A union of Intel employees?

Intel engineer Matt West, backed by supporters from AFT-Oregon and the Teamsters, went public May 11 about an effort to unionize lithography engineers at the company’s chip factories. | PHOTO BY DON McINTOSH

By DON McINTOSH

HILLSBORO— At Central Park, just outside Intel’s Ronler Acres chip manufacturing hub, Intel engineer Matt West made the case May 11 for why he and his coworkers need a union: Sheer exhaustion.

In West’s “litho” division, which plays a key role in microchip manufacturing, engineer salaries start at $110,000 a year. But the hours can be grueling—up to 80 hours a week—and workers go back and forth between day and night shift.

“We are on call all of the time, to the point where you need a manager’s approval to be more than two hours away from the factory,” West said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a weekend. If you’re going to be more than two hours away, you need permission. And if you are called at 2 a.m. on a Saturday that you’re supposed to have off, if you don’t answer your phone within 30 minutes, they call your manager instead and there are consequences.”

For West, the hours produced an exhaustion so severe that he took medical leave, and negotiated a year’s leave of absence. He used the year to launch a run for Congress, and also to talk with coworkers about forming a union. West hopes they can become part of CODE (Campaign to Organize Digital Employees), which launched in early 2020 as a project of Communications Workers of America. 

But West is going to need help if the union is to get off the ground at Intel. For starters, none of his approximately 350 litho coworkers showed up to the park for the union campaign’s public launch. 

Reached by phone, a litho engineer who supports the effort said the union campaign is real, but that employees are too afraid to publicly support it. One reason: Lithography is a highly specialized skill, and many Intel workers are hired right out of their Ph.D. programs, or brought in on H1B visas from other countries. They feel they have a lot to lose, and fear losing a career if Intel retaliates.

West is calling on Intel to agree to neutrality and not to fight a union effort by employees. At press time, he had no word of response. He returns to work next week.

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