Vermonters In the Clean Room

GlobalFoundries imposes a 7-7 schedule for their workers, the same schedule that Winooski Woolen Mill workers abided by until the mill closed in 1954, costing 1,900 people their jobs. Three years later the IBM plant opened seven miles upstream on the Winooski. They hired just under 500 employees, “the 500 farmers from Vermont,” who sold their own eggs and homemade bread at work. By 2001, 8,500 people worked for IBM Burlington, making it the largest non-governmental employer in Vermont. Recently, the number has been more than halved, concluding in IBM paying the Saudi semiconductor manufacturer GlobalFoundries, in a sort of reverse outsourcing, 1.5 billion to take over their aging chip manufacturing division.

The campus is built on 725 acres to do microscopic work. Orchestrated tasks, minute and repetitive, accumulate over a month’s time to birth a chip, actually a series of microchips on an iridescent wafer. The actuality of a microchip is protected from human perception by its smallness and ability to integrate into a network with dizzying results. What is this “piece” which we are making, yet fundamentally apart from? The chip becomes a paycheck, an alarm clock, a clean room uniform, a missile, an iPhone, a malfunctioning waste material. It is its surroundings, its situation, its application.

To manufacture the chip humans are wrapped in synthetic material and scrubbed of all makeup and food particulate between teeth. It is not a symbiotic relationship, but rather an input removed from human function and a product, when rightly made, that is impossibly small, efficient and obedient.

First, enter the garment room through large glass doors. Insert one shoe at a time into twin electric spinning brushes like a miniature car wash. Put on a hairnet. Rinse out your mouth at a line of sinks, then wash your hands and dry them completely. The salt and oil on human fingertips are corrosive materials in chip manufacturing. Plastic gloves come in four sizes. A veil on an elastic string is bent over the bridge of the nose. Find a hood, one-piece suit, and booties in your size. Put them on in the correct order. Check your appearance in the mirror. Make sure your eyes are all that is corporeally present.

Inside the fabrication plant people walk slowly, rationing out their movements over a twelve-hour shift. A person’s age is discernible from far away by the labor of each step, or the angularity the body has taken on in its movements. A smudge of pink is visible from behind the veil, where the worker’s rinsed out mouth rests. The veil-hood-hairnet coverage creates many revisions to the human face, fostering wildly wrong assumptions about someone’s nose or chin, or more likely, workers never bother to make any at all and allow others to remain physically abstracted.

Circular mirrors hang around corners and blind spots; people grow in them as impersonal white aberrations, bouncing from mirror to mirror around every turn.

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An ID is required to get into the bathroom because of graffiti. Penis cave art in blue ink embellishes the sign. Mounds of human feces are smeared onto metallic divides between bathroom stalls, then more cruelly onto white tile and little divots in the grout, a counterattack by the janitorial staff. The consequence of a plant run on shifts is that every shift believes they are pulling more weight than the last. In 1997 eighteen-year-old janitor, Jonathan Nielsen, called the local police with a bomb threat to IBM. The plant, which operates 24 hours a day, was forced to close, losing an estimated one million dollars. Nielsen stated, it was “time to get even.”

IBM used to give out turkeys to their employees for Thanksgiving. Father and son workers got special monogrammed luggage, kids were given Tonka trucks for Christmas. There were summertime barbeques, promotions, IBM Day at the fair, bragging rights that just evaporated, or slowly eroded over time. Even before the GlobalFoundries buyout, what remained was a few dollars over minimum wage with the possibility of overtime.

In manufacturing we have the material world that technology is so eager to shed, here are the thousands of workers who deal in Copper and Silicon, and here is the work of Vermonters disappearing into compact devices and satellites thrust into space, K-kups, tubes of lipstick, ballistics, prescription drugs, industrial molds, bottled soda, and sausage links. Ours is an economy that relies on a place and its people but has no real allegiance to it. The question remains, how are Vermonters making do as they supply the needs of our country measured in gallons of milk and millions of microchips?

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