Can my mommy have her paycheck?

New economy, old economy -- what's the difference when you're working on the assembly line? Not much, say the makers of "Secrets of Silicon Valley."

Published May 1, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

If your idea of a technology sweatshop is a cubicle farm where 25-year-old programmers swill caffeine to stay up coding all night, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow have some footage they'd like you to see.

In their new documentary, "Secrets of Silicon Valley," the Berkeley, Calif., filmmakers -- best known for their documentary series "Blacks and Jews: Ambivalent Allies" -- reveal the underbelly of an industry that takes pains to keep its worst-paid workers out of the spotlight while it gentrifies them right out of their neighborhoods.

The film, which is screening in Bay Area and Boston theaters this month while the filmmakers seek broadcast distribution, paints Silicon Valley as a region divided between clean-scrubbed executives spouting hubristic blarney about the information age and temporary assembly-line workers on the industrial grind.

How did you decide to do a film about Silicon Valley?

Alan Snitow: Living here in the Bay Area, we've been subjected for years to unrelenting hype about technology and the Internet being the Second Coming -- all people will benefit, and any individual can become a billionaire with hard work and a good idea.

Deborah Kaufman: The media here has been a part of this hype machine. And it's really unfortunate that the criticism is only beginning with the NASDAQ fall. But maybe that's an opportunity to look with more clearheadedness at what's happened.

Silicon Valley really hasn't been treated in all of its nuance and complexity. There are a lot of stereotypes about geeks, but there is zero representation of everybody else who lives there. There is a rich multicultural community, immigrants, all kinds of people living in San Jose and Santa Clara, but you never hear about them.

What's the significance of the industry myth that there is no physical production in Silicon Valley, that it's all about bits and bytes, ones and zeroes?

D.K.: It's part of the entire worldview of flexibility of the new economy. It's about not allowing the reality of manufacturing and assembly and exploited workers to come out to the public. I think that they [the companies] want to cover it up. I didn't really think about who made my computer or printer before we started this film. And now I can't look at a cellphone or any gadget without thinking that human hands made this.

A.S.: There is an active silencing in the industry. People who are working on these assembly lines are not a part of American democracy. They have no freedom of speech. For them to say that their conditions are intolerable is to invite immediate termination and economic blackballing.

The best metaphor that we've heard about it is that it's like feudalism. The castle is a brand-name company like Hewlett-Packard. Inside the castle, you get stock options. You get paid well. You get health benefits. And then outside the walls of the castle are the temporary workers and the manufacturing employees. Those people are exposed to the elements, to the marauding hordes, the vandals. That is the nature of our economic organization now. That is what is happening in this country and around the world.

And the moat around the castle is the Manpower temporary agency. So a company like Hewlett-Packard can say: We're not employing these people; it's the subcontractor, or it's the temporary agency.

The temp economy just keeps growing because it's cheaper. You don't have to pay health benefits. No one has job security. Jobs can be eliminated on a minute's notice. If you create an economy that has that kind of "flexibility," then you save a lot of money and that money goes into annual reports, which increases your stock price.

Did you try to talk to Hewlett-Packard? Have you had any reaction from the company?

D.K.: We requested an interview with Carly Fiorina -- she couldn't do it for whatever reason. In the end, we feel that Hewlett-Packard is a full character in the film with all of its contradictions showing.

A.S.: Hewlett-Packard has refused to come on the air on TV to be interviewed with us about the film. [Officials there] said they hadn't seen the film, so they don't know whether we "have our facts right."

D.K.: But the people from the Packard Foundation, which is separate from HP, have seen it and liked it, and have requested a copy.

How did you get inside the factories?

A.S.: When we asked for the interview with Carly Fiorina, we also asked to get into the factory where Raj worked. [A central character in the film, labor activist Raj Jayadev, is a temp worker organizing on the front lines.] They said: "We don't have any factories in San Jose."

D.K.: The factory where Raj worked was in San Jose.

A.S.: This is the secret of Silicon Valley. Cisco doesn't make routers. Hewlett-Packard doesn't make computers or printers.

We called the HP subcontractor, a company called Manufacturing Services Limited, and said: "Can we get into the factory?"

And [company representatives] said this factory is on Hewlett-Packard land, it's a Hewlett-Packard warehouse, it makes Hewlett-Packard printers, it has Hewlett-Packard security -- but Hewlett-Packard won't allow us to put out a press release saying that we're running the factory for them.

So they said, "There's no way."

How did you get the footage you used?

A.S.: Ultimately, we used stock footage, Hewlett-Packard video news releases. Every news outlet in the country has the exact same footage. There are no international security secrets in these factories. There is nothing that industrial espionage is going to uncover. There is no possible liability of a camera crew going in there.

What they're doing is [ensuring] that the media and the public have no access to these people, and these people have no access to the media and the public.

Is HP the only company doing this?

D.K.: We wanted to have people in the film who are sympathetic, socially conscious, who have values. Carly Fiorina is known to have social values, as is Hewlett-Packard, with "the HP way."

The whole idea was to show how the system is bad. HP is meant to be symbolic of the whole system -- we're not trying to do, "Now, now, HP." The film is really meant as a larger exploration of the values of the new economy.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of making the film?

A.S.: We found this industry to be completely committed to the idea that the market can solve all human problems much better than the government can.

D.K.: The anti-government animus is profound. What's very disturbing is the fact that you've got these levels of society living so close, side by side, and they're not speaking to each other. And you have tens of thousands of working people left out of the conversation about the future of the place they live. The development of the valley is going at breakneck speed, without an opportunity for people to participate in the discussion. It's being left to the high rollers.

We're creating two societies, and the middle is getting washed out. It's the haves and the have-nots, and it's really disturbing.

A.S.: Also, there's the intensity of the resistance in the industry to any kind of union organizing -- it's bitter.

D.K.: Because temps are the backbone of the economy; the temp economy is the backbone of high tech. It has to be. That's what people mean by "speed" and "flexibility" -- they mean temps. They can lay them off the next day if they need to. That is what they mean; it's a euphemism.

Do you think that there's any hope for organizing these temp workers in Silicon Valley?

D.K.: I think it's going to be a long struggle, but it's going to have to happen, because the industry is not capable of self-regulating. The idea that they can have their own codes of conduct and self-regulate is another one of the myths.

A.S.: Each big, huge company points to the next huge company, saying: "We have to keep up with them." "The HP way" is dead because they're now becoming a flexible company just like all the other companies. "We have to move fast. We have to start laying off people." And that wasn't the HP way. The HP way was to not subcontract. It was to provide health benefits to people on the assembly lines, not just to the highest-paid software designers.

There were people whom Raj met in the factory who 10 years ago were earning twice as much money, with health benefits, working for HP as they're earning today.

D.K.: Originally, HP was one of the great companies to work for. But this is HP in the 21st century; it's not the same.

What are some of the ways that workers have fought back?

A.S.: One of the stories that Raj told us that we loved the most is that apparently when the workers weren't getting paid properly, they would have their children call Manpower and say: "My mommy is not being paid."

D.K.: "My mommy can't buy the groceries."

A.S.: This is the mouth that is not being fed. Apparently the Manpower management was very pissed off. "How can you have these people calling us? We work hard too."

D.K.: First, [Manpower officials] said it was an error -- a computer error or something -- and then they got angry.

How did you choose your subjects?

A.S.: We didn't want to show the downtrodden worker who is just a victim, because I think there is a trend in documentaries to make people cry and to show the most victims that you can, to just constantly look for the worst off, the most screwed over, the massacred. We were looking for characters who are actors, not victims, to see what kind of choices they make -- moral choices and other choices -- against the backdrop of history.

D.K.: When we were talking about our film, at a certain point people were saying: "Oh yeah, show Larry Ellison's house and then some really horrible little hut." But we didn't want to do that. We really wanted to show people in the middle who are trying to cope with social issues. The intent was to show people who are organizers and activists, young people who care. There is also a kind of stereotype that young people don't care.

[Escobar and Jayadev, the two Silicon Valley organizers featured in the film] are not against technology; in fact they love technology, both of them. They had an optimism that had very distinct strategies for resisting the wrongs that are taking place in the valley.

D.S.: What was really important was to show that you could be an activist or in community service and succeed.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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