They said it couldn't be built. They said the construction challenges were too great. The distance to be spanned was 6,700 ft. Worse, the gorge to be crossed opened directly onto the surging Pacific Ocean. There were strong currents, ferocious winds, and the water below was over three hundred feet deep. The site was shrouded in dense fog for much of the year. And, just for good measure, the construction site was within 12 miles of an active geological fault line.
It did not matter. They built the Golden Gate Bridge anyway.
The chief engineer for the project, Joseph B. Strauss, was selected in 1929, the same year the nation plunged into the Great Depression. No federal funding was available for the project, so the citizens of San Francisco and the surrounding area raised the money for the project locally, largely through a $35 million bond issue. Tens of thousands of local citizens bought stakes in the project, many of them by pledging their own homes as collateral.
Actual construction began on January 5, 1933 and went on for four long years. The nation struggled its way through the depths of unprecedented economic calamity. The world began the long, slow, inexorable slide into the cataclysm of the Second World War. The bridge rose regardless from the depths of the chasm that separated San Francisco from Marin on the opposite shore, the longest and highest suspension bridge in the world.
The bridge opened for foot traffic on May 27, 1937, on time and under budget. Hundreds of thousands of people from the surrounding area took advantage of the opportunity to walk or run across the span. The next day on the official opening of the structure the air was filled with the sound of sirens, bells, whistles and cannon shots. President Roosevelt himself announced the event to the world. Hundreds of Naval aircraft staged a fly-over. Hundreds of ships, including battleships and aircraft carriers, sailed under the bridge in celebration.
More perhaps than anything else the Golden Gate Bridge symbolized the victory of the unbreakable spirit of America over adversity. Faced with unprecedented economic hardship, as the rest of the world seemed to go mad, we refused to quit or to concede defeat. Nothing, not the elements, not the Depression, not the looming threat of global war could stand in the way of the determination of a people who believed they could accomplish anything.
Almost eighty years later, the citizens of San Francisco were once again faced with the prospect of undertaking a massive engineering project, the building of the new San Francisco ' Oakland Bay Bridge.
This time they outsourced the work to China.
Zhenhua, a major Chinese construction company, built the main bridge tower and 28 gigantic bridge decks, steel structures which serve as the platforms for the roadway. Three thousand people were put to work on the project in Shanghai. Five years after work started, the final pieces of the bridge were loaded onto ships for transportation across the Pacific to San Francisco.
This is not the only major construction project in America, which has been outsourced to Chinese companies. In New York City alone Chinese firms are renovating portions of the subway system, refurbishing the Alexander Hamilton and Tappan Zee Bridges and building a new Metro-North train platform near Yankee Stadium. In New Jersey they are building a casino. In Michigan there is significant discussion of the possibility that a Chinese company may build a new bridge to Canada.
Well over twenty years ago we succumbed to the siren call of advocates of so-called free trade and globalization. Seduced by visions of cushy white-collar jobs, ever increasing salaries and homes in the suburbs for all, we bought into the necessity to drop all trade barriers and to open our markets without restriction to foreign competition. The result has been economic disaster.
Our manufacturing base has withered. Our middle class is clawing and scratching to survive. We are not enjoying the benefits of higher paying more satisfying high tech and managerial jobs. We are increasingly working two or three jobs, as cashiers, fast food cooks and delivery men, just to earn the money to buy the items we used to manufacture but are now made in China.
It is time for us to face reality and to demonstrate the national resolve to confront it. A nation which does not make anything, which has no manufacturing base, which cannot roll up its sleeves and do good hard, honest work is doomed. We don't need Chinese workers and Chinese companies building our bridges, making our steel or digging our subways. We need to put Americans back to work doing those things.
The Chinese firm which built the components for the new San Francisco ' Oakland Bridge is part of a vast state controlled conglomerate. China's state controlled companies benefit from a number of forms of Chinese government assistance. They enjoy preferred access to bank capital, below‐market interest rates on loans from state‐owned banks and favorable tax treatment. They also receive direct infusions of government capital when needed.
The workers who built the deck platforms were paid an average of $12 a day for their labor, worked seven days a week and lived several men to a room in company owned dormitories. They worked in facilities largely lacking any of the safety or environmental safeguards required in American manufacturing facilities. They slaved away in a system in which any effort on their part to improve their working conditions or raise their wages would likely lead to police action and wholesale firings.
Requiring American firms and American workers to compete head to head with state-owned businesses employing workers who are one step above slave labor is insanity. There are only two possible outcomes. Either American firms will be put out of business or our people's wages and standard of living will be driven down to the level of their Chinese counterparts. This is not a prescription for economic growth and expansion; it is a blueprint for a race to the bottom on a global scale.
In discussing the new San Francisco ' Oakland Bridge, Tony Anziano, manager of the toll bridge program at the California Department of Transportation stated that, "The new bridge will reflect the character of those who built it." He was absolutely right, although probably not in the way he intended. Fair trade between nation states with a common set of values and based on mutually accepted rules and standards is one thing. So-called "free trade" in which we stand idly by and watch while our nation's economy is systematically dismantled is another.
Eighty years ago the American people demonstrated that they had the courage, resolve and iron will to surmount any obstacle. It's time that we demonstrated that we are the worthy successors to those great men and women. It's time we pushed back against unfair foreign competition and a blind allegiance to "free trade" and globalization. If we do, we can yet rebuild the economy of this great nation. If not, we will find that the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge is the real bridge to nowhere.