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Blue-Collar Down to the Bone

His father proudly wore a label that set him apart from paper pushers: working man

September 01, 2003|Kelly Candaele

When I was young, every so often my father would insist on showing me the calluses on his hands. "These are a working man's hands," he would say, as I moved my fingers along the arc of hardened skin just below his fingers. He was an electrician who wired houses, and he was proud of those hands. I suspect that this ritual was his way of saying, "I build things, and at the end of the day I can see what I've helped to create."

On the rare occasions when my father took me to a job site with him, usually on a weekend when there was no foreman around, I loved watching him work. His tool belt hung low on his hips, with the hammer dangling at his side. He'd clutch half a dozen nails in his teeth to avoid having to reach into his nail pouch. He would work his way swiftly along the frame of a house, attaching the electrical wire snuggly to wooden 2-by-4s.

My father's view of the world was that men who wore suits to work were "paper pushers" who knew neither the joys nor travails of what he called "working people." He distrusted those who flaunted their educations or used big words when a small one would do. In the social contest for respect, he must have felt that people who came home from work clean looked down on him.

When I went to college in the early 1970s, I learned about the violent American origins of Labor Day. President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day legislation in 1894, but only after using federal troops to break the American Railway Union's strike against the Pullman Co. and arresting labor leader Eugene Debs. My professors spoke mournfully about how American workers, unlike their European counterparts, didn't recognize their own class interests. They were conservative, my professors insisted, bought off by the false promises of American consumerism and hoodwinked by the hollow myths of upward mobility.

In a sociology class, my fellow students nodded agreeably when our professor showed us the famous pictures of hard-hat construction workers beating up anti-Vietnam war protesters in Manhattan in 1970. I didn't nod with the rest of the class, who were mostly from comfortable upper-middle-class homes in the San Francisco suburbs. To me, that one incident did not capture the complex political attitudes of the blue-collar people I grew up with. I wondered how these affluent students and professors could conclude that owning a small house, a station wagon and getting two weeks of vacation a year were proof of being "bought off."

My father worked because he had five children. There were, as he stoically remarked, "mouths to feed." In a way he was conservative in that he didn't embrace the broader cultural protests of the 1960s. But part of his conservatism was, paradoxically, radical. He believed what our Constitution said, that everyone had rights to equality that should not be abridged, whatever a person's color or creed. And although he was not religious, he believed that there were actions that were worthy of moral condemnation. One of the worst sins was crossing a picket line or taking another person's job.

My father became a union electrical worker in 1961 and made $4.75 an hour, not a bad salary back then. Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc needed men -- it was all men in the early 1960s -- to wire their intercontinental ballistic missile silos, our response to the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

In the early 1960s, the labor movement had not yet gone into a steep decline, and the United States was still a manufacturing powerhouse. General Motors, with 400,000 employees, was the largest private-sector company in America, turning out more than 3 million cars a year. The United Auto Workers, led by the democratic socialist Walter Reuther, gave an organizational backbone to American liberalism, pushing the newly elected President John F. Kennedy and, after him, Lyndon Johnson to restrain big business, promote full employment and enact meaningful civil rights legislation.

When my father retired in 1989, Wal-Mart was well on its way to becoming the largest private-sector employer in the U.S. by keeping costs low, unions out and undercutting its competitors. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the first President Bush in 1992.

The last time I saw my father before he died of cancer in 1995, he was living in a trailer that he insisted was a "mobile home," near a shuttered nuclear power plant in eastern Washington. He received three union pensions and Social Security, which amounted to about $3,000 a month.

We talked about work, his union and politics, our usual topics of conversation. He lamented the labor movement's decline in organizational strength and the absence of an "FDR-type politician" who would be a spokesman for "the little guy." Though he didn't like the direction the Democratic Party had taken, he simply believed that the Republican Party was the party of the rich. He remained a Democrat.

I was working for the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, a liberal technocrat and fitting symbol of how much the Democratic Party and society had changed since the 1930s. My dad didn't want to overthrow the system. He merely wanted someone to "level the playing field" as Franklin Roosevelt had done, making it easier to organize a union, to gain a middle-class life, to retire with dignity.

Today I sit writing at a computer most of the day. No construction supervisor looks over my shoulder urging me to "speed it up." My hands are smooth -- a paper pusher's hands.

There's no sense pretending that I wish I could have done what my father did. He worked hard in a way that eventually wears down the body and, when pushed to produce more today than the day before, ultimately the soul. But there are days when I look for repairs to do, grab a hammer, throw a few nails in my mouth and start banging.

Kelly Candaele lectures on politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

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