illustration of USA divided into four slices with scenes of pollution and protest against graph of upward profit trend

Four Ways US Chipmakers Can Learn from History

The past holds lessons regarding workplace conditions, labor rights, and the environment

By Adam Quinn Illustration by Griffin Torrey, University Communications February 26, 2024

4 min read 

The federal government is ramping up domestic computer chip production, with roughly $106 billion in funding allocated by the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act for semiconductor research and production. Meanwhile, states like Oregon are awarding land and hundreds of millions of dollars to chipmakers. According to Governor Kotek, these funds “lay the foundation for the next generation of innovation.”

Adam Quinn against a forest backdrop of evergreens
Adam Quinn

In an industry fixated on the next generation, are there lessons to be gleaned from past generations? In its late twentieth-century heyday, chip making in the US had its share of problems, including discrimination, pollution, and workplace injuries. Historical perspective may help avoid these issues in the future. Here are four lessons that history can teach us for making computer chips right this time:

1. Be proactive about chemical safety

Making computer chips requires intense chemicals. From the 1970s to ’90s, US chip fabricators and surrounding communities saw scandals including toxic chemicals in chip factories injuring workers and eventually leaking into residential groundwater. Occupational health activists demanded the industry use only adequately researched chemicals, implement stringent waste handling and storage standards, and devote as much research to safety as efficiency. As a result of chemical pollution and activist pressure for federal oversight, Silicon Valley now has more EPA Superfund toxic cleanup sites than any other county in the US.

Activists helped pass safer regulations at the local and state levels by the 1990s. But then the industry started moving overseas in search of less regulated, cheaper labor. Now, alarm over chemical safety, carbon emissions, and water usage in chip making is coming back. As the industry returns—often to states without a long history of regulating chip chemicals—it will be important to pick up where twentieth-century activists left off and fight for greater transparency and safety.

2. Fight inequality

Chip making has a long history of racial and gender inequality. Women, immigrants, and people of color in the industry have experienced harassment and have often faced the most extreme chemical hazards for the lowest pay.

In 1984, Michael Eisenscher, an organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union, wrote a report on the state of Silicon Valley’s rising electronics industry using state, federal, and industry data. The report noted unusually high workplace illness rates among electronics manufacturing workers, who were disproportionately people of color. Women tended to work in either these production roles or clerical positions that were similarly underpaid. Managers and engineers, who made more money for generally safer work, were disproportionately white and male.

This history of gender and racial inequality in the industry has not gone away. Compared to nationwide data from 1990, female, Black, and Hispanic workers today are even further underrepresented in the industry’s workforce and overrepresented in its lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, according to CHIPS Communities United, a new coalition of community organizations and labor unions seeking a more just chips industry.

3. Unionize

To the people experiencing these problems, unions were appealing. If workers had decision-making power over their working conditions, they could preempt chemical hazards and discrimination. But in the late twentieth century, unions were on the decline in the US and the chip industry was vehemently opposing workers’ attempts to organize.

That may be changing. The labor movement is on the rise and union-busting is a harder sell these days. The time might be ripe for unionizing the chip industry, and workplace democracy might be essential for avoiding the problems of the past.

4. Prioritize people and the environment

The chip industry is driven by visions of infinite growth. Moore’s Law, a famous standard for the industry, calls for persistent, exponential increases in the number of transistors on each chip. Meanwhile, our capitalist economy demands that semiconductor corporations’ financial reports display ever-increasing profits.

Making computers equitably and sustainably will require a fundamental shift in these priorities. In 1999, the Trans-Atlantic Network for Clean Production reframed Moore’s Law and called for exponentially increasing environmental and social justice benefits. At an international meeting, these computer activists agreed upon a new principle for the industry: “Each new generation of technical improvements in electronic products should include parallel and proportional improvements in environmental, health and safety as well as social justice attributes.”

As the chip making industry is being revitalized in the US with hundreds of billions of dollars in public funding, it is time to start taking these ideas seriously and focus on the public good. Advancements in digital technology should not come at the cost of people and the environment.

Adam Quinn, a PhD candidate in history, is writing a dissertation on the environmental and labor history of computers. He is a dissertation fellow with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Center for Environmental Futures, and the Just Futures Institute.

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