A Series on Sustainable Planet, People + Prosperity
Labor Day noun : a day set aside for special recognition of working people
“I remember the dead bodies of people from mainland China washing up on our shores when I was a child in Hong Kong during the 1960s,” the Chinese man at the reception told me. “In 1967 or ’68 my father was so worried that we’d be overrun by refugees escaping the Cultural Revolution that he sent me to live in Taiwan.”
Various sources estimate that People’s Republic of China (PRC) government policies resulted in the deaths of 20 to 70 million people between the founding of the PRC in 1949 and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Most died from starvation but some died trying to swim to Hong Kong. During that era the PRC threw away a staggering amount of human value, at least partially in the name of hoped-for economic and social progress. It reallocated agricultural and other workers to backyard steel production during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 60s. In the second half of the 60s it forcibly displaced urban residents to rural regions for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, the PRC economy shrank during both those periods and people clamored to leave the country.
Many Hong Kongers come from mainland China. During the PRC’s worst turmoil, from 1950 to 1970, Hong Kong’s population grew at an annual average rate of more than 3%, twice as fast as the U.S. during the same time. In 1945 at the end of the Japanese occupation there were less than a million people in Hong Kong. Now there are more than 7 million.
Maybe because what drove so many Chinese families to HK was a desire to better their lives and perhaps because for most their arrival was so recent, people here work no matter what. Many jobs are not especially skilled nor well paid and income distribution is even more problematic here than it currently is in U.S. But almost everyone in HK can find work, or is able to make work, for themselves. Tiny individual and family endeavors that barely qualify as businesses are ubiquitous. For example, little old ladies collect and flatten used cardboard boxes. Then they rent them to be used as ground mats by the domestic helpers who congregate in Central on their Sunday holiday. Every housing “estate”, no matter how small, has at least one, and probably many more, concierges/security guards, cleaners/landscapers, or maintenance workers/jacks-of-all trades. Hong Kong’s steep topography and resulting byzantine system of slope drainage maintenance create the need for an army of laborers. The empty plastic bottles in the grass beside the sidewalk might not get picked up, but the leaves on the pavement will be swept away by handmade palm-frond brooms before they can clog the storm gutters.
Hong Kong’s current unemployment rate is only 3.3%. The situation in the U.S. is different. There unemployment is nearly twice as high, a problematic 6.1%, despite healthy corporate profits and cash holdings. It hasn’t always been that way in America. In the past companies valued good employees and tried hard to find ways to keep them productive even during hard times.
My father started working for Williams and Company (“The House of Metals”) in Pittsburgh in 1956. When I was young he was promoted from foundry department outside salesman to assistant manager. He helped Earl, his boss, oversee sales offices in Cincinnati, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo and other steel-belt cities. When Earl retired, my dad was promoted to department manager. But by then Pittsburgh’s and the U.S.’s steel making decline had begun and there was no need for anyone to fill my father’s old position. October 1973 marked the start of the OAPEC oil embargo that caused gasoline rationing in the U.S., tripled crude oil prices in six months, and sounded the death knell for obsolete energy-inefficient rust-belt steel plants and their supporting industries. Old U.S. mills weren’t able to compete with more modern foreign producers. There were the same calls then for energy “independence” and efficiency that we still have now. Manufacturing capacity in the U.S. iron and steel industry declined almost 30% between the late 70s and the late 80s and even more than that in the rust-belt. Nevertheless Williams employed my dad until he retired at age 65 in 1989.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s the backbone of the U.S. economy was the middle class and a large part of the middle class was working class. On our block Mark’s father was a lineman for the electric utility. Mr. Wise operated a box machine and we kids were all envious when he brought home a cardboard James Bond attaché case for David. Jamie’s dad was a mover. Mr. Tucibat was a truck driver. Mr. Spirko was a laborer in a steel mill. They all took pride in working and supported a family on pretty much one salary. They all owned their homes for which they’d made significant down payments and were scrupulous about making their mortgage payments (unlike recent U.S. borrowing history). And they all had only one employer for most, if not their entire, working lives. My father was employed by the same company for 33 years. But nowadays career security is almost an oxymoron.
MIT has operated a nuclear reactor on its campus for more than fifty-five years. My friend Steve graduated with a degree in nuclear engineering from there in 1978. In those days people hoped that nuclear power would generate clean economical electricity and help solve the world’s energy problems. We’d teasingly accuse Steve of intentionally leaving lights on to improve his professional prospects. In 1979, less than a year after Steve graduated, there was a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, the worst accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history. It prompted stricter safety regulations for nuclear power plants and contributed to the slowdown of commercial nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. In spite of that Steve went on to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering. In 1986 a reactor vessel at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine ruptured leading to the worst nuclear accident in international history. Worldwide the nuclear industry slowed down even more. After that Steve made a strategic career decision. He updated and broadened his computer programming skills, moved out of nuclear engineering, and moved to Silicon Valley to join a young bio-tech firm. In the early 2000s the dotcom bubble burst and the resulting shakeout was pervasive throughout technology companies in the Bay Area. The NASDAQ Composite Index, which tracks the value of high-tech industry stocks, lost 78% of its value. Steve was unemployed or underemployed for more than a year but he persevered and ultimately jump started his career by landing a job with a web-based start-up. However that company has since restructured and Steve no longer works there.
The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to end the short-lived Prague Spring democracy movement. My Czech friend Law’s family was visiting the U.S. then and did not return home. His father, a chemistry professor, was able to resume his career without a hitch after emigrating to the U.S. But Law’s recent professional path has been bumpier. He graduated from MIT with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. He worked for Hewlett-Packard for seventeen years then began working for a newly created high-power-LED subsidiary of a large lighting manufacturer. For twelve years Law held progressively more responsible positions with that business. But when foreign competition caused the company to reduce its Northern California operations a couple of years ago, corporate culture had changed in the time since my father retired. U.S. businesses no longer prized high-value employees so Law was expendable. He’s presently a self-employed consultant.
Products are disposable and now so are employees. From plastic food packaging and batteries to flip-flops and sunglasses, much of what is produced in the world is intended to be disposable or short-lived. We use something once, or briefly, and then we throw it away. Perhaps this popular culture of throw-away products has contributed to the current political and corporate culture of throw-away employees; even well-educated, hard-working, resourceful, loyal, experienced ones.
U.S. workers are washing up on the rocks of unemployment and underemployment. In the short term that may boost localized narrowly defined corporate profit, but in the long run does it maximize value for the country? The early years of the PRC were ravaged, not just socially but also economically, by its destruction of human lives in the name of progress. The failings of that era are an exceptional, but vivid, example of a critical sustainability tenet – people’s lives matter. That precept gets glossed over when politicians claim that “economic displacement” for individuals is inherent in a healthy economy and good. Was it good for the PRC during the Great Leap Forward? Is it good, even in a much less extreme manifestation, for the U.S. now?
All photos by Dante Archangeli.