Work's Diminishing Connections

analysis of workplace transience by dennis hayes

Submitted by ludd on March 28, 2010

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).