A while back I blogged arguing that “hardhat” is a slur, and I’ve been second guessing ever since. It got me thinking of years ago when I worked for Laborers Local 1058, and of one particular day.
It was a day when you work your butt off, wait, and repeat. On concrete pourin day along Route 65 north of Pittsburgh, we laborers and cement finishers were antsy. Trucks were late and the ‘crete was soupy.
“You’re makin it too wet!” yelled Bobby, a finisher, as he squinted at a splatter of cement the truck driver sent down the chute so Neal, a cement tester a bit older than me, could check the batch. Neal hustled, filling the test cylinders. Everyone stared at him impatiently. It was 90 degrees, with a thick, stupid, Steel Town humidity.
“Got his job cause his dad’s a whitehat,” muttered someone, I think it was Vann, a buff 40-something hard-charging laborer who I admired. Some guys grunted agreement, then glanced at me, though Vann was talkin about Neal. Yeah, I remembered, Got my job cause of my dad, who's a whitehat.
Vann was tough, with bulging arms and a handlebar mustache. He stood, hands on his hips, beside the rebar-lined section of road to be poured. Finally we got the OK to get back to work.
The sign women, with their reflective vests and batons, corralled nutty motorists. Sally held back traffic to wave a truck on-site, and as she did two drunks in a rusty pickup began screaming at her. When she allowed traffic to go again, the drunks tossed a bottle at her, which crashed at her feet. Then they actually stopped their truck to curse her. Vann and others ran over, and he ran up and barked at the knuckleheads as they sped off.
“Everything alright?” I asked him, when he came back.
“Couple jerks… Ya see how we ran over? This union’s a brotherhood—you help your brother, or sister,” he said.
I got an email on the hardhat blog, and the guy said he’d heard the term on jobs since the 1980s. It made me think maybe I had heard it while workin on Rt. 65. Then while leaving the gym other night I saw a guy parked in a Steamfitters union truck, from a nearby project. I asked him about “hardhat.” I don’t mind it, the steamfitter said. But do you guys call each other that, I asked. No, he said.
Aside from that summer nearly three decades back, all of my many years of trades work were nonunion. It occurred to me that maybe “hardhat” and “whitehat” are union words; which reminded of stratification within the trades, and that unions are blue-collar elite. When I was growing up, union jobs were passed down in families, and you had no chance at one if you weren’t kin. With Local 1065, I made $12.90 per hour, a good wage back when. These days in Pittsburgh, which President Obama has called a model for local economic make-overs, it’s common to see contractors hiring laborers for $10 hourly, or less.
Until a year or so back, I still did a bit of trades work, and enjoyed working for a garden designer who paid $25 hourly. Gardening is a passion of mine, and the wage was respectable, especially for nonunion work. Though I have a few gardens of my own to tend, I miss that physical work for cash, and the camaraderie of knowledgeable gardeners, but I had, and have, writing to do.
My childhood friend Tom, a former union insulator, now is a foreman for a moving company. Chatting with him the other day, he said his boss would soon have a week-long job near me, if I wanted extra cash. I asked how much it would pay, though I really had no interest in the job.
“At least 12 bucks an hour,” he said.
I made more with 1065, nearly three decades back. And the fact is, $25 hourly is more than the hourly rate paid for stringers by some prominent local and international media for whom I’ve worked. So from where I sit, it’s hard not to see depression of wages across many sectors.
We have an economy based on a presumption of steady continuing growth, yet wages have been stagnant or declining for generations. And it’s gotten us recession after recession. So I say phooey to whitehat and hardhat and other labels. We need to do a better job of expanding the economy by spreading the wealth, regarding each other—union and nonunion—as brothers and sisters.