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Organizing the High Tech Industry

CorpWatch Interview with John Barton of SEIU
CorpWatch
February 10th, 1997


CorpWatch interviews John Barton, Organizing Coordinator, Building Service Division, of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and links up with other groups organizing for worker health and safety.

SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign successfully organized the janitors in California's Silicon Valley, an area dominated by the high tech industry. John Barton describes his union's campaign and discusses the wide array of strategies they used to fight the high tech giants, including international organizing.


CorpWatch: Describe the Justice for Janitors campaign to organize janitors in the Silicon Valley.

John Barton: We had an advantage in the Silicon Valley in that we had one client base which was the high tech industry. We were able to design a campaign that was mostly based on the high tech industry and their responsibility, not just to the higher paid sector of the industry but also to the lower paid workers, many of which are in the subcontracted sectors of the industry. This industry does enormous amounts of subcontracting and that is generally where you will find the thousands of workers who are in the lower paid professions.

We did one study of the high tech industry in the Silicon Valley that showed there are 30,000 subcontracted manufacturing workers and 20,000 subcontracted service workers. Those workers included janitors, food service, security, landscape, and other smaller professions. In most of these sectors wages were low, benefits few, companies small to medium size.

Again, the advantage we had in our organizing was that the janitorial industry was dominated by the high tech companies. We found that most of the companies in the high tech industry are concerned about their image and want to put out an image to the public that they are good corporate citizens and play by the rules. In our original campaign against Apple Computer, even though it went on for a year-and-a-half, we were able to draw a picture of Apple which was very different than the picture they were trying to draw for the public. Ultimately, we were successful by doing that and won.

We went to a number of other companies after Apple who saw what we did with Apple and didn't want anything to do with it. It took us a year and a half to organize 140 janitors at Apple and then it took us two years to organize 2,200 - 2,300 more. We turned to Hewlett-Packard next and we had an agreement with them in six months. They are enormous, 7 million square feet of office space in Silicon Valley. They took thirteen separate contractors (all non-union) that they were using for their different office spaces and turned it all over to one contractor, which was union. All the janitors went union. They all got substantial raises and family medical benefits, from having no benefits, within six months. And that was without a fight.

CorpWatch: What strategies did you use to pressure Apple and the other high tech companies?

John Barton: The first thing we did was define the fight, and the fight was essentially the immigrant female janitor versus CEOs like John Scully and the mighty Apple Computer, a David versus Goliath fight. We put forward the faces of the janitors and the faces of their children and where they lived, and tried to tell their story over and over again versus the wealth and power of Apple Computer. We tried to exploit that difference at action and events. Some of the strategies we used were constant actions at Apple, escalating actions, which ultimately led to a big hunger strike where a number of janitors fasted for seven days. That was followed with another seven days where religious leaders, labor leaders, politicians each did a one day hunger strike.

We had a janitors bill of rights, which the mayor, the City Council and the Board of Supervisors signed. It included the right to organize in Apple Computer. We had a hearing on the plight of janitors where public officials heard their testimony. We formed a community coalition that included forty community, religious and labor organizations that fought for the janitors' right to organize. We started a boycott of Apple products where we ran full page ads in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune.

We approached school boards throughout California to pass resolutions to take Apple out of the public schools, and we were successful with quite a few school boards. We bought Apple stock and introduced resolutions at two Apple shareholder meetings. We went to MacWorld, their big convention, and unfurled banners when CEO John Scully spoke, and did activities outside. We had vigils outside John Scully's home for thirty days. Every morning when he would leave his house, we had a chain gang (a group of people dressed as janitors) sweeping outside his door.

We began to expand the campaign internationally. Our international trade secretary had a convention in San Francisco with over 2,000 delegates, where we introduced the Apple campaign and had a march through San Francisco that was led by AFL-CIO President at the time, Lane Kirkland, and labor leaders from around the world. That kicked off an international campaign where we had letters going to Apple subsidiaries worldwide and to the headquarters. We had unions from Brazil, Tonga, all over Europe to Korea, contact Apple representatives in their area. We leafleted an Apple plant in Ireland.

After Apple we went on and marched through a number of others and we had smaller fights, including one with Oracle. We tried a new strategy where we got into the company's email. We actually did this with Apple also. We were able, through a number of people inside the company, to get to their email and they shot our messages throughout their email system. We ended up in a propaganda war between us and the Director of Human Relations, who at one point wrote a five page response to a number of allegations that we were making, which went to all the Oracle employees.


Groups Organizing for Worker Health and Safety