Since I have spent most of my life in South Korea, where public servants are prohibited from going on strike, it struck me as unusual when hundreds of court clerks in Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, went on strike in August.
The California county has a population of 1.8 million and 11 superior courts that employ approximately 380 employees who process documents and records. Instead of working, they picketed in front of a court building. It was startling to me to see “public servants” picketing in front of a government building.
Silicon Valley residents were startled as well. They immediately felt the impact of the strike. One resident who visited the court to file a lawsuit was turned away. Some people who came to pay traffic fines also had to return later. Except for some court proceedings about serious cases such as homicide, the courts were literally paralyzed.
People accustomed to the bureaucratic culture of East Asia might think: “Why do public servants who have stable jobs have to go out on a strike?” However, these court clerks are all two-year contract workers. Whenever the contract is renewed, the wages have to be reset. However, for the past eight years, the wage was frozen.
How much is their salary? The average annual salary is US$52,000. It might seem generous compared with the salary levels in East Asia. However, these workers belong to one of the lowest-income groups in Silicon Valley, where some of the world’s top income earners live. The median housing price in Silicon Valley has already exceeded US$1 million.
According to local media, one of the clerks who went on what they call “work stoppage” lives with his two sons and a grandchild in a three-bedroom apartment. However, to compensate for the income shortfall, she rents out two rooms, and the two sons and the grandchild share one room, while she lives in the garage.
Another clerk complained that 70 percent of her annual salary goes to rent. In Silicon Valley, the monthly rent for a humble two-bedroom apartment exceeds US$3,000. It is more than US$40,000 annually. One court clerk said she is living in a homeless shelter.
Due to the high cost of housing, one clerk after another has quit working for the courts. Over the past eight years, one-third of the clerks had left, but the workers were not replaced. Consequently, the workload for each clerk increased.
The workers refused the contract renewal and went on strike in spite of their vulnerable status as contract workers. However, the strike lasted for only eight days. Court administration could not allow the suspension of the judiciary service to continue. Negotiations resulted in almost all of the demands from the union being met and the court clerks went back to work.
Silicon Valley is a symbol of creativity. Geniuses of the world gather together and form the cutting edge of human technology. Billionaires are commonplace. Brilliant whizz kids from the US and the world over come to study at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley. Some of these students realize their dream of becoming a multimillionaire upon graduation.
The attainability of such dreams may help explain why more than half of about 1,700 Stanford freshmen every year want to major in computer science. Silicon Valley is the place where the 21st century American dream is vividly alive.
However, the creative economy of Silicon Valley has a downside. For engineers who receive a substantial annual salary at high-tech companies, a house worth US$1 million or US$2 million might not seem expensive. The companies in Silicon Valley are spending more money to build new buildings and complexes to accommodate talent from the world over.
Demands for more buildings and the infusion of new employees with higher salaries combine to raise prices, especially for housing, in the region. Meanwhile, general workers who receive an average annual salary end up living in relative poverty, with some being pushed into a garage or even a shelter.
On the other side of the Pacific, “creative economy” or “innovation” has become a kind of social buzzword. East Asians want to learn the secrets of the US’ creative economy, particularly those represented by the business successes of Silicon Valley.
To this end, thousands of Taiwanese and Japanese businesspeople and academics visit Palo Alto and Stanford University every year to learn how they might build a creative ecosystem for business successes. Their aim is to emulate Silicon Valley. In South Korea, 18 Centers for Creative Economy and Innovation were created across the nation by the order of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Each of these centers is modeled after Silicon Valley.
This inexorable drive to learn from Silicon Valley reminds me of the grand ambition to catch up to the Western modernization that East Asians dreamed of in the latter part of the 19th century. However, the current craze for the creative economy in Japan and South Korea is missing one important point, just as their ancestors occasionally did in the 19th century.
The East Asians who first encountered the naval ships from the Western world in the 19th century marveled at their military power and wanted to reproduce it at home. It did not take long for them to realize that the Western military power is part of a much larger sociopolitical system. They had to embrace the whole system, not just the fancy naval ships.
Silicon Valley’s creative economy emphasizes innovation and free competition, and it rewards dearly those who have won the game with their creative ideas. However, it should be remembered that Silicon Valley is embedded in a much larger system that sociopolitically supports it.
The creative economy does not stand alone. It continually interacts with its social and political surroundings, and the interaction may bring about some undesirable side effects — as the experience of the court clerks at Santa Clara County showed.
If East Asians really want to build a Silicon Valley on their soil, they will have to learn not just about its dazzling outcomes, but become familiar with the whole system that makes the outcome possible — and brings balance to the creative economy.
Booseung Chang is a former South Korean diplomat who is conducting independent research in the US on North Korea and comparative politics of East Asia and the US.
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