A construction worker in Chicago, three days before Christmas, 2005. (photo: gnevets88 via Flickr)

This morning my husband got up at 5:00 a.m. to work outside in 7 degree F temperatures. He sat on the end of the couch, head in his hands sipping his coffee telling me how much he hates his job. How much it’s wearing him out. He makes $29.00 dollars an hour. Roughly $60,000 a year. He’s a union electrician. His health care premiums come out of his pay check; it is NOT subsidized by his “company.” His disability comes out of his pay check. It is NOT subsidized by his company.

I don’t think most people understand this about the unions. These men get paid what they do because they are subsidizing their own care. Men in suits thinks he makes too much money. Men in suits think he doesn’t deserve health care or disability, that he’s just a body to use and abuse.

They tell the men to talk about safety on their own time, not to take up time they could be “producing” to discuss “safety issues”. They don’t want to spend money on his safety or breaks for his aching back or freezing fingers. My husband worries if he takes too much time to warm up that they might lay him off. The men in suits know he is afraid, they even tease him about lay offs from warm offices when he walks through to take his 15-minute break. The high cost of labor, entitlement. The men in suits make you focus on the unions with their high paying jobs while they sit in offices pushing pencils making eight times the amount that my husband makes. Risking far less in stress and safety than my husband. And complaining about the high cost of labor.

My husband comes from a long line of blue collar workers. His grandfather was a World War II vet who gave part of his leg to the cause. His father a Vietnam War vet lost to alcoholism. My husband was a fatherless boy. In many ways he paid the ultimate price. A price that continues. He says repeatedly, “It’s the middle class that built this country, NOT the rich, and it’s the middle class that sends its children to war.”  . . .

My husband talks about growing up in the inner city without a dad. He’s one of “those” guys. He dropped out of high school because of drugs and alcohol. He got his GED. He went to technical college for auto mechanics, and later to be an electrician. He was way too smart to drop out of school and when you see him work with his hands, it’s a truth that intimidates his insurance sales friend. He worked every trade on his way through life. He laid cement, remodeled old buildings and was a brick layer. He worked as a carpenter and laid dry wall. He settled on electrician. He loved the danger.

Today he doesn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. He’s been sober more of his life now, than drunk, and he has the knowledge that comes with years of experience. He’s at his peak. He’s 50 years old and his knees are getting tired but he can still out run and out lift most men his age. Most of them getting their fitness from a pretty warm gym.

He can listen to a car and tell you what is wrong. He fixes cars for neighbors and our children. When the neighborhood had an outtage due to downed trees, he hooked people up to electricity again (despite the rules). Nobody offers to pay him for this because they know they can’t really afford him. They all know he is worth far more than the money they have in their pockets. They feel ashamed but they “need” his knowledge.

When we drive around town he comments on the zoo, the Union Pacific railroad addition, the women’s hospital, the university hospital, the university itself, every major hospital and school in town. He says, “Katie, I know every inch of that building.” And he does. His hands, helped build them. He talks about the mistakes of the architects and how much he enjoys catching an error on the blue prints.

The real truth, the truth that the men in suits secretly fight with every inch of their being is that this man, is the real threat. He knows more than they do, he has paid his dues (in more ways than one). He knows what he is looking at when the man in the suit goes into the bar, or gets drunk on the golf course for the fourth Sunday in a row.

He knows that these men go to the doctor when they are sick and that they don’t pay their own premiums. He knows that they will get stitches for a cut while he uses duct tape so that his supervisor doesn’t know he got hurt on the job. He will lie if he gets hurt on the job because he wants to keep his job. My husband has a lump in his prostrate but he won’t take time off for the doctor because he fears they will lay him off. They have announced that they expect a 40-hour work week for these “high wages.”

This is the blue collar life. These guys aren’t blogging or writing letters to the editor. They are trying to survive. And like the tribal people, American Indians, with the secrets of the ages, these men and women are a dying breed, they know things; they know how to build a city. They know the true cost of a war. They know things. I can’t help but think and hope that some day the tables might be turned…on the men in the suits.