Blue-Collar Labor: Stop, Hey, What's That Sound?

It stopped me in my tracks. What was that sound? Then it dawned: it was the sound of my youth. No, it wasn't some crystal-induced metaphysical past-life regression. I heard was the sound of work: of the blue-collar variety.

Remember this?
It happened on a day when I needed to be in my faculty office early, so I drove to work instead of taking the Five College bus. My parking spot is literally ¾ of a mile from my office, a journey I was happy to undertake on an unseasonably warm October morn. Bird songs greeted me as I left my car, but their chirps quickly gave way to the rat-a-tat-tat of rivet guns, the clang of hammers upon cold steel, the chug-chug of 'mud' (cement) being mixed, and the shrill commands, warnings, and "all clears" from construction workers shouting above the cacophony.

While it's not unusual to hear construction sounds on a college campus, I was taken aback by the realization that's about the only place I hear this sort of racket these days. Oh sure—earth gets moved, land gets scaped, buildings rise, and roads get patched (though the latter not so much any more), but the scale of what I witnessed is as rare in modern America as a kind Christian. The average road crew simply can't raise a big ruckus with a workforce that generally consists of a supervisor, an engineer, two traffic signalers, a cop asleep in a cruiser, and a handful of workers leaning on shovels waiting for the one person who operates all the heavy machinery to complete the job of the moment. On campus I saw a veritable army of workers: dozens upon dozens, sleeves rolled up, and attention turned to a common task.  Seriously—when was the last time you saw a hundred people working on a public project?

You'll get no romantic discursion into the nobility of toil from me. I'm not nostalgic for the days I worked on the factory floor, or the sticky summer days I baled hay on my grandfather's farm. The crews on campus were involved in hard, dirty labor—the kind that involves brawn, sinew, and muscle, not thinking, musing, and clicks upon a keyboard. But let's face it; the American economy needs more than retail workers, programmers, and professors.

What I miss are the days when things got built in America—the days before tax cutters, bean counters, and naysayers ran the Ship of State aground on the shoals of negativity. I yearn for the time when if something was broken, a crew went out and fixed it. The days when Americans said, "Can do," not, "It's too expensive," or, "It's an intractable problem."

If you're under 50, you probably don't recall when the United States bragged about its achievements and its productivity was the envy of the globe. You probably don't remember when we built new bridges instead of patching decaying ones with recycled steel and prayers. You didn't go to a school where the textbooks were replaced every two or three years and any town without a new school or one on the drawing board held its collective head in shame. You surely don't remember seeing "Made in the USA" stamped upon 90% of all that you owned, or hearing folks proudly call themselves members of the working class and labor unions. Those folks would have laughed at minimum wage Wal-Mart workers foolish enough to imagine themselves "middle class," or stupid enough to castigate unions.  

The rich would have you believe that blue-collar workers and labor unions bankrupted America. Nonsense! Bankers, grifters, and greedy investors stole America and fed the sheeple a rope of bologna they chewed and swallowed. The Devil's greatest trick was to get workers to blame themselves for paucity, poverty, and parsimony and to look upon robber barons as saviors. How's that working out?

I stopped in my tracks that fine October day because I heard the sound of prosperity and had forgotten its song. T'is a brash, strident, clamorous, clattering song, but it was sweeter than the warble of birds. As the songs of hope always are.

Rob Weir

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