26 February 2005

Fairchild Takeover

Thirty years ago in Navajoland...


Former Activist Reflects On Fairchild Takeover

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK - It began in the early morning hours on a Sunday morning 30 years ago this month and although it would last less than a week, its aftereffects would linger on the Navajo Reservation for decades.

The takeover of the Fairchild Semiconductor plant in Shiprock by members of the American Indian Movement was something that would affect hundreds of Navajo families for years. Approximately 400 Navajos worked there.

Larry Anderson Sr., now a member of the Navajo Nation Council representing Fort Defiance, was there from the beginning until the end of the siege.

The incident began about a month before AIM members occupied the building, he said.

He was called to a meeting of plant workers who complained about low pay, sexual harassment, and the Maine-based company's refusal to promote Navajos into the higher-paying management positions.

Violations of human rights (sub)

"They were talking about violations of human rights and not being happy about the way they were being treated," said Anderson, who at that time was a treasurer for the national AIM organization.

The employees had been talking to the Navajo government for months and not getting anywhere so they decided to call in AIM to see what they could do.

Fairchild made electronic assembly parts and employed hundreds of Navajos under a federal program that paid half of their salaries during the training period.

But many of the workers claimed the company was exploiting them and the federal government. They said once their training period was over and they went on the Fairchild payroll, the company would fire people for the slightest infraction and replace them with a new trainee whose salary was 50 percent paid by the federal subsidy.

Anderson contacted AIM leaders like John Trudell and the group decided to take over the plant.

About 15 mostly non-Navajo activists crept into the plant around 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

When asked why more Navajos didn't participate in the actual takeover, Anderson said many were afraid to lose their jobs and maybe their lives. So they relied on non-Navajos, many of whom had been involved in takeovers like this in other areas of the country.

Guards lay down weapons (sub)

The siege began peacefully, Anderson said.

Plant guards laid down their weapons and asked for permission to leave, which was granted. Anderson and the others took over the building.

By daybreak hundreds of Navajos congregated outside the plant looking at the AIM members, armed with rifles, patrolling the roof and outskirts of the plant.

It was an impressive show, but Anderson said many of those holding rifles weren't used to weapons so AIM leaders had them keep their rifles unloaded. Ammunition was kept at hand, however, in case the National Guard or law enforcement officials made an attempt to take back the plant by force.

That never happened. The takeover would remain peaceful and no one was injured.

By Tuesday, Trudell was on the scene and Navajo workers as well as residents of Shiprock were still camped outside the plant in a show of support.

Throughout the six-day protest, plant management as well as top-ranking officials for Fairchild stayed away.

Moving overseas (sub)

What Anderson and AIM didn't know was that Fairchild officials already were discussing plans to close the Shiprock plant and move the operation overseas where they could pay workers as little as a couple of dollars a day.

Fairchild couldn't implement the plan directly because it had a lease with the tribe, and a breach-of-contract lawsuit could have cost the company big bucks. The AIM takeover, however, provided an excuse to say the lease was broken.

While Fairchild officials waited quietly for events to play into their hands, then-tribal chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. tried to mediate the dispute.

On Wednesday, the fourth day of the siege, Samuel Pete, MacDonald's chief of staff, phoned the plant and asked Anderson if he would meet with MacDonald. Anderson agreed so early Thursday morning a tribal vehicle came to the Fairchild gates and picked up Anderson and a couple of the other AIM leaders.

Back in Window Rock, MacDonald was trying to figure out a way to end the takeover for fear it would escalate into violence.

In meetings with the press earlier in the week, he had agreed that the workers had valid concerns but said taking over the plant was not the way to go.

By Thursday, MacDonald's legal advisers had told him of the possibility that Fairchild would not reopen the plant. He was also told that the takeover would put a major damper on future tribal efforts to get other companies to set up plants on the reservation.

So MacDonald wanted a way to end the standoff without coming down hard on the workers.

Anderson said he and MacDonald met and he talked to MacDonald about the workers' concerns, MacDonald told Anderson he needed to talk to members of the council's Advisory Committee who were meeting that day across the street.

Workers end standoff (sub)

Anderson told committee members why the takeover had taken place and the concerns of the workers. The committee asked him to leave the plant.

"I told them that it was the workers who asked us to get involved and we would be there until the workers asked us to leave," Anderson said.

He went back to the plant and tribal officials met with plant workers to urge them to allow the tribal government a chance to get their concerns addressed.

Finally, early Saturday the workers agreed with the tribe and asked AIM to end its occupation of the plant. Anderson and the others left later in the day without incident, turning the plant over to law enforcement authorities.

"When we walked out, we had a big pep rally," Anderson said.

Everyone waited to see what would happen next.

Fairchild, as feared, used the pretext to declare the lease broken, abandoned the building, and moved the jobs overseas.

MacDonald deployed tribal labor officials to Shiprock to help Fairchild employees file for unemployment benefits and to encourage the ex-workers to get training so they could find other jobs.

But there were no other jobs to be had. And although tribal officials said they were trying to find someone else to use the plant and create jobs, almost 25 years passed before someone moved into the plant on a permanent basis.

For decades, Navajo officials used the Fairchild takeover to explain why no major employers have set up operations on the reservation but Anderson said he feels this was just the tribe trying to lay the blame on AIM for its own inability to address economic development concerns.

"There was no real economic development going on before the takeover so how can you blame the takeover for the fact that there was none afterwards?" Anderson said.

Today, the effects of the long-ago incident are over.

Pat Sandoval, chief of staff for President Joe Shirley Jr., said the Fairchild takeover has no effect today on companies coming to the reservation.

The problem now is the red tape that is required for a new business to open on the Navajo Reservation, he said.


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