out of court settlement of $500,000. (The lawyers got about $200,000.) This was a rather shrewd move as the papers that pursued the lawsuit to the end (such as the Pacific Sun) eventually lost. When the BG became a free weekly in the late '70s, the larger circulation and weekly schedule enabled the paper to capture a growing share of the Bay Area advertising market. Although advertising by the major local retailers (Macy's, Emporium Capwell, etc.) remains safely in the pocket of the big dailies, the BG's increased circulation made it attractive to national advertisers, and the full-page ads for cigarettes and liquor contributed considerably to BG revenue. The paper made its first profit in fiscal 1982. From January 1982 to January 1985 the paper's classified ad lineage increased from 20 cents to 60 cents, this means the paper's classified ad revenue increased by approximately 495%. And in 1981 management increased the print-run of its entertainment section to 100,000 copies, and then jacked up the rates for entertainment advertising.

The BG's craven reliance on business advertising necessarily shapes its editorial direction. The packet distributed to potential advertisers candidly admits this: 'The Guardian tailors its editorial material to (an) audience" of 24-to-36-year-old "self-involved consumers. "EXPOSE YOURSELF! to 180,000 hot young professionals with money to burn." Certain issues each year were planned out in advance so as to appeal to specific segments of the business community (consumer electronics, wine, etc.)

Despite the BG's new-found profitability and ever-growing production pressures, wages remained low. In 1982 production artists and proofreaders were paid about $5.50 per hour. By 1985 the rate had inched up from $6.00 to $6.50. Typesetters were paid $5.50 when I was hired in 1982; today the starting rate is $7.50. Pay for clerical and sales staff in Classified was approximately the same. It was considered a Privilege to work in Editorial but pay in that department was, if anything, even lower. Editorial staff is paid a salary, which enables the BG to avoid overtime pay. At the end of 1981, the copy editor was making the equivalent of $6.50 an hour, while some editorial staffers were paid even less. Early in 1985, the woman hired to compile the weekly entertainment listings had been assured a four-day week for $150. But she found that the job required a 40-hour week, and she decided to have a chat with Alan Kay, the managing editor. "Am I going to get paid for Fridays?" she asked. Alan put his head in his hands, then looked up at her. "How about a restaurant meal?" he asked plaintively. Her pay amounted to less than $4 per hour.


I was hired in 1982 towards the end of a year-long effort to organize the staff into District 65. District 65, a union of textile and dry goods wholesale workers originally founded by Communists in the '30s, has organized publishing industry workers in New York City in recent years. Here in San Francisco, District 65, now affiliated to the United Auto Workers (UAW), is the union of the Mother Jones staff. Low pay and lack of any say in decisions seemed to be the two main areas of concern among BG workers. When management learned that members of the staff were trying to persuade co-workers to join a union, a meeting was called. Brugmann ranted about how unions would mean "outside control" of the paper. On the issue of low pay, management pleaded poverty. Members of the staff responded by asking what salaries management were getting. If the paper's finances are limited, a number of staffers thought, then management salaries should be reduced to allow raises for the lowest paid. But BG management refused to tell us how much money managers were taking out of the paper.

About this time a meeting with a representative of District 65 was held for BG workers. The issues of the paper's editorial direction and its increasing subservience to advertisers were raised, along with the idea of lowering management salaries so as to raise workers' pay. "Unions can't take on issues of editorial content, or ask that managers' salaries be lowered," Dibble asserted. What she was getting at is that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and courts cannot require employers to negotiate these issues. But just because the government won't compel an employer to negotiate contested issues doesn't mean unions can't raise them. A workers' organization can try to fight for anything it wants to. What workers can achieve ultimately depends upon the power they can bring to bear on the situation. This is affected by such factors as internal cohesion among the workers and support in the community. This is true even for issues that employers are nominally required by law to negotiate, such as wages, hours and benefits. The government can't be counted on to support workers' demands.

Some members of the BG staff were dissatisfied with District 65's rather narrow, legalistic approach. What was needed was an independent organization, some of us thought, an organization that we could control directly. An independent group did continue for a while, but eventually stopped meeting. Nonetheless, a pattern of solidarity and mutual consultation had been established and continued informally.


As the District 65 organizing drive fizzled out, about a dozen people quit. This was not the first BG unionization attempt. The first such effort led to an NLRB vote in December 1975, which certified the Bay Area Typographical Union (ITU) and the Newspaper Guild as the recognized unions at the paper. Staff pay had been very low in the early '70s--base rates then ranged from $2.50 to $3.75 per hour. Benefits were nonexistent. A long-standing graffito in the employees' lavatory had the words "Guardian health plan" inked in large letters, with an arrow pointing to a drawing of a book. The book was entitled "Holy Bible."

In its early days the paper had an informal atmosphere and lines of authority were rather vague--not unusual at small "start-up" companies. Then came the $300,000 from the anti-trust settlement. "The deathly poor newspaper that had shared its poverty with its beggarly staff now seemed richly endowed," writes James Brice. ("A look back at the strike nobody won" Mediafile, June, 1973) But decisions about what to do with the money were quickly made by those at the top, before staffers had a chance to have any say over what should be done with it. Money was poured into new typesetting equipment and a down-payment on a building. "The settlement made us feel more left out of the decision-making process," recalled Katy Butler (now a Chronicle reporter). At the same time, the change to a weekly schedule meant increased production pressures. Though staffers were concerned about the low wages and lack of benefits or job security, these issues were "secondary to job satisfaction and worker participation in decision-making," according to Brice. "A union seemed to be a sure way to gain leverage." Hence the vote for the ITU and Newspaper Guild.

After six months of table-pounding negotiations, the Union reduced its demand to 25 cents per hour across-the-board. Employees also wanted one week notice of termination, an agreed grievance procedure, limited sick pay, and pay for overtime. But the BG refused these demands, and in June of '76, 21 employees, both full-time and part time walked out. The bitter strike--marked by vandalism and sabotage--dragged on for eight months. Recently, Bruce Brugmann has described this struggle as an attempt by "the unions from the local newspaper impose their standard contract on a struggling, competitive, independent small business "* (Bill Mandel's column, SF Examiner, Oct. 29, 1986). The concerns of the workers thus disappear, they become non-entities. Funny how he was no less opposed, in 1982 to District 65, which has no contracts at the "monopoly" dailies.


Informal solidarity, as I mentioned, had continued to exist in the wake of the District 65 organizing drive even though no ongoing organization had gotten entrenched at the BG. This was necessary to deal with the BG's arbitrary management practices. An incident in 1984 illustrates this. The BG advertises its job openings in the classified section of the paper each week. The BG Employee Manual states that notice of openings must be posted and current employees given preference. However, while typesetting the BG job ads one week, the typesetters came across an advertisement for an ad designer. But the BG already had an ad designer, a Japanese immigrant who had done the job for a number of years. Management had tried to demote him a couple of years before, but then backed down". Anyway, a group of artists and typesetters protested the running of this ad, but our boss disclaimed responsibility for this violation of written policy and past guarantees. Some time that weekend the job ad disappeared from the classified page flats and the ad was erased from computer disk.

BG management were not very happy about this sabotage, we heard, and rumors of firings were in the air. "If they fire anyone, we should all go on strike," one woman remarked to me. I think quite a few production staff members felt that way. However, a meeting was held and we were reassured that no demotion was going to take place. At the same time, four people were singled out for written warnings about "tampering with the work product."

In the wake of this incident some of us met with a business agent from the Graphic Communications Union (GCIU). The press operators at the shop where the BG was printed belong to this union. If we ever went on strike, we knew that the first thing we'd want to do would be to appeal to the press operators to refuse to print the paper. The business agent gave us a copy of the printing industry master contract, which some of us discussed later. The worst clause in the contract stated: "There will be no strike or other economic pressure through concerted action by the employees and/or the union." In other words, workers' hands are tied while any beefs inch through the bureaucratic grievance machinery to final arbitration. "But the only way we are able to get anything around here is through collective pressure," one BG staffer commented. The contract also stipulated that dues be deducted from the employees' paychecks and then sent directly to the union. In decades past, dues were not deducted and shop stewards had to go around hustling the members' dues, which gave members the opportunity to push their concerns directly.

Why couldn't BG employees remain independent and still appeal to the press operators to not print the paper in the event of a strike? Another clause in the press operators' contract explains the problem: "Employees...shall not be required to cross a picket line because of a strike if sanctioned by the Central Labor Council..." This means the printers are not allowed to take action to support a strike--such as refusing to print a struck paper--without the approval of the top local AFL-CIO officials. Without such sanction, the printers would be at risk of losing their jobs. The purpose of this sort of contract is to ensure that workers solidarity is controlled by top officials rather than the workers themselves. The employers gain by the union's promise not to disrupt production and the officials gain control over the labor movement.

Even if the bureaucratic AFL-CIO-type unions encourage little real solidarity between workers in different workplaces, small groups of workers will tend to seek the protection of these unions because they offer at least the promise of greater leverage, however illusory this may be. This tendency is likely to prevail until there emerges an independent workers movement that can provide an alternative for groups of workers seeking a larger movement to ally with.


The BG has been able to maintain a "union-free environment" and contain periodic bouts of disaffection through a combination of circumstances. For one thing, many BG staffers are employed part-time. I've overheard the production manager say to a prospective new hire, "This job is just to get some extra money." When people have another job, they are less likely to regard the part-time job as important enough to commit time to organizing with others. A workforce becomes fragmented as part-timers predominate. When people don't see each other regularly, if at all; they develop less of the cohesion that is natural to a group of people who work together, and which is necessary for collective action.

The large number of part-timers lowers BG labor costs. Less than half of the production staff worked the minimum 30 hours a week needed to qualify for heath insurance. Low wages, minimal benefits and lousy conditions tend to produce turnover. While I worked at the BG, the average production employee stayed only eight months. Organization among workers in small, low-wage business like the BG is more likely to develop when there is a broader movement with which groups of workers in particular workplaces can ally themselves. A non bureaucratic workers movement, that is actually nut by rank-and-file workers themselves, would not be as dependent on institutionalized contract bargaining to have a presence in workplaces. This would make it easier for workers to participate in the movement despite high turnover and movement from job to job.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was an example of such a movement in the earlier decades of this century. Many of the people who worked in mines, aboard ships, on construction projects, and on farm harvests in the Western states in those years moved around from job to job. Nevertheless, the IWW was able to maintain effective organizations in number of these industries despite the absence of a stable workforce. The movement's presence in a workplace didn't depend upon a union contract or government certification but on workers acting "in union" with each other. Workers remained members of the union no matter where they worked. And workers in one workplace were less isolated as they had a sense of being part of a larger movement. The mix of occupations and industries may be different today, but the failures of the top-down, institutionalized unions show clearly the need for a new, non-bureaucratic workers movement.

Tom Wetzel

Libcom note - this article was originally entitled "Small is not beautiful"