A "Quality" American Job: When Carly Fiorina Was My Boss

A "Quality" American Job: When Carly Fiorina Was My Boss

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I used to temp for GOP California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. It was 1999 and she was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard; I was putting together laserjet printers in one of HP’s San Jose assembly plants. I don’t remember her ever coming to our plant, but watching her now run on a platform of being a creator of "quality" jobs, makes me wish she had stepped inside our factory. If she had, she would have seen that sub-livable wages, no health benefits and no job security do not match many workers' definition of quality “jobs for Americans.”

I, along with every one of the roughly 300 co-workers on my shift who were not in a supervisory position, was placed at HP through Manpower Inc., the nation’s largest temporary agency. We were the last leg of a global assembly line, putting the final touches and packaging on HP printers before they were shipped to stores.

Subcontracting out our jobs allowed HP to pay less for the same amount and quality of work, while also creating a buffer from responsibility when issues arose with employees. At the plant where I worked, workers made $8.00 an hour in the heart of Silicon Valley—one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Most people think of Nike and far-off Asian countries when imagining the impact of subcontracted labor, but Silicon Valley’s high-tech sector embraced the model here at home. All the tech giants that have come to define Silicon Valley’s lore—Intel, IBM, Cisco—relied on temp workers for their success. HP, under Fiorina’s leadership, was no exception.

If Fiorina had come to my plant, I wish she had done so secretly, like on CBS’s TV show “Undercover Boss,” where the CEO works the jobs of their employees without revealing his or her identity. If Fiorina had done that, she would have seen the real-life impact that her business model was having on the people who were helping HP achieve record profits.

Starting work at 6 a.m., she would never have actually seen an HP employee who worked in the front offices—not from the bustling factory floor, where workers were appendages to conveyer belts. She would have greeted her co-workers—many of them groggy-eyed after a three-hour commute from Central Valley towns because they couldn’t afford to live in the Silicon Valley they were helping to build— then put on her smock while rushing to her station as the supervisor barked at her to hurry up. For the next eight hours she'd have worked as fast and as hard as possible, knowing that she was expendable as she watched new hires train for her job. She would have put all her attention on trying to earn her way back to work the next day.

At lunch break, she would have seen people from Mexico, India, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and San Jose neighborhoods sharing food and classified ads. All of them initially had believed that the temp job would be their entree to the promise of Silicon Valley prosperity. She would have seen others taking short naps, resigned ito their fates—they were the veteran permanent “temp” workers who had worked at HP for years, with no pay raise or ability to move up.

Fiorina would have left work exhausted, and like the older workers, once she got home, perhaps she would have soaked her hands and feet in hot water to ease the aches and pains from long hours standing on the job or doing repetitive work.

Plenty of people would even have argued that as a temporary worker, Fiorina technically did not work for HP, despite putting together thousands of the company’s printers in a single day. But that, of course, is the point. Fom the business perspective, distance from accountability is the unspoken benefit of subcontracting labor.

I doubt these are the job standards Californians imagine when they hear Fiorina touting her “Jobs for America Plan.” In this campaign proposal, Fiorina correctly argues that California’s economic crisis goes beyond the unemployment rate. She points out that per capita income is decreasing and home foreclosures are at a record high.

The problem, though, is that if she represents California anything like she ran HP, we won’t see these issues get resolved. If anything, they may get worse.

I don’t blame Fiorina for what I witnessed on the assembly line at HP, at least not completely. The only way she would have known my colleagues and I was through numbers on spreadsheets, seeing only an efficient and inexpensive workforce. She was just like any other Silicon Valley CEO— who, despite the popular conception of being enlightened new economy corporate leaders, are just like CEOs in any other industry, for better or worse.

During her tenure at HP from 1999-2005, Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers and outsourced jobs after overseeing a contentious merger with Compaq Computers. She was eventually ousted after a struggle with the company’s heirs and board members over the merger.

So, when Fiorina draws upon her experience in the business sector to talk about “quality jobs” in America, it is important to question what exactly is an “American job?” With the economy so bleak, some people take the position that bad is better than nothing, and that if a job is within the United States, then it is an American job.

But if we're talking about an employment vision for the United States, perhaps our dialogue with candidates for office needs to be more multi-dimensional, one in which we advocate not only for jobs, but for livable wages, health benefits, and some semblance of job security. That may be something that extends beyond the vantage point of the CEO’s chair.