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To ‘Win the Future,’ the U.S. Needs a Semiconductor Industry That Learns From the Past

8 minute read

The CHIPS and Science Act, which Congress enacted in 2022, promised $280 billion in funding to reverse a decline in U.S. semiconductor manufacturing (the nation went from producing 37% of the global supply of semiconductors in 1990 to just 10% in 2022). The White House hoped the legislation would make it possible for U.S. workers and communities to “win the future,” through domestic, high-tech economic development. Just as they hoped, the new law ignited a race to build government-subsidized semiconductor factories (“fabs”) on U.S. soil.

Yet, it's not all good. The rushed process has been rife with construction site injuries, safety concerns, and union avoidance. The semiconductor industry is also taking a toll on the environment. In 2022, semiconductor manufacturing comprised 11% of the U.S.’s non-domestic water usage even though production in the U.S. was low, and it generated massive volumes of greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous waste. These health, safety, and environmental problems raise doubts about whether the U.S. has learned from the industry’s history. When the U.S. was a global leader in semiconductor production, the industry was wracked with occupational hazards, environmental injustices, and union-busting. As the Biden Administration pushes to rebuild the industry, it can learn from this history to ensure that what emerges is better for workers and the environment than the industry of the 1970s to 1990s.  

Public memory usually credits the rise of American computing to inventive executives in their labs and garages. Yet this mythology ignores how the industry’s rapid growth from the 1960s to the 1990s also relied on factory workers who produced crucial components. Their contributions came at great risk to their health. Computer chip production was a chemically intensive process, and required using caustic, understudied solvents to purify and process chip materials. Chemicals used in chip making like trichloroethane (TCE), ethylene-based glycol ethers, and 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA) were linked to maladies including chemical sensitivity, miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer.

Companies rarely let workers know about these hazards in the industry’s early years, but many could tell chemicals were toxic from firsthand experience. For example, when Pat Lamborn worked on the National Semiconductor production line in the 1970s, she was never told about any hazards of chemicals she worked with, including TCA. But when she experienced severe acne, her doctor told her it was chemically-induced chloracne.

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When Lamborn first got her job at National Semiconductor, she had sought to unionize the workplace. Encountering barriers while personally experiencing surprising health effects from her chemically-intensive work, she instead joined the recently-growing occupational health movement. In 1978, Lamborn, lawyer Amanda Hawes, and industrial hygienist Robin Baker founded the Project on Health and Safety in Electronics (PHASE) to educate workers on the risks of semiconductor production. The next year they also launched the Electronics Committee on Safety and Health (ECOSH), which focused on organizing. Both organizations eventually became part of the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, or (SCCOSH).

These new groups aimed to address widespread health problems in the growing electronics industry. In 1978, electronics manufacturers in California had over four times the state’s average rate of occupationally related illness. 

PHASE and ECOSH researched the chemicals used in the industry, reached out to workers with a hotline and home visits, and provided them with health, legal, and labor organizing resources. After talking with hundreds of workers about their concerns, they developed a campaign to ban TCE, a common solvent used to produce chips that had already been linked to liver cancer and brain, kidney, and heart damage. The industry fought back, with the pioneering manufacturer Fairchild Semiconductor claiming that such a ban would be based on inadequate research and therefore premature. Nonetheless, by the early 1980s, the activist groups' campaign succeeded in massively reducing the legal limit of TCE usable in California.

In addition to limiting the use of TCE in California, occupational health groups worked in coalitions alongside labor unions at the federal, state, and local levels to secure workers’ right to know about the chemicals they worked with. These efforts produced a range of new policies, from local ordinances in Silicon Valley to a new federal OSHA standard, that dramatically increased transparency around workplace chemicals.

Evidence was also starting to emerge that the chemicals involved in electronics manufacturing could pose risks to surrounding communities—something that drew far more attention than potential danger for employees. In the early 1980s, local residents in South San Jose began to notice unusually high rates of miscarriages and birth defects. They suspected the cause might be toxins in their water, because a spill of chemical solvents had recently spread 2,000 ft. from a nearby Fairchild Semiconductor fab. Research from county and state health officials soon bolstered their suspicions, revealing that residents in the polluted area experienced about twice as many miscarriages and three times as many birth defects as those in a nearby, uncontaminated control neighborhood (though it did not definitely state the cause).

In response to these environmental issues, SCCOSH joined diverse allies to launch the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which mounted a grassroots campaign to monitor, clean, and prevent the industry’s toxic waste. Their campaign shined a light on toxic spills and demanded cleanups. By 1984, Santa Clara County led the nation with 20 EPA Superfund cleanup sites, 16 of which stemmed from computer manufacturing. In 1986, Fairchild reached a multimillion dollar settlement with local residents in a case tied to the TCA spill (the company had also helped pay cleanup costs).  

Yet, while semiconductor workers’ awareness of chemical risks increased over time, the risks themselves did not simply disappear. Some chemical injuries were severe and unambiguous. For example, in 1986 Judy Ann Myer inhaled chloroethene vapors while trying to retrieve circuit boards from a four-foot-deep vat of solvent, passed out, and died in the vat.

Read More: The U.S. Releases New Plans In the Fight To Bring Chip-Making Back

Longer-term illnesses like cancer were more difficult to link to any particular chemical exposure, sometimes producing contentious legal battles. When 37-year-old Amy Romero, a former GTE Lenkurt semiconductor worker who was unemployed with pulmonary disease, cancer, and no health insurance, visited attorney Josephene Rohr in 1984, Rohr remarked that she seemed young to have cancer. Romero replied “Actually, all the women where I work have lost their uteruses.” In disbelief, Rohr began speaking to other employees at GTE Lenkurt, discovering dozens with ovarian, uterine, colon, skin, breast, brain, and thyroid cancers. This discovery led to the largest workplace illness case in New Mexico state history. Between 1984 and 1992, 225 workers sued GTE Lenkurt and its chemical suppliers. The companies denied responsibility for their ailments but settled three lawsuits for a total of $9 million. 

The coalitions of health, environmental, and labor organizers achieved many partial successes throughout the 1980s and 90s. However, they realized that more systemic changes would be necessary to avoid repeated problems. They demanded the industry only use chemicals that had been adequately tested and reallocate research funding so that chips would not only become exponentially more efficient over time, but also exponentially safer. They also called for a unionized industry with democratically-elected health and safety committees in semiconductor plants. This, they believed, would give workers tangible power over their own safety rather than making them resort to lawsuits after harm was already done. 

But these calls went for naught. The computer industry left its priorities and safety policies up to corporate managers, and it responded harshly to unionization efforts. At a time when union power was waning and employers were heavily exporting manufacturing jobs overseas, union drives in high-tech industries led to more firings and factory closures than union contracts.

Speaker Pelosi Holds Bill Enrollment For The CHIPS And Science Act
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), alongside House Democrats, signs the CHIPS For America Act during a bill enrollment ceremony outside the U.S. Capitol July 29, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer—Getty Images

But things might be ripe for change in 2024. The CHIPS Act incentivizes returning computer manufacturing to the U.S., the National Labor Relations Board is far less tolerant of actions like the firing of union organizers, and the labor movement is experiencing a renaissance.

Once again, environmental and labor organizations are pushing for a safer, more worker friendly semiconductor industry. A new coalition of over 50 organizations, including the United Auto Workers, Communications Workers of America, and the Sierra Club, is now demanding phasing out hazardous chemicals, respecting semiconductor workers’ right to organize a union, and negotiating with local communities to ensure new fabs support their needs. This coalition is insisting that the Biden administration act to “avoid the problems of the past.”

And their activism exposes the truth: for American workers and communities to truly “win the future” as the administration hopes, lawmakers, regulators, and employers will need to learn from the past to become safer and more sustainable. These goals are not just technical but social; they cannot be attained with more advanced technology alone. History shows that safety and sustainability will require a far more disruptive idea: a union-friendly, democratized tech industry.

Adam Quinn is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Oregon, where he is writing a dissertation on the environmental and labor history of computers. He is a dissertation fellow with the Just Futures Institute/Center for Environmental Futures/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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