Monday, September 01, 2008


Take a look around you, no matter where you are. What do you see?

Pick up your keyboard and look at it. Take a sip from your cup. Retie your shoelaces (or if you're a conservative troll reading this, adjust the velcro).

Someone made those.

Today is Labor Day. Today we were supposed to be celebrating the men and women who riveted and bolted and inserted tab A into slot B, who built this country. Instead, we drive over to a friend's house to eat some barbecue, drink some beer and maybe watch a ballgame.

The United States of America grew on the backs of these people: the plumbers, the carpenters, the road pavers, the steelworkers, and yes, the slaves. We owe them all a debt of gratitude that is immeasurable. Too often, we forget this. We pay lip service to the working classes, but we don't really understand what is involved in doing their jobs. We only know that, when the furnace breaks, some guy in dirty overalls shows up and tracks soot through our basement to turn our hot water back on.

We forget that we have "advanced" to such a degree that we couldn't even begin to do what takes them twenty minutes, billable hours. We simply dial a telephone, they show up, and things are right again after a couple of hundred dollars. We make no investment in the actual work. Hell, most of don't even bother to watch to see how its done.

We spend the rest of the year insulting them, making jokes about plumbers' butt cracks. We deny them their true voice in society because many of them are too tired to sit down at a computer, if they own one, and express their opinions. We'll complain about how much they charge for fixing our car, but then drive to the stadium to watch guys who make in an hour what a bricklayer makes in a year play a game.

Every four years or so, we trot out at least one candidate who tries to speak for "them", the faceless nameless mass of "the working class". This year it was John Edwards and then Hillary Clinton. Why? Because these people consider it a duty to vote, despite their exhaustion, despite the lung diseases they've contracted mining our coal, despite the crippling arthritis of working too many hours bent over a sewing machine, stitching our shirts.

Republicans speak to the working class about things they understand: God & guns. Liberals and Democrats speak of things in the abstract: programs & plans. Is it any wonder why they usually vote Republican?

Since 1960, only four Democrats have won the Presidency: JFK, LBJ, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. One of them, LBJ, won in a "gimme" the year after Kennedy was assassinated. The other three all won because they convinced voters that they were men of God. They spoke the lingo, at length, of religion, the type of religion that fills the Baptist or Methodist church in that small town you zip by on the freeway.

The guys who milk cows? They understood these men. All of them had "the common touch," a left-handed compliment if I've ever heard one, as if it's beneath most politicians.

Maybe it is. Maybe it's beneath the rest of us, as well, as we sit in our living rooms, dorms, and dens, sipping lattes and reading this pathetic little slice of the Internets.

But it's not beneath the sewer workers or the fire fighters or the cops! And they count, dammit!

My dad was a carpenter. He was union, and I benefitted from the only affirmative action that should matter: the affirmative action of a group of workers banding together to get their fair share from an employer. And what was the first thing the conservatives attacked once they wrested power in the 1980s?


My dad built schools in the city. He was often lead foreman on one project, and then sub-foreman on the next, but that was after twenty years sweating and bloodying himself laboring on projects where his name might appear in small type on a plaque in the lobby, and that would be the only acknowledgment he would get.

When I went to a new school, I made sure to check the plaque. Sometimes my dad's name would be on it, and I'd point it out to my teacher or the principal. Sometimes, it would be some other man's name (yes, sadly, a man's name only), that I'd recognize. I'd tell my dad when I got home. Sometimes he would tell me stories about the man or the job site if it was his.

I remember one summer going to one of my dad's sites as a Cub Scout, and standing on the steel structure, looking at the magnificent view from three stories up in Queens. Fast forward thirty years, and taking my daughter for her first day of school at this same building.

And smiling.

That house you live in? Somebody built it. The car you drive? Someone built that, too. The clothes you wear, the food you eat, the TV you watch, the toys your kids play with, someone worked too many hours way too hard under the supervision of a company that was only interested in the bottom line, who insisted "more".

And in your wildest dreams, in your most egomaniacal fantasy of power, you could not begin to duplicate what you now possess, using your own two hands.

John Edwards was right. There are "Two Americas". There's our America, and there's the workers' America.

Hillary Clinton was right. We owe these people more than lip service every four years and then a fumbling review afterwards as to why they voted "against their pocketbooks."

We owe them our lives. It's about time we started paying them back.