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<nettime> e-waste
Soenke Zehle on Thu, 2 Aug 2001 21:26:21 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> e-waste

dear all,
geert suggested this might of be of interest. don't nail me for bumpy
writing (yet) - i'll rework this asap.

my interest: i'm trying to get an "e-journal for ecopolitics"
(www.oikopolis.de) off the ground and would like to invite contributions for
an issue on the topic of electronics & ecopolitics (e-waste, ecology & media
crit and the like). contact me off the list if you have
suggestions/contributions (goal: bring together media crit, media
practicioners, eco-justice folks, worker organization in one issue on that


Ecopolitics at the Site of (Virtual) Production:
Environmental Justice Organization in Silicon Valley
Soenke Zehle

Hybrid Spaces: Theory, Culture, Economy (New York: Transaction; Hamburg:
LIT, 2000)

Among those coming to terms with the implications of the virtual revolution
at the heart of the "new economy," few have adopted an explicitly
ecopolitical perspective. Instead, many cyberenthusiasts marginalize
questions of production in their embrace of the "clean industries" and their
promise of "dematerialization through technology." An ecopolitical
perspective might, then, take as its point of departure a core site of
virtual production: the high tech sweatshops in which the elements of a new
information and communications infrastructure are made and assembled. Long
considered the "dirty little secret" of Silicon Valley, these archaic forms
of labor organization reveal the inglorious base of the "new economy" as
well as the toxic materiality of a virtual revolution whose tremendous
ecological costs are suffered not only by immigrant sweatshop workers but
everyone involved in the cycle of electronics production, use, and disposal.

The Challenge of Cold War Worker Organization

The electronics industries rose in the 1950s on a wave of governmental
subsidies, in an aggressively anticommunist period that saw the growth of a
national security state as well as the fragmentation and dismantling of many
labor unions. Committed to the economic and political orthodoxies of postwar
anticommunism, major union leaders worked to purge their federations of
radicals, eliminating the specter of rank-and-file militancy along with
hopes for union democracy and a broader vision of social transformation. One
of the organization affected by this struggle was the union founded to
organize workers in the electrical and communications industries - the
United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Along with a
few other unions, UE had already succeeded in organizing workers at General
Electric (GE) and Westinghouse, the corporate giants of the electrical
industries, which soon grew into multipurpose engineering firms with a stake
in the postwar military production of computers and electronics.

Lead by socialists and communists, UE quickly found itself expelled from the
federations representing organized labor, its members raided by rival unions
and its leaders called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities
(Schatz 1983). Politically sensitive military production, widespread
suspicion of autonomous worker organization, and an unprecedented pace of
technological change turned the new electronics industries into
"laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining
a union-free environment"  (Bacon 1997a). While official labor leaders had
abandoned the electronics industries as unorganizable, UE recovered outside
the AFL-CIO and began to target semiconductor plants in the 1970s.

Traditional US organizing campaigns focus on certification elections
supervised by a National Labor Relations Board in which workers declare that
they wish to be represented by a union, which is then recognized as partner
in collective bargaining by the corporation. The longer the campaign, the
more vulnerable it is to attrition and company interference; more recent
campaigns (especially those organizing sub-contractors) have relied less on
labor law and pressured (parent) companies directly, through boycotts and
media attacks on corporate brands and images. Amy Newell, later one of the
first high-ranking women officers of UE, was an early member of the UE
Electronics Organizing Committee and knew that isolated workplace efforts
would have to be supported by community outreach: "It's hard to imagine
organizing any of the plants without a much larger movement among workers in
the industry as a whole, and in the communities in which the workers live"
(Bacon 1997a). 

Romie Manan, one of the Filipino organizers, remembers the secretive
atmosphere: "A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the
union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not
publicly identified with the union" (ibid.). By the early 1980s, the
Committee had grown to a membership of over 500 workers, distributed 5,000
copies of its Union Voice a month (published in three languages: English,
Spanish, and Tagalog), won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on
racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of
working with numerous toxic chemicals, without having won either an election
or a contract. The last UE campaign in 1982 tried to mobilize opposition to
the industry's policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley. Many UE
members were ultimately fired as electronics corporations singled out
activists, ending a first wave of organizing campaigns which had received no
support from official representatives of organized labor and did not survive
the advent of the Reagan Era. While the Committee dispersed, some members
left to work with new organizations they had helped establish, including the
Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH) and the
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), on worker health and safety issues.

On the WWW


Stories & Photographs by David Bacon


Alliance UE-FAT (Frente Autentico del Trabajo)

Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH)

Amanda Hawes, one of the founders of SCCOSH, reflects on the emergence of
toxics organizing in Silicon Valley:

Compared to hazards of traditional fruit processing in our Valley of Heart's
Delight - repetitive motion injuries, finger lacerations, heat stress, and
slips and falls - conditions in Silicon Valley's "clean industry" looked
good, especially to workers laid off after years of back-breaking seasonal
work in the canneries (Hawes 1997).

Workshops held by the new ECOSH (Electronics Committee for Occupational
Safety and Health) were met with skepticism by the occupational nurses,
engineering students, labor, environmental and religious leaders in
attendance. When a UC researcher needed volunteers for a study on TCE
(trichloroethylene), ECOSH agreed to recruit them, suspecting that TCE might
be carcinogenic. After hundreds of workers responded with stories on TCE and
toxic workplaces, ECOSH recognized the need for a center to gather and
disseminate health hazard information to electronics workers and advocate
for improved working conditions in what most had considered "clean

Founded in 1978, SCCOSH has become the main educational resource for Silicon
Valley workers fighting to protect their health on the job. Across the
country, a network of over 20 additional centers has emerged, making
occupational health and safety one of the most active areas of worker
organization. While ECOSH continued its work into the early 1980s with a
campaign to ban TCE, SCCOSH received a federal grant from the US Labor
Department for its Project on Health and Safety in Electronics (PHASE) which
ran a confidential "hazard hot line," researched chemicals and processes
used in electronics and semiconductor manufacturing, and developed hazard
fact sheets and other materials to aid workers interested in protecting
their health (PHASE monies were immediately cut by the Reagan
Administration). Other early SCCOSH projects included the Injured Workers
United, a support group for workers already affected by chemical exposures,
trying to secure fair compensation, decent medical care, and retraining.
During the 1980s, SCCOSH continued to raise issues of chemical safety,
stressing concerns for workers of child-bearing age in campaigns to phase
out specific toxics.

Contrary to the mythology of the virtual industries, electronics
manufacturing is a labor-intensive industry. Many manufacturing workers are
Asian: the workforce mirrors the immigration history of the area, as
Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, Ethiopian, and most recently South Asian women
and men of all ages have joined a Latino working community. Filipino SCCOSH
members Raquel Sancho and Romie Manan have begun to organize them into
HealthWATCH (Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards). Both Sancho and Manan
are veteran organizers, with roots in the anti-Marcos movement in the
Philippines. Sancho, hired by SCCOSH in 1994 to direct its campaign against
glycol ethers, was an organizer in Manila's women's movement and still
recruits U.S. supporters for Gabriela, a left-wing women's organization in
the islands. 

Organizing workers in the US nevertheless proved difficult: "It was hard
getting immigrant workers to picket the plants without having a long period
of involvement with them around this issue" (Bacon 1997b). To build a base
of workers, Sancho went to karaoke bars, malls, and was soon invited to
picnics and family occasions. Romie Manan was a unionist in the Philippines,
in what Bacon considers one of the most militant and turbulent labor
movements in Asia during the 1970s ­ yet another irony of post-cold war
labor organization, since the AFL-CIO had continued to back the official
pro-Marcos labor federation. Manan had to leave after martial law was
declared by then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos and immediately began recruiting
his Filipino coworkers into the Electronics Organizing Committee of the
United Electrical Workers when he found a job in Silicon Valley. Unlike
Bacon, who was active in the UE Organizing Committee until it was dissolved
in the early 1980s, Manan has been able to continue to work in electronics
manufacturing despite his involvement in virtually all organizing drives.

Although unions are very popular in the Philippines where a much higher
percentage of workers is organized than in the US, Manan cautions that while
immigrant Filipino workers are generally interested in worker organization,
many members of the same family often get jobs in the same plant, making
them reluctant to take risks (Bacon 1997b). Discussions at HealthWATCH
meetings have nonetheless convinced many of them to become active, and when
a worker affected by toxics exposure asked for support, they launched a
campaign to pressure the company for an investigation, wore ribbons and
buttons on the job to express solidarity, and cooperated with the
surrounding African American and Latino community which had already
organized a council of neighbors concerned about their proximity to a toxic
waste site. While an investigation by the California Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (CalOSHA) found numerous violations, the company was
ultimately allowed to settle with minimal fines.

HealthWATCH members concluded that immigrant workers would continue to be
exposed to chemicals at home and in the workplace until a union contract
provided some leverage to hold companies accountable and possibly allow
workers to define their own standards for health and safety protection;
WATCH hopes to offer initial organizing experience, SCCOSH publishes
Chemical Exposure Guidelines to educate workers about the toxicity of
chemicals and safe exposure levels.

However, even union contracts may not be able to challenge the fundamental
structure of the electronics industries. HealthWATCH member Raj Jayadev
reminds readers of the rank-and-file monthly Labor Notes that the position
of immigrants and their exposure to toxins are structural features of the
new economy: "low-wage assembly and manufacturing has been the anchor of
technological and economic growth. Perhaps explaining its rather hushed
existence, it is a labor niche which has been created and reserved for
immigrant workers of color" (Jayadev 1999).

While low-wage temporary work proves paradoxically permanent in that there
are neither "good assembly jobs" which would compensate for years of
exposure and abuse nor unions that might be able to establish them, a small
portion of South Asian engineers and business people have ascended into
"Silicon Valley royalty," a phenomenon duly observed by community and media
trained to expect no less than the fulfillment of the model minority myth.
For Jayadev, this visibility has obscured the Third World reality of the
South Asian majority, whose situation should serve as "an alert to animate
the collective South Asian American consciousness" and focus energy on
"dissolving the separations between labor and community organizing" (ibid.).

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC)

At the outset of the Cold War, the US military supported the creation of an
institute to conduct applied industrial research at Stanford University,
which soon announced the development of a high tech industrial park nearby.
Since new semiconductor companies were hailed as "clean industries,"
electronics quickly became the industry of choice for municipalities
interested in expanding their industrial tax base. Rising sales of computer
parts provided taxes in abundance and supported tremendous growth: over the
next decades, the county of Santa Clara would grow from the agricultural
paradise known as "Valley of Heart¹s Delight" to become Silicon Valley, the
mythical center of the high tech industries with the highest density of
electronics firms of any county in the US.

Today, Santa Clara has more toxic cleanup sites than any other county in the
US, most of them caused by the high tech electronics industry. Since the
early 1980s, severe groundwater contamination has emerged as the most common
form of chemical pollution at production sites of IBM, Fairchild, AMD, HP,
and Siemens: volatile toxic chemicals like chlorinated solvents, used in the
process of turning an ingot of silicon into a highly conductive wafer, are
often stored in underground storage tanks which leaked to permanently
contaminate entire aquifers and continue to threaten the wetlands of San
Francisco Bay. Similar pollution was found at local chemical manufacturing,
waste disposal and recycling facilities (SWOP 1995).

In a state experiencing a severe drought cycle about once every decade,
groundwater contamination is a catastrophe. Much of the available water in
California is distributed via complex pipeline systems from the fertile
Central Valley of the Sacramento River Delta, which receives water from the
rivers and reservoirs in and around the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Santa Clara
receives much of its water via these projects as well. Since any decrease in
groundwater availability can only increase the ecological and political
pressure on the already overburdened delta, a fragile ecosystem threatened
with an increase in salinity if more water were to be extracted, Santa Clara
is likely to become more and more dependent on local, reliable water
sources, and therefore to conserve and keep them free from contamination
through tighter regulation ­ yet another reason for resource-intensive
industries like wafer (chip) fabrication to locate new facilities outside of
the Valley. In fact, a global search has already begun for communities
willing (or forced) to offer the combination of subsides, tax exemptions,
and the promise of a streamlined regulatory process that has become
associated with the costly bidding wars that pit countries, states and
cities desperate to attract economic development against each other.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Project (SVTC), another SCCOSH project, has done
much to alert communities to the toxicity of the electronics industries.
SVTC was founded by local activists in 1982 in response to the discovery of
substantial groundwater contamination. SVTC succeeded in the passage of a
community right-to-know law and accompanying Hazardous Materials Model
Ordinance, the first law in the country to regulate leaking underground
storage tanks by requiring secondary containment and strict monitoring.
Gaining national recognition when it helped place the toxic waste sites in
Santa Clara County on the National Priority List (Superfund) of the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure adequate clean up, SVTC also
exposed the enormous contribution of electronics industries to CFC
emissions, promotes the clean-up and conversion of military bases and
defense contractors, and now serves as an information center on the
electronics industries for communities and organizations elsewhere. Current
efforts include a Sustainable Water Campaign, a multi-year effort to clean
heavy metal contamination from the streams and groundwater of the South San
Francisco Bay area, a Clean Computer Campaign to reduce hazards from the
disposal of junk electronics and encourage recycling of materials found in
obsolescent computers, and an International Campaign for Responsible
Technology (ICRT). 

Through ICRT, SVTC not only tracks the global expansion of the electronics
industries to alert potential host communities, but supports (encourages
ratification, implementation, and enforcement) of transnational legislative
efforts like the 1989 Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of
Hazardous Waste, a new EU Directive on Waste from Electronic and Electrical
Equipment, the 1998 Aarhus Convention (United Nations Convention on Access
to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making, and Access to
Justice in Environmental Matters) and the World Health Organization-Europe
Environment & Health Ministerial Declaration (London 1999). Their database
(IHEAL, Interactive Health Ecology Access Links) is an international network
created by non-governmental organizations to support implementation of these
conventions and international right-to-know provisions (in an ironic and
powerful extension of their very first successes: as pollution moves across
boundaries, so does grassroots organization).

IHEAL is an amazing example of the complex mutual articulation of locality
and globality: by providing web-based maps of pollution releases, NGOs can
engage in public information campaigns and integrate IHEAL information into
local ecopolitical activity (monitoring, technical assistance in community
monitoring of toxic releases, the management of riparian and watershed data,
and development of regional sustainability indicators). IHEAL aims at the
establishment of communication standards for environmental information so
that "environmental health & sustainability information will become as
widely reported as the daily national weather forecast."

Each computer is a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 materials, many
of which are highly toxic, such as chlorinated and brominated substances,
toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics
and plastic additives. Short product cycles ensure that little is known
about the individual, additive and synergistic effects of often exotic
substances: many of them have not been tested for carcinogenicity, fewer
still for reproductive toxicity, fewer still neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity
or potential impacts to the endocrine system. After the trend toward product
obsolescence was greatly accelerated by concern over Y2K compliance, the US
alone is expected to accumulate 315 million used computers by the end of
2004. Because computers contain so many toxins, recycling itself remains a
dangerous process, exposing workers to hazardous substances much like the
manufacturing process itself. Given that only 6% (compared to new computers
sold) were recycled in 1998, most of these are likely to be stored in
hazardous waste landfills or incinerated, a dangerous process which releases
vast amounts of highly toxic chemicals such as dioxins and benzene (SVTC

Because the export of waste has long been a way in which the industrialized
world has avoided expensive disposal and costly production alternatives, the
Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste for Final
Disposal was established in 1989 to keep OECD nations from dumping their
waste on less developed countries. The US has declined to sign the
Convention, another indicator that the imminent waste crisis is likely to be
solved through waste export, following the current (international) practice
of waste incineration in China. In 1999, the European Union drafted a
directive in response to concern over waste from electronic and electrical
equipment, the main source of contamination by heavy metals and halogenated
substances in municipal waste streams, overwhelming treatment facilities and
threatening widespread contamination of drinking water.

The WEEE Directive will

require manufacturers to improve the design of their products in order to
avoid the generation of waste and to facilitate the recovery and disposal of
electronic scrap. Its ultimate aim is to close the loop of the product life
cycle so that producers, who manufacturer the product in the first place and
who are ultimately in charge of designing the product, get their products
back and assume full responsibility for life cycle costs. By ensuring this
feedback to the producer and by making them financially responsible for end
of life waste management, producers will have a financial incentive to
design their products with less hazardous and more recyclable materials.
This change in the market economics ­ in effect the internalization of costs
that are currently passed off to the general public ­ will encourage the
design of products for repair, upgrade, re-use, dismantling and safer
recycling (ibid.).

 Through ICRT, SVTC promotes transborder grassroots cooperation, working on
WEEE with a broad coalition of environmental NGOs organized in the European
Environmental Bureau. The US, encouraged by the powerful American
Electronics Association (AEA), has announced to challenge this directive at
the World Trade Organization (WTO) ­ it is, after all, contrary in its aim
to the very spirit of the "new economy."

On the WWW

BAN (Basel Action News, Basel Convention on Toxic Waste)

EEB (European Environmental Bureau, docs on toxic-free electronics)



SWOP (South-West Organizing Project, eco-justice campaigns against INTEL
incl. grassroots monitoring systems)

Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA)

While is widely known that textile and garment manufacturing occurs in
sweatshops abroad and at home, the enormous contribution of electronics
sweatshops to the virtual revolution has long remained one of Silicon
Valley¹s dirty little secrets. After Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA)
was founded in 1983, it focused on women in garment manufacturing and won
significant victories that have led many to regard AIWA as a model workers
center in the tradition of radical institutions more committed to organizing
unskilled and immigrant workers than the labor movement at large. AIWA¹s
campaigns are widely discussed as organizing models and examples of an
emerging Asian American feminist movement among Asian American women
activists and an (increasingly diverse) Asian immigrant community (Lowe
1997, Shah 1997). Recently, it launched several campaigns to support workers
in electronics sweatshops. AIWA offers language and citizenship education
courses, workshops on domestic violence, and was able to establish
confidential hotlines in several workplaces ­ an important service for
workers whose immigrant status makes them more vulnerable to interference by
management and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) than
ordinary workers. In cooperation with other anti-sweatshop organizations,
AIWA pushed for regulation of the sweatshop economy through an Underground
Economy Bill which forced legislators to not only acknowledge that these
archaic workplaces are indispensable to the "new" economy, but agree to
regulation and oversight.

Although the current political and cultural climate is far removed from the
anxiety motivating early exclusion acts restricting Chinese and Japanese
immigration, anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and
widespread concern over a "Yellow Peril," the dominance of an equally
problematic "model minority myth" leaves room for a few success stories
while obscuring what HealthWATCH members Jajadev terms the "Third World
Reality" of most Asian immigrants. AIWA also shows that grassroots labor and
toxics campaigns among immigrants may not be possible through traditional
forms of worker organization; while Filipino immigrants support unionism,
many of the women organized by AIWA, suspicious of organized labor in part
because of the role played by state-sponsored labor federations in their
home countries, do not.

These efforts highlight the challenges and contradictions of grassroots work
in Silicon Valley and the new economy at large. Although organized labor has
returned to the electronics industries, many unions are unprepared to
address the complex situation of immigrant workers at odds with the history
and organizational culture of a US labor movement only beginning to confront
a legacy of business unionism, trade union colonialism, and a "possessive
investment in whiteness" (Roediger 1999, Lipsitz 1999). In a climate
characterized by hostility toward immigrants, suspicion of worker
organization, and official enthusiasm for multilateral trade agreements that
encourage ecological irresponsibility, grassroots organizing proceeds at an
excruciating pace - workplace by workplace, toxin by toxin, neighborhood by
neighborhood. The struggle against high tech corporations and their industry
associations, exciting, innovative, and quite possibly the harbinger of a
new (transnational) politics built on the joint efforts of labor,
ecological, and ethnic movements, is nonetheless not to be romanticized:
every now and then a (legal) battle is won, but without a fundamental change
in the way the "virtual revolution" is theorized and, ultimately, organized,
immigrant workers as well as all those affected by extraction, production,
and disposal of the "remainder" of the virtual, rendered invisible by the
metaphorics of technological transcendence, will continue to bear its cost.

Works Cited

Bacon, David (1997a). "Organizing Silicon Valley's High Tech Workers"

Bacon David (1997b). "Silicon Sludge: Immigrant Filipino Workers Fight Toxic
Working Conditions in Anti-Union Silicon Valley."

Hawes, Amanda (Spring 1998). "SCCOSH in the Early Years: A Founder's
Recollections" San José, CA: SVTC News.

Lipsitz, George (1998). The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White
People Benefit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple UP.

Lowe, Lisa (1996). Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics.
Durham: Duke UP.

Jayadev, Raj. (10/1999). "Electronics Assembly for Poverty Wages." Detroit:
Labor Notes.

Roediger, David (1999). The Wages of Whiteness. 2nd ed. New York: Verso.

Schatz, Ronald W. (1983). The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at
General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-1960. Chicago: U of Illinois P.

Shah, Sonya, ed. (1997). Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe
Fire. Boston, MA: South End P.

SWOP (1995). Sacred Waters: Life Blood of Mother Earth (Four Case Studies of
High-Tech Water Exploitation and Corporate Welfare in the Southwest).
Albuquerque, NM: SouthWest Organizing Project.

SVTC (1999): "Just Say No to E-Waste: Background Documents on Hazards and
Waste from Computers." San José, CA: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

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