The SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) is a sixteen year old multi-racial, statewide grassroots membership organization in New Mexico. SWOP's mission is to empower the disenfranchised in the Southwest to realize racial and gender equality, and social and economic justice. Our work focuses on increasing citizen participation and building leadership skills in low-income communities composed predominantly of people of color, so that we may play greater roles in public and corporate decision making which affects our lives and determines our future. Current SWOP direct organizing efforts in New Mexico are working to promote accountability among industries, the military, and governments at all levels on a range of environmental and economic justice issues, and to facilitate the development of the kind of grassroots organization our communities need to exercise greater control over industrial, commercial and residential development. This work takes place throughout the state of New Mexico and includes activitie
s ranging from neighborhood organizing to statewide campaigns involving both individuals, communities and broad coalitions.
In the past twenty years, the Albuquerque metropolitan area has become a major international production center for the electronics industry. New Mexico state agencies and local governments offer high tech companies cheap labor, relaxed environmental regulation, massive tax subsidies, and low-cost infrastructure and natural resources. Major manufacturers in the Albuquerque area include Philips, Sumitomo Sitex and Silmax, Motorola, Sparten, Honeywell and Intel. Several have semiconductor (microchip) fabrication plants ("FABs" or semiconductor factories) in the area. Intel FABs employ over 5500 people and together comprise one of the largest semiconductor manufacturing centers in the world. The Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories has conducted chip research and development work here as well.
The industry uses the promise of jobs to an impoverished state to its fullest advantage. Electronics components have a product life span of three years or less. State and local governments shower companies with public subsidies, but ignore market realities which cause the rapid downfall of major producers. As markets expand and contract, workers routinely move from one plant to another, and large numbers of personnel are imported by companies into the state -- including managers and engineers, and even technical and production workers (as few as one-third of 2500 Intel hires at its new FAB have lived in New Mexico for more than a year). The ups and downs of the industry hit a production center like Albuquerque the hardest. GTE closed and moved on in the mid-1980s, and Digital followed suit in 1994. Meanwhile, Intel is riding high, with up to 70% of its corporate-wide profits earned at its Rio Rancho facilities alone.
High tech is heralded as a panacea to New Mexico's high levels of poverty and its economic dependence on the federal government. However, the actual and potential short and long term costs of the industry raise many questions. Number one is who pays, and who benefits, from this kind of development?
Local governments such as the City of Rio Rancho and Sandoval County grant hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to a company like Intel, and then cannot fund basic services, education and infrastructure necessitated by industry-related growth.
Industry water use threatens both traditional agricultural water users and rural culture, as well as the fragile desert ecosystem. Intel projects use of over 6 million gallons of water per day by 1999, and is attempting to buy out agricultural users to help meet its demand.
Electronics manufacturing results in emissions of solvents and other chemicals into the atmosphere. Intel is permitted to emit 350 times the amount of chemicals which it is allowed in California. Yet Intel is attempting to change its air permit in a way which will further limit the rights of citizens to know what chemicals it uses and their emission levels.
Water contamination is a legacy of the industry here. GTE contaminated the soil at its former site. The state is investigating the possibility of groundwater contamination. Singer likewise left contaminated groundwater when it sold out to Digital in the early 1980s. Sparten is responsible for the worst groundwater contamination problem in the Albuquerque area, having polluted an aquifer with TCE and other chemicals.
Elected officials and civic leaders know very little about the industry, but routinely make major economic development policy decisions with huge implications for environmental and economic security of communities and workers.
In spite of its "clean industry" label, high tech can expose production workers to an array of deadly chemical solvents and gases. Electronics manufacturing is similar to photo processing. Films of heavy metals and other potentially dangerous materials are repeatedly laid down on circuit board surfaces or semiconductors (chip wafers), and then etched with acids and solvents. The resulting circuits are then fixed with additional chemicals.
More of this work is done by machines than ever before, but even machine work can involve exposure to airborne chemicals. The lowest-paying and potentially dirtiest jobs are given to workers of color, especially women. Furthermore, the industry changes its chemicals rapidly. Glycol ethers were once considered "safe" for use as solvents in semiconductor processing. Then studies showed that they caused serious health problems for pregnant women and women of child-bearing age -- but only after they had been in use for several years. Manufacturers are interested in making money. New chemicals are introduced into production first. Studies are done later, and usually only after someone raises concerns. This is especially true with women's health issues, which are least understood and last to be addressed.
Hundreds of workers -- most of them women -- became ill after working at GTE's former Lenkurt circuit board plant during the 1970s and 80s. At least 25 former GTE workers have died, 75 have cancer, and 75 are disabled due to central nervous system damage and other ills attributed to their exposure.
Many workers do have questions about the safety and environmental integrity of their workplace. But they need their jobs in order to survive. Though low-paying by industry standards, New Mexico high tech jobs tend to pay more than other sectors of employment.
Worker exposure often results in cumulative rather than acute health problems. Symptoms may not arise until long after exposure begins -- and long after the worker has switched to another employer.
Worker exposure can affect the entire family. Children can be exposed to chemicals carried home in their parent's clothes. Medical care is expensive, especially for women who are misdiagnosed and often told that their problems are psychological or unrelated to exposure. Chemical poisoning can result in a depressed sex drive, the inability to reproduce, in memory lapses, mental disorientation, and other things which can wreak havoc on familial relationships as well as an individual's ability to function in everyday life.
In an industry which is 100% non-union, workers rarely speak out about health and safety concerns for fear of being fired or blacklisted.
Government agencies such as the NM Occupational Health and Safety Bureau are unable to enforce workplace safety and health standards and laws, and are often under political pressure to avoid publicizing electronics industry spills and accidents. The OHSB has only a dozen inspectors for thousands of workplaces throughout New Mexico.
- Intel Inside New Mexico: A Case Study of Environmental and Economic Injustice, SWOP, 1995
- Community Environmental
Bill of Rights, SWOP
- Interview with SWOP Director Jeanne Gauna and testimony from New Mexico electronics workers
SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP)
211 10th Street, SW
Albuquerque, NM 87102
Tel: (505) 247-8832
Fax: (505) 247-9972
- 100 Climate Justice Initiative
- 192 Technology & Telecommunications