Summer 1959. I’d had a good winter working at the Lake Placid bobsled run, a good spring splitting firewood at the Upper Ausable Lake, bought a new car (1959 Beetle convertible!), and scored a summer job with the Ballard Construction Co. in Syracuse. The work was great — pick-and-shovel stuff — and Dave, the boss, was a peach who knew his business. All was well with my world. Economically, at least.
At the end of my first week on the job, on a sizzling Friday afternoon, a seedy-looking little man with a cigarette in his mouth, walked up to me and said, “Hey, Whitey, gimme five.”
This was before the current meaning of the request. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Union dues. Gimme five bucks.” The legacy of my Republican ancestors kicked in. There was no way, I told him, I was going to join a union. “OK,” he said, and walked away.
Five minutes later, Dave beckoned me to his side and informed me that I owed him five dollars; he’d just paid my union dues. When I objected, he said, “Look here. You see that air compressor? That backhoe? Those trucks? If you don’t join the laborers’ union, there won’t any of ’em be here Monday morning, and I don’t think Mister Ballard’s going to be very happy.”
I gave Dave the five, and became thenceforth a loyal member of the laborers and hod-carriers union. Five bucks a week, payable as long as I was on a union job; and a year later, when our first child was born (it was a bit of a whirlwind summer), the union paid for prenatal care, delivery fees and postnatal care. I started adding Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers to my guitar-accompanied repertoire. And I’d become a Democrat.
It’s long bemused me that, in a country so obviously built and kept running by laboring men and women, we condition our children to aspire to elite universities and white-collar jobs. Once a year, however, in a tepid acknowledgment of the people we literally can’t do without, we pause for an end-of-summer barbecue, a day at the lake, or an afternoon in the hammock. While we’re at our leisure, the important parts of the world go on — police and firefighters, EMTs and nurses, supermarket stockers and cashiers, plumbers and furnace repairmen, and (especially this year in the American Southwest) forest firefighters, electric linemen and air-conditioner repairmen. Nursing homes and emergency rooms, too, require their full complements of staff.
If you can conceive of society as a pyramid, you can’t but be impressed at the number of workers at or near its foundation who are required to support those closer to the top. You can judge their importance by comparing the societal disruption caused by a malfunction at the top — an impaired or maleficent leader, say — with that resulting from a failure at the foundation — water supply, power, fuel supplies and transportation. Or think of society as a ship: Even with a jerk for a captain, it functions. But without stokers, navigators and stewards, dead in the water.
The irony of what’s essentially a class division is that many workers in humble positions earn more than those “above” them. With a reasonable amount of talent and intelligence, and an entrepreneurial spirit, a plumber or electrician working a 40-hour week (a gift of the union movement, by the way) can gross six figures in a good year, and, as Woody once sang, enjoy “vacations with pay, take your kids to the seashore.”
How I deplore the defenders of virtue on the internet who claim that, far from enjoying “white privilege,” most of us have “worked our asses off for what we’ve got.” I have yet, in all my years, to see anyone missing a derriere because of overwork. Far better, it seems to me, than grousing about our job, whatever it may be, to consider the millions of our fellow Americans who currently have none, or even any prospects, and be thankful for what we’ve got. The foundation of our pyramid may at the moment be imperiled — we won’t know until and if we weather this medical, financial and political storm with all four feet on the ground — but let’s give Labor Day its due, along with the men and women who truly have made America great.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.