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Unions? Not in this valley.

Why organizing white collar workers in Silicon Valley is hard slogging.

It’s quitting time at an IBM/Hitachi plant in South San Jose and Joshua Sperry is chasing cars. The youthful Sperry is the organizer for Communications Workers of America Local 9423. Sowing leaflets and spreading the union gospel — that’s what he does. “It’s a good day today,” he says between laps. “People are taking them.”

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Sperry is earnest and believes in his cause. And he has seemingly fertile territory: High-tech industries are in the dumps, technology manufacturing is racing overseas, and around this particular factory, rumors are swirling of a new round of layoffs. “My manager was in a meeting today,” says one worker, taking a newsletter. “I’m worried.”

If unions ever stood a chance in Silicon Valley, this would seem to be the moment. The region lost 275,000 jobs from 2001 to 2003, and unemployment in San Jose has soared to 9%. Some 3.3 million jobs will migrate overseas in the next decade, Forrester Research estimates. Already, factors such as offshore outsourcing have forced wages down by as much as 25% in some disciplines, according to Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Washington, DCffibased Economic Policy Institute.

For all of this bleakness, though, Sperry’s effort will likely fare as well as every other previous union push in the Valley. In the 1970s, Intel chased organizers out of its manufacturing plants with a fierce antiunion campaign. Mike Eisenscher, who helped try to unionize semiconductor workers during the 1980s, says that the doomed drive aged him.

Why can’t unions take hold here? Much has to do with the Valley’s history. Ambitious, brilliant entrepreneurs revolting against the old-line, hierarchical, East Coast work culture defined the Valley’s earliest days. They built their new world along egalitarian, democratic lines, offering shares in their companies and promoting based on talent, not seniority. Unions, the Valley’s founders believed, threatened the very essence of their enterprises.

Two generations later, that sentiment hasn’t changed much. “I would leave the field before I was working for a union,” says Jordan Slott, a staff engineer at one of the Valley’s biggest tech companies. “Unions would create a wall between management and workers. You’d destroy creativity.” Besides, he says, programmers enjoy working the long hours that unions are meant to protect them from.

There’s another reason: fear. One IBM quality-assurance worker slinks off campus anytime she speaks of the CWA’s IBM effort on her cell phone. She sends all union-related email from her Yahoo account. “We don’t want to be labeled as troublemakers,” she says, “because with the next round of layoffs, we could be on the list.”

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That’s why just 5,000 of 110,000 U.S.-based IBM employees so far have signed on to support the union effort, which started after the company began slashing employee pensions during the 1990s. North of Silicon Valley, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), is struggling to gain traction. With just 275 members drawn from the ranks of contracted and temporary designers, programmers, and engineers, WashTech has done little to rock mighty Microsoft.

Perhaps the accelerating exodus of tech jobs offshore will prove a spark for organizers. “We should have been talking about [offshore outsourcing] five years ago,” says Paul Kostek, former president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He and others paint a picture of a future Valley where good middle-class jobs for tech workers have all been exported to China and India. But union advocates worry that tech workers won’t wake up and organize until it’s too late — and they’re probably right.