The Depths of Silicon Valley
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Trust

"Close the door . . . Yah, shut it—quick!" The fellas in box load always managed to have fun at Davidís expense. Davidís job was to tend to the machine that spat out the boxes I dressed with plastic and foam. The machine looked like a one-man shack. When it broke down, which was often, David had to enter it. A safety mechanism stopped the machine from operating when its door was open. The guys would joke about how they were going to close the door once David was inside. I would picture a cartoon of David coming out looking like a Laser Jet printer box.

One day, a new person was teasing David with the other guys. As usual, David erupted, but this time the argument escalated into a minor scuffle. Most folks were having a good time watching, welcoming the interruption of the monotonous day. Some goaded David on. Yet Christopher, recently from Ethiopia, stepped between the two brawlers, and they cooled down.

Ana, oblivious to this spontaneous ringside show, thought we had stopped because we were tired, a sorry excuse. "Anyone who doesnít want to work can go home!" she shouted. We knew she was serious because Raquel had sent Sam home the day before on the same grounds. I pulled out my calendar book and began writing down what Ana had said, as I did after most supervisor power trips.

Smiling, Jivan asked, "What are you writing?" Jivan had immigrated to the United States from southern india two years before. We had a running dialogue about life in india, and its differences from America. Anticipating my questions about workplace conditions, he declared: "You know, in india workers would never stand for this!" I didnít have to ask him what "this" meant: everything that defined being a worker of color in Silicon Valley: sublivable wages, no job security, thrown-out backs.

Jivan started to tell me what I had been dying to hear: what workers in india did to improve working conditions. He quickly ran through a flurry of tactics employees would use to force managementís hand: They would put salt in machines to disrupt production output. They would hold a "garehoe," surrounding the higher-ups, not letting them leave until they agreed to negotiate. They would organize "bandhs," which were city or even statewide strikes that would paralyze all movement until worker demands were met. This technique was popularized in the struggle for ind2ependence from Britain and continued as a strategy against domestic oppression. For less pressing issues, they would hold a "harthad," a sort of bandh-lite, where most of the city would be on strike except for those providing necessary public services such as hospitals and buses.

And I had thought he was going to say something like "monthly work meetings."

I asked Jivan if we could take these actions in the United States, even in Silicon Valley, maybe even at HP . . . and today, preferably. I envisioned all lines surrounding the human resource guyís desk, as he uttered a nervous, bewildered, "Um, can I . . . ah . . . help you?" Jivan shook me out of my daydream. "No Raj, you need a union to do all that." "Well, what about starting a union here?"

Grinning, Jivan knew I would hound him until the end of the day if he didnít break things down. He searched for the English to express his thoughts and then said, "See, when David and that other started fighting—no one did anything. Only Christopher tried to stop it. Christopher is not from America. Everyone else watched or cheered! In india, other workers would stop such a thing. Also, too, if I think something of supervisors here I canít tell anyone, because who knows if they will tell them or not. In india, if workers feel something bad about the company, they can talk about it and no one will tell management." Seeing my nod, he said, "So now you see the difference?"

"Trust?"

"Yes, trust."

Trust is perhaps one of the first casualties of temp work. Temporary positions steal trust and replace it with suspicion, created by spontaneous layoffs, downsizings, and messages left on answering machines saying your assignment is over. Yet fear of betrayal was not the only obstacle blocking temp workers from seeking improvements. First, who exactly were the decision-makers to influence? Assembling HP printers at an HP site would seem to make the target simple: Hewlett Packard. But our checks said "Manpower," and Manpower said its boss was a company called MSL. These layers represent another key feature of the new economy: subcontracting. Subcontracting might be the strongest defense the top employer has against worker organizing, insulating the company from labor abuses in its own factories. The original puppeteer—HP—officially had no personnel at our plant. So complaints would be directed at a management that was at most something like a ghost.

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Next page: Iím going back to india.