On Feb. 7, 2013, a worker at Wafertech in Camas, Washington, reached out to a union. Portland-headquartered International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48 took the phone call, and assigned staff organizers to talk to workers.
Wafertech — a subsidiary of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) — employs roughly 500 production workers at the Camas semiconductor foundry. They work in a clean room environment making silicon wafers.
Union organizers hoped to get a chance to gauge whether workers were interested without the employer launching an anti-union campaign. But Wafertech managers got wind of workers talking to the union. The union campaign went public, launching a campaign web site Nov. 8 — wafertechworkers.org — to provide a forum for workers to learn about and discuss the merits of unionizing. A Facebook page launched Nov. 19 — Wafertech-Workers-Unite — also provides updates about the campaign.
In mid-November, the company held hour-long anti-union meetings on each shift. Managers showed a video that outlines the supposed dangers of signing a union authorization card. On Dec. 6, company president KC Hsu wrote to workers, saying Wafertech will best serve customers and employees without a union.
“WaferTech has empowered grass-roots ‘Employee Engagement teams’ to develop improvement plans,” Hsu wrote, “and these teams will be reporting their recommendations in the weeks ahead.”
The union stepped up its effort to talk to workers. In mid-December, members and staff from Local 48 were joined by staff from Locals 659, 76, 46, 280, 112 and IBEW’s Ninth District for a four-day marathon of door-knocking.
IBEW organizer Ray Lister says Wafertech isn’t a bad employer in some respects: It provides decent employer-provided health insurance, a workplace gym, and paid time off. But employees have complaints, and some would like a union to negotiate improvements. Work is 24-7, and shifts are 12 hours long, starting at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. Workers say they’re directed by managers fresh out of business school who know nothing about the industry. And managers change work rules without any say-so from the affected production workers. Turnover is high, Lister said, likely because wages are low. Until this month, some production workers made $10.50 an hour, barely above Washington’s minimum wage. But on Jan. 16, the company announced a sizable raise: as much as $1.50 an hour for newer and lower-paid workers, and 50 cents an hour for more senior workers. The raises brought workers up to a new wage floor of $12 an hour.
Lister thinks the raises were a reaction to talk of unionizing.
“We’re still in the early informative stages of a union campaign,” Lister said. “These hourly workers don’t have degrees and are made to believe they don’t have value. But it takes four weeks to train and two years to get up to optimal. They achieve a level of mastery. We’re trying to get message out that their work has value.”