While Goldman Sachs bankers are once more raking in the big bucks — and whole desperate chunks of the labor force slither deeper into unemployment — I’m grateful as hell, instead, for a kind of worker we rarely seem to celebrate or openly acknowledge we simply can’t function without.
Manual labor. Blue-collar. You know who they are when you shake their strong hands, hands as hard and calloused as a turtle’s shell from working for decades with tools and metal and oil and fire and grease, the primal elements of the machinery every single one of us rely on every single day. Whatever vehicle conveyed you to work today required skilled, experienced labor to make sure it was functioning, efficient and safe (not to mention, when they don’t crash, the airplanes millions of us will board today around the world.) Same for the escalator or elevator that whisked you to your AC-ed cubicle — some HVAC guys easily outearn a Phd.
In this economy, many people can’t afford a new/used vehicle and need to keep their current one(s) going as long as possible. They don’t have money for a downpayment, can’t access credit, don’t want a 48-month car loan. Mechanics rule. Bill tells me that business, lousy for the past year, is finally picking up as people do the least possible which is the most they can afford, piece by piece, to keep their wheels on the road. I care less what GM is up to than knowing Bill’s judgement and skills are right around the corner.
Yet, in the rush to fetishize the knowledge economy, the people who do these jobs are often dismissed as uneducated, lacking sophistication, people who just couldn’t cut it in college. As if.
“Such a partition of thinking from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of “white collar” versus “blue collar,” corresponding to mental versus manual. These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors. First, it assumes that all blue collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work options might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like. And would this not be in keeping with their democratic mission? Let them publicly honor those who gain real craft knowledge, the sort we all depend on every day.”
I’ve seen the sneering prejudice a blue-collar worker can elicit in a room filled with the book-smart. I once dated another blue-collar Bill, a ship’s engineer whose job was caring for the engine of a vessel ferrying liquid sewage around the waters of New York. He needed a 20-minute shower every day just to get the grease out of his skin. If he came home smelling of burned diesel, I knew it had been a bad day.
When I visited his workplace. I finally understood how hard it was. First I had to climb a metal ladder straight up the tall side of the ship, (that winter briefly in drydock), then clamber across and over rusted metal decks and doorways, climb down another steep metal ladder and enter the engine room: stiflingly hot, dirty, oily and with about 247 ways to get really badly hurt. No clean, elegant elevator or escalator brought him there. There were no vending machines. No windows. No AC. No Ipod or colleagues.
It was his sole responsibility to know when the engine, whose invisible pistons were as big as a room, was in trouble. I was chastened to realize how much knowledge and experience he needed to do this job and do it well. Every New Yorker who flushed a toilet owed this guy some thanks, although they’d never meet him or even know he and his job existed. He’d studied naval engineering and his blueprints were astounding. He was a smart guy deeply ambivalent about office work, and this suited him, for the moment, just fine. Yet none of my college-educated friends could figure out why a word girl wanted to spend time with a grease monkey.
I’ve learned a lot from both Bills, and I’m grateful for the skill and pride they bring to their work.
Those Goldman boys wouldn’t last a day.