Programme Investigation

Working in the High-tech Nightmare

Revolutionary Worker #1088, January 28, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

The RW received the following correspondence from a comrade on the West Coast.

Who isn't sick of the system's hype about the "wonders" of imperialist high tech, spun out by politicians, media talking heads, and industry titans? The worship of greedy billionaires. The lie that high tech proves capitalism's superiority. The claim all the jobs in high tech are good, well-paid positions. And the myth that we should thank a handful of gifted entrepreneurs and technical geniuses for society's technological advances. Such defense of imperialism acts like the proletariat doesn't even exist in the high-tech economy--like our class is a thing of the past, a relic from the "industrial age."

As part of the investigation for the RCP's new draft Programme, a team of comrades and friends was asked to dig into the U.S. high-tech industry. How many work in high-tech industries? How many are proletarians? What are their conditions of life and work?

We studied government statistics. We went over books, newspapers, and magazine articles. We talked to people who study the industry. And we sat down with different people who work in high-tech offices and factories.

We found out that the proletariat is indeed alive and kicking in high tech -- that today's technological miracles are created by the labor of millions of people, in the U.S. and around the world. And that high-tech entrepreneurs make their billions the old-fashioned way--they exploit people!

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Many different industries now use or manufacture advanced technology. We focused on information technology, or "IT." IT industries manufacture computers, electronic components like semiconductors, and communications equipment. IT also includes data processing services, such as repairing computers and designing software, and communications services, such as installing, repairing and servicing telephones, cable TV, and the Internet.

IT is dominated by huge monopoly corporations with billions in sales and profits: AT&T, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Compaq, Lucent Technologies, Intel, Dell, Texas Instruments, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems and Oracle. Like the rest of imperialist capital, these IT monopolies operate globally. Research and development, product design, and the most advanced production are centered in the imperialist countries, while manufacturing, assembly and testing are often located in oppressed--commonly referred to as Third World--countries.

For literally pennies an hour, proletarians around the world--especially in Asia, but also just south of the border in Mexico--build, assemble and package the newest products sold in the U.S. and other imperialist countries. The U.S. high-tech industry has been a world leader in setting up shop where wages are the lowest.

In 1996 it was estimated that half the workforce of U.S.-based firms making semiconductors--called the "building blocs of the information revolution"--were overseas. Seven of every ten TVs sold in the U.S. are manufactured in northern Mexico, in the sweatshops known as maquiladoras. Electronics companies employ over a third of all maquiladora workers.

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According to U.S. government figures, 4.64 million people worked in IT in the U.S. in 1996, and another 2.75 million worked in related jobs in other industries. These workers are mainly concentrated in California's Silicon Valley, the Route 128 corridor around Boston, Southern California, New York state, and Texas.

Total IT and related employment (7.4 million) was only 6.2% of all U.S. employment. So the U.S. economy has hardly been "taken over" by high tech. In fact, some kinds of high-tech jobs are growing while other areas are shrinking--all subject to the anarchy of capitalism. For example, U.S. employment in jobs making computer hardware has been dropping, while employment in software and computer services has nearly doubled since 1990. (These numbers include all people employed, not just proletarians.)

To understand this workforce, we closely analyzed 1998 occupational and wage data for four industries that make up the core and cutting edge of IT: the manufacturing of computer and office equipment, electronic components and accessories, and communications equipment, plus computer and data processing services. Over half the people employed in IT--2.8 million--work in these industries. We found that the proletariat--including a large section that's bitterly exploited--is just as big a part of IT as other U.S. industries.

There are over one million proletarians working in these IT industries. They include service workers cleaning buildings, preparing food, and maintaining corporate grounds. There are clerks, typists, receptionists, people doing data entry, and lower-level sales personnel. And there are proletarians in production--fabricating, assembling, testing, and shipping all the industry products. While there are differences in the percentages between these four core IT industries, overall proletarians make up over a third (37.4%) of their combined total workforce.

Over 441,000 of these workers--nearly 16% of the entire workforce--averaged $10/hour or less. In many or perhaps most areas of this country, this is a poverty wage.

There are over 630,000 industrial workers--22.6% of total employment in these four industries. That's the same percentage of production workers as the U.S. economy as a whole. Roughly half of these workers (286,810) made $10/hour or less. The proportion of industrial workers making $10/hour or less is about 50% greater in high tech than the U.S. economy as a whole. So a big chunk of the billions in high-tech profits comes from the exploitation of these low-paid workers.

High Tech--Showcase of Exploitation

IT is a relatively new industry, and IT companies have fought worker unionization tooth and nail. Proletarians who work in the IT industry are deprived of the most elementary rights. The programme investigation team interviewed people who talked about the "insanely fast pace" of many assembly lines and being subject to extremely dangerous working conditions due to the use of highly toxic cleaning chemicals. A growing number are temps or work for subcontractors, where pay is lower and conditions are worse. Many are forced to eke out a living by piecework or even taking work home.

Immigrant women have been the backbone of IT industries, and they are locked into the worst jobs. A Pacific Studies Center analysis of government data from 1990 found a rigid racial and gender hierarchy in Silicon Valley--with white and Chinese and Japanese men in the higher-paying jobs and Southeast Asian and Latino women in the lowest-paying jobs. Studies of the high-tech workforce in Austin, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, found similar divisions, although with fewer Asian and more Latino workers. Companies often segregate nationalities by assembly line, and in many high-tech areas African-Americans have been systematically excluded. One engineer told us that Mexican workers are generally confined to service jobs like gardeners or janitors, with no chance to move up from cleaning to something like the higher paying job of software coding.

A recent study found that over half the high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley don't pay enough to support a family. Housing prices have shot up so high that many workers have to live two or three families to a house or apartment, and work two and even three jobs, to survive. Often these workers complete their regular shift only to have to do piecework at home, clean laundry, or take side jobs like repairing cars, or selling things at the flea market. While stock prices of high-tech companies have soared, the wages of proletarians have stagnated or declined. One study found that three-fourths of the workers in Silicon Valley were making less in 1996 than in 1989. According to another study, the cost of living is now so high in California's Santa Clara County--the center of Silicon Valley--that an adult with two children needs to make $25.55 an hour to be self-sufficient. In 1999, there were some 25,000 homeless people in Silicon Valley.

The Contradictions of the New "Techno Middle"

IT industries employ a significantly higher percentage of managers, administrators, professionals and technicians as the economy as a whole--over 50% of the IT workforce compared to around 30% in other industries. This is one reason that high tech pay is higher, overall, than average. In 1998 there were 300,000 such employees in the IT core industries--about 11% of the total workforce. But many of these white collar professionals, technicians, and administrators face sharp contradictions and much uncertainty.

Tens of thousands in these categories don't make much money--between $10 and $20/hour. These include purchasing agents, computer support specialists, engineering techs, computer programmer aides, demonstrators and promoters, technical assistants, and telephone customer support people. And with housing costs rising sharply, even those with better-paid, middle class positions have a harder time making ends meet.

A growing number of better-paid or more highly skilled jobs are filled by temps--at Microsoft they're called "Microserfs"--with few benefits and little job security. Others work under enormous stress. A software writer told us that while the pay was good, there was "intense pressure" at his job to work 10 to 12 hours a day for 8 hours pay. An engineer told us of having to sleep under his desk to meet deadlines. One industry observer stated that "The '24/7' culture of nearly round-the-clock work is endemic to the wired economy." Government studies find that jobs and skills become obsolete--and are eliminated--faster in high tech than other industries.

And there's also the sense that the high-tech boom could come crashing down. An article in the SF Examiner (3/19/00) put it this way: "The deluge of venture capital has created a Roaring '20s sense of endless possibilities...an air of privilege and a sense of exemption from cold capitalistic forces....When the bubble bursts, the killer pace and carnage of burned-out talent will become manifestly apparent... So will the vulnerability of workers who once thought they were bulletproof in the global economy."

In all, our exploration of U.S. high tech found that in the high-tech industry, there is both a solid proletarian base and broader potential allies--for revolution, right here in the belly of the beast.


This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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