When protesters took over Fairchild’s fab on the Navajo reservation

Publication:       SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

Headline:          WHAT WENT WRONG AT SHIPROCK

THE FAIRCHILD PLANT PROMISED A BETTER FUTURE FOR THE NAVAJOS. BUT THAT PROMISE WAS NEVER FULFILLED.

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Web Headline:

Reporter:          By Mike Cassidy

Day:     Sunday

Print Run Date:             5/7/2000

Section:            SV

Edition:             Morning Final

Page Number: 18

Section Letter:

Memo:             MIKE CASSIDY is a Mercury News staff writer.

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Dateline:

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Text:     OUT ON U.S. 666, past the center of Shiprock, N.M., and across from Navajo Nation Day Care, sits a white monument to lost opportunity.

They call it the Fairchild plant, which it hasn’t been in 25 years. The semiconductor factory is empty now, a symbol of what might have been if only everything had worked out.

 

But everything didn’t, and Fairchild, the Silicon Valley icon, left the Navajo reservation in a hurry.

 

In Shiprock, the math didn’t take long: Promise dashed. Progress gone.

“Overnight we lost everything, ” says Wallace Charley, 50, a Navajo tribal council member, who remembers well. “It was happiness one day, complete sadness the next day.”

 

On a morning in February 1975, 20 armed protesters led by the American Indian Movement took the plant. They said they wanted better conditions inside the plant and better lives outside on the reservation. They surrendered after eight days, but it was too late. Fairchild had had enough. It shut the place for good.

 

It’s hard to imagine today. The technology Fairchild developed helped launch the PC revolution, which begot the commercial Internet, which begot everything else.

 

E-commerce. Silicon Valley. Top of the world.

 

It’s easy to be dazzled by high tech’s golden touch–not so easy to look at the colonies bypassed by the New Economy. The lost colonies stand as reminders that there is more at stake than the next IPO or the next patent pending.

 

You could start many places–San Jose’s poor neighborhoods, rural America, the Third World. Or you could start on the sprawling Navajo reservation, a pocket of U.S. poverty as deep as any.

 

I found myself standing outside the Shiprock plant on the 25th anniversary of the sixth day of the eight-day siege. Curiosity brought me here, as it would to a Civil War battlefield or DealeyPlaza in Dallas. I wanted to see where history made a turn. It was quiet and cold.

 

The old plant rises like a tomb against the desolate beauty of sandstone mesas and snow-capped mountains—vacant, surrounded by chain link and concertina wire. Weeds thrive in the parking lot. The flag pole stands naked. The gates are padlocked.

 

One look and you know it has a story to tell.

 

In the end, it’s a story about dreams destroyed. But it’s more complicated. It’s also a tale of a corporation that saw a chance to do good for itself and maybe for people in poverty; a tale of an Indian rights movement full of righteous fury, finding its way and looking for a big stage on which to make its point; a tale of an Indian town wondering what might have been.

 

It all started with Fairchild Semiconductor, the legendary company that sits atop the Silicon Valley genealogy, above scores of companies started by Fairchild alumni. The Fairchild that sparked a revolution with the integrated circuit it developed in Palo Alto.

 

The innovation was thrilling, all right. But Fairchild was a business, and those running it knew that success depended on cheap labor.

 

Fairchild looked to Maine, Mexico, Asia, and to another foreign country: the Navajo Nation, a reservation the size of West Virginia that spreads across three states.

 

Fairchild landed on the reservation in 1965. Managers set up a line to assemble transistors in the town’s community gymnasium. Everyone waited for the Navajo-owned plant to be built.

 

It was what business people call a win-win. The Navajo Nation provided the factory. The federal government provided generous wage subsidies. And Fairchild provided jobs and eventually housing for the Navajos.

 

The Shiprock plant opened in 1969. Julie and David Eisenhower spoke at its dedication. “Navajos In Space Age, ” the Albuquerque Journal cheered.

 

At its height, the plant provided work for more than 1,000 Navajos, most of them women. Fairchild became the largest industrial employer in New Mexico and the largest employer of Indians in the country.

 

Within a year, Business Week honored plant manager Paul Driscoll with a corporate citizenship award for his cultural sensitivity.

 

“There were so many of us that worked so hard to prove that these people were no different than anybody else, ” says Driscoll, 69, who was in Shiprock from 1967 to 1973. “It was something that no matter what happened, there was a part of me in there.”

 

Within three years, Vice President Spiro Agnew hosted a Washington, D.C. summit at which Fairchild representatives met with other business leaders to explain how to bring industry to reservations.

 

Days of rage

 

“Then, ” says Fred Hoar, Fairchild’s top PR man at the time, “the whole thing blew up.”

 

The days of Fairchild on the reservation were different days. The country was at war with itself. It was a time when people looked beyond themselves, a time when people fought in the streets for dignity and justice.

 

During the decade Fairchild churned out chips at Shiprock, this was America: Watts, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, inner-city riots nationwide, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the 1968 Democratic Convention, Black Panther Fred Hampton’s killing in a police raid, the Anti-War Movement’s march on Washington, the killings at KentState, the American Indian Movement’s taking of Alcatraz, its stand-off at Wounded Knee.

 

“Young Indian people, you might say, were on the war path, ” says Larry Anderson, 53, a Navajo who led the factory takeover. “A lot of them were starting to re-educate themselves about their identities as Indians.” By the summer of 1974, Anderson says, there was talk about poor pay, long hours and disrespect for workers at the Fairchild plant.

 

Then came the layoffs.

 

Recession was killing the semiconductor industry in 1974. Fairchild had had several rounds of layoffs worldwide. In February 1975, it put another 140 Navajos out of work, leaving fewer than 500 workers at Shiprock.

 

Indian activists met with some Fairchild workers, says Anderson, who had returned to the reservation after a tour in Vietnam.

 

“And most of the workers agreed that we should do something about Fairchild.”

 

History is tricky. Memories fade. Revisions are made. Some on the reservation say Fairchild was simply a high-profile target for rage over generations of indignities. The protesters, they say, were looking for a way to fight the white establishment in general.

 

“They were anti-white-man, so to speak, ” says Carl Todacheene, 74, Shiprock’s tribal representative from 1963 to 1975. “They were ready recruits for this type of thing.”

 

Whatever the exact spark, everyone agrees on what happened next.

 

In the dark before dawn on Feb. 24, 1975, Anderson and another AIM member walked up to the doors of the Fairchild plant and told the guard they had car trouble. The guard let them in and they grabbed him. Anderson let another 18 protesters into the plant. They took a second guard hostage and declared the plant theirs.

 

When the sun rose, the protesters let the guards go. But more protesters arrived at the plant. They grew to a force of four or five dozen. They pulled out guns and a list of demands.

 

“The takeover took place swiftly, unbeknownst to us, and shockingly” says Hoar, who went on to work for Apple and is now chairman of Miller Shandwick Technologies.

 

Fairchild didn’t see it coming, which is the way it sometimes is when people are living such different lives.

 

The protesters, none of whom worked at Fairchild, demanded better pay and working conditions on behalf of those who did. They said workers wanted more of a say in how the plant was run.

 

Daisy Harrison of Shiprock remembers going to see what the fuss was about and wondering where those holding the plant had heard it was such a bad place to work.

 

“I don’t know what their issues were, ” says Harrison, 61, who by 1975 was a supervisor at the plant. “They didn’t really make it clear.”

 

Harrison says most of the plant’s management was Navajo. She says she was well paid and proud of her position. If there were widespread complaints, she never heard them.

 

But she reflects the ambivalence born of the frustration of the time.

 

“In a way, I’m glad we could scare them, ” she says of Fairchild. It sent a message to others that Indians wouldn’t be pushed around.

 

Setback

 

In fact, the protesters in the plant presented complaints beyond any wrongs Fairchild might have committed and demands beyond any improvements Fairchild could have made.

 

Yes, they wanted 140 laid-off Navajos rehired. But they also wanted fair hiring at a regional utility and better health care on the reservation.

 

Anderson, who had joined the Wounded Knee stand-off nearly two years earlier, and the others said they were ready to die for the cause. They settled in for the long haul.

 

The American Indian Movement held Alcatraz for 19 months. It stood against federal agents for 71 days at Wounded Knee, where bullets killed two protesters and paralyzed a marshal.

 

Outside the Shiprock plant, Indians from across the country set up a camp as a show of support. The crowd grew to 600, according to news accounts.

 

Armed officers patrolled outside. Anderson posted gunmen on the factory roof.

 

“We don’t want to stand here with guns, ” Lorenzo Levaldo, another movement member, told reporters at the time. “But this is the only way the white man will pay attention.”

 

Talks among Anderson, the tribal government and Fairchild quickly went nowhere.

 

On the third day, Hoar issued a statement: Fairchild was done talking. Unless protesters left within four days, the company would close the plant for good.

 

With jobs at stake, support for the protesters waned. Workers from the plant began to call for surrender. The talks bumped along. The tribal government agreed to look into the issues raised by the protesters. It promised that none of them would be arrested.

 

On March 3, 1975, about a week after the siege began and hours after Fairchild’s deadline passed, Anderson led the protesters out.

 

“When we left, ” says Anderson, “we were welcomed by hundreds of people that were outside. They all cheered.”

 

Nine days later, Fairchild made good on its threat and closed the plant. Wilf Corrigan, then Fairchild president and now LSI Logic CEO, said the company couldn’t be sure the same sort of raid would not happen again.

 

Many of the 473 workers turned to welfare. Business leaders declared industrialization on the reservation dead.

 

“I wouldn’t give you 10 cents for every lease on the reservation, ” one banker told Business Week.

 

Things haven’t changed much for Shiprock since Fairchild first arrived. The town still serves as an example for the White House. President Clinton last month stood outside the gymnasium where Fairchild first assembled chips and declared the reservation on the wrong side of the digital divide. He apologized for generations of broken promises by the federal government. Today, three-quarters of the homes on the reservation lack phone service. Many have no electricity or no running water. Half the Navajo Nation’s 200,000 residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment is nearly 50 percent.

 

Plant manager Driscoll says he’s still heartbroken. Fairchild could have led the way to prosperity on the reservation. But hope died when the plant died.

 

“I knew, ” he says, “it was going to set back industrialization 50 or 100 years, or more.”

 

AIM leader Anderson, now a high school counselor on the reservation, says he still hears the industrialization argument, but it’s beside the point.

 

“I’ll never have regret for what I did, ” says Anderson, who lives in an Arizona town called FortDefiance. “I was finding a new way of protecting my people.”

 

A month after the takeover, a glass products manufacturer said it would bypass New Mexico and cited the occupation as the reason. Then Hewlett-Packard pulled the plug on its pilot plant on the southern edge of the reservation. Other companies passed up the Navajo Nation with less fanfare.

 

“To this day, we haven’t been successful, ” says tribal leader Charley, who supported the Fairchild protesters, but did not join them. “When the issue of that building comes up, they always mention what happened.”

 

Two manufacturers tried to reopen the plant and failed quickly. Mechanical Specialties Inc. lasted only a matter of months in 1988. And Navtech Industries started making electronic parts in 1995, but shut down within two years.

 

Latest word is the old factory will open again this summer as an Ace Hardware store. Total employees: 30.

 

Anderson wonders whether the building might serve a higher purpose.

 

“It might, ” he says, “just go down as a historical landmark.”

 

If it ever does, I can almost see the simple plaque out front. It would bear just two words:

 

Damn shame.

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Politics, Silicon Valley Business, Silicon Valley History

One response to “When protesters took over Fairchild’s fab on the Navajo reservation

  1. Pingback: Russell Means’ all-but-forgotten Silicon Valley connection | SiliconBeat

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