Intel engineers, led by a Congressional hopeful, demand a union

After over a year of covert organizing, 350+ workers are seeking voluntary recognition.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Intel, which is both the biggest semiconductor company by revenue and the largest private employer in Oregon, is facing an apparent bid for unionization among its exhausted engineering workforce. In a press conference Wednesday afternoon led by current engineer and Congressional hopeful Matt West, he described the employment arrangement at Intel as being "expect it to be on call at all times."

"For too long, my fellow engineers have worked 80+ hour weeks, transitioning at a whim between day shift and night shifts as management demanded. We are on call all of the time, to the point where you need a manager's approval to be more than two hours away from the factory," West said standing in front of the aforementioned factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, flanked by colleagues and local labor leaders. "If you were called at 2am on a Saturday, and you're supposed to have off, and if you don't answer that phone within 30 minutes, they call your manager instead. And there are consequences."

According to a spokesperson for West, the organizing efforts have been ongoing for over a year, but have not been public before today. The engineering unit, which covers an estimated 350+ workers, is "the biggest unionization effort Intel has ever faced," the spokesperson wrote.

"I once worked more than 80 hours in a week for three months straight. I only had three days off, total, in that time," West said. "I broke down. Both my mind and my body suffered. And at that point, my doctor mandated that I take a two-week emergency medical leave to recover." Once he returned to work he says he "was placed on formal notice for not having warned my manager in advance about my emergency medical leave."

In addition to working long hours — longer hours than allowed by Oregon law, according to West's office — and being asked to be available at the drop of a hat, West further accused Intel of intentionally hiring from the pool of workers who were fresh out of college or graduate school in order to have leverage over them. All this, he said, was doubly felt by those engineers who were working via H1B Visas. "They feel trapped," West said, paraphrasing conversations he's had with colleagues, "They say they cannot raise these issues themselves out of fear of deportation for them and their families."

Beyond his own experiences, West read out a number of anonymous statements from his colleagues, which recounted similar issues. One claimed that on "most days I work 10 to 16 hours," while another stated they were told to "cover a 14-hour night, shift seven nights in a row." A third wrote that "there is no proper path to promotion for high performing engineers." (Transparency around pay and promotions is another issue the union is organizing around.)

West called on Intel to sign a neutrality agreement (in effect, saying the company would not interfere with organizing efforts, subject workers to anti-union messaging, engage in captive audience meetings or other familiar tactics) and asked the company to voluntarily recognize the union. While it's not clear what union the engineers intend to join — or if, like Amazon workers in Staten Island they intend to form their own from the ground up — West's spokesperson confirmed the Intel cohort have been in touch with the Communications Workers of America.

As mentioned, West is — outside of his job at Intel and organizing activities — on the ballot to run for the House of Representatives for Oregon's 6th district. That election takes place less than a week from today.

Engadget has reached out to Intel for comment and will update if we hear back.