There are black and white pictures of construction sites that were taken before the times of the great depression. These are pictures of workers, of men, filthy from labor, and standing on steel beams that would later become the support of a tall building that makes up the City’s skyline. I have seen pictures of men, eating lunch from their lunch boxes or working with their hands. I see this and I think about the labor that makes up our great city.
I think about the men I grew up with as an apprentice at my Father’s shop. I saw how they lived. I saw what they did to earn their living and how they worked to survive and keep a roof above their heads and clothes upon their backs.
I remember signs that said, “Will work for food.” And nowadays, we see people who refuse to work for money, food or even shelter.
I have been part of the working world for a very long time. I have been on both sides of the collar, the white and the blue, and I’ve met with people whose skill exceeds anything I have ever seen before. I have worked at the mental health level of construction and seen the stressful nature of building and the wear and tear this puts on the body. I have met ditch diggers and laborers who at best; my junior high school guidance counselor told me I would be lucky if I were able to reach their level—and she was right. I would be lucky to reach their level; to be in a union, to work with benefits, be united by a membership, have a retirement plan, work overtime and be paid time and half for my extra work, and to earn a wage that in all fairness is way above a teacher’s salary.
I have met with people who knew their trades so well that their work was only natural—nothing was beyond them or their ability. Nothing could intimidate them; it was just work. This is what they do—they work, they put things together. They design and they build.
I have seen labor intensive jobs. In fact, I watched as crews demolished four buildings on 42nd Street. They demolished them to the ground. There was nothing left but a hole—and then there were beams; and then there were more, and next, there was a building rising up from the ground and built high enough to touch the underbelly of the sky.
There have been times when I was at work on my day job and with hammer in hand, I had to break open columns in walls. These are places that have not seen the light since their closing in 1927. I’ve found things in these walls. I’ve found old bottles. I’ve found old newspaper clippings that were left behind. And I’ve read them. I saw the prices of new apartments in the City, which now sell for millions—but then; the price was only a few thousand. Then again, the average salary was somewhere around $100.00 per-week. In 1920, the IRS reports the average $3,269.40 per year. Imagine that?
I think about this. I think about the workers and the workmanship. I think about the people who built our cities with little to no technology—and I wonder what they would say if they saw us now. What would they think about our work ethic? Or, better yet, what would they say if they saw the way we treat each other? Would they be impressed with our building skills? Or would the only thing they see is people on their cell phones and taking pictures for Instagram?
There was a morning when I was on my way to the subway. There was a fight with two men who were trying to jump someone outside of a store. No one shouted to stop. No one looked to help the man that was jumped. Instead, there was a crowd of people who were filming the entire event with their cell phones—they even managed to film as one of the two smashed a skateboard over the man’s head, cutting him open, but no one else seemed to mind. They made sure to catch this all on video.
I wonder if the people who survived the depression were to show up and be here now to see us—and what would they say? What would they say about our unemployment rate? Yet, there are jobs out there but people don’t want to go back to work. What would this mean to them?
Or better yet . . .
What would the people who survived the Spanish Flu in 1918 think of us? Would they laugh? Or would they be insulted and see the way we behave as a disgrace?
I was shown a picture of a woman who was arrested because she had a counterfeit vaccination card—unfortunately, she spelled Moderna wrong on her card and that’s how she was caught. She now faces up to one year behind bars and up to a $5,000 fine.
I know about our technological advancements. I know what we can build.
But have we really advanced?
Are we better now than we were then?
I’m not sure if I know the answer to this.
I only know that I am part of a membership that builds and maintains.
Also, I do know that today is Labor Day.
Labor; as in to build, to create and to form—as in, to make, to earn, to work together in an endeavor and grind, pull, strain, exert and grunt.
I am Union Proud. I am fortunate. I am blessed, and above all, my junior high school guidance counselor was right about me. At best, I would be able to land a job and work with my hands, which I do. At best, I would be a blue collar worker, which I am. At best, I would work with my hands, have a job, and have a pension, have an annuity, healthcare, and a union behind me.
I wonder though . . .
I wonder if that guidance counselor ever traded W-2’s at the end of the year. What would she say when tax season rolls around—and by the year’s end; I wonder if she looked at her total income and someone whose labor and skill earned more money than her and her high priced education ever will.
By the way, it would be inaccurate to say that there’s no education behind the labor trades. We learn. We train. We work hard and today, we celebrate this.
Today, we celebrate the lessons that taught us how to build, put food on our table and keep a roof over our heads.
Happy Labor Day, folks.
Now, if you’ll please excuse me . . .
I have work to do.