Why the Disdain for American Blue-Collar Workers?

In this July 17, 2014 photo, construction workers build a commercial complex in Springfield, Ill.  The Conference Board repor
In this July 17, 2014 photo, construction workers build a commercial complex in Springfield, Ill. The Conference Board reports on its August index of leading economic indicators, which is designed to predict the economy's future health, on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Most Americans like to think of the United States as a classless society. At its core, the American dream has traditionally been defined by the freedom to choose a vocation, a strong belief in economic mobility, and a spirit of egalitarianism.

But over the last several decades we have been bearing witness to the growth of a disturbing streak of aristocratic bias in our cultural fabric and our national temperament, one that is increasingly manifesting itself in the views we hold and the assumptions we make about people who work with their hands.

Judgments about intelligence carry great weight in our society, and unfortunately Americans (especially American lawmakers and media elites) are developing an unsettling tendency to make sweeping assessments of people's intelligence, as well as their overall worthiness as human beings, based upon the kind of work they do.

Culturally speaking, American comedy has increasingly become a forum for abusing blue-collar career values in order to provide humor for the white-collar class. American comedy is now being used to denigrate the worth of blue-collar jobs, make fun of blue-collar values, and mock the lifestyle of blue-collar families.

If we are not careful, we can easily create a kind of second-class system in America whereby only the voices of those whose vocations are seen as more praiseworthy will be heard when it comes to national policy discussions involving such issues as income inequality, economic opportunity and prosperity. The interests of those who toil in the blue-collar occupations, or the so-called "dirty jobs," will be cast aside because of a destructive cultural bias that views white-collar professions as more representative of innovation in the marketplace and thus more worthy of policy and legal protections.

A generation or two ago, one could walk the halls of the U.S. Congress (or a state legislature, for that matter) and talk to representatives, senators and staff, regardless of political party, and almost universally find someone who had a father, a mother, a brother, or a sister who toiled in a blue-collar occupation. They understood the struggles and the needs that blue-collar workers possessed, and those concerns were almost always considered, if not outright addressed, during policy deliberations.

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case. On any given day, I can find myself speaking to members of Congress, their staffs, and members of the media, and I am more and more astonished at the lack of understanding of how blue-collar workers must struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis in America today.

In previous generations, however, policymakers and media representatives held up blue-collar work as worthy vocations. Today, someone who works in the skilled construction trades or some other blue-collar profession is oftentimes viewed by politicians and the media as a sad case. You can almost hear them wondering, privately, where the wrong turn happened. It's almost as if they are asking themselves how any smart, capable person could end up in such an ignoble career.

They don't seem to realize, as is the case with the men and women who make up North America's Building Trades Unions, that a tremendous amount of highly technical work -- both in the classroom and on the job -- is required for them to become certified in their given profession. When a student graduates after a four- or five-year apprenticeship in one of our craft unions, he or she will often also graduate with an associate's degree from an accredited community college. And because of articulation agreements with some of the top colleges and universities in the nation, many of our apprentice graduates go on to receive their bachelor's degrees, all without incurring a mountain of student loan debt!

America's political and media elites would understand this more thoroughly if they would simply take the time to visit one of the 1,600 joint apprenticeship training centers (JATCs) located in every state of the nation that our unions and our contractors fund and operate to the tune of $1 billion in private-sector investments every year.

And what makes this almost comical (if it did not have such serious implications) is the fact that the vast majority of America's political and media elites have neither the intellectual nor the physical attributes necessary to become a skilled craft professional in America today. And yet they cringe and scream when they cannot find a quality craft person to come to their homes to fix a leaky roof or a broken hot water heater.

Whereas a generation ago lawmakers, their staffs, and the media could instinctively understand and respect the blue-collar work experience because of a life lived by a grandfather, a father, a mother, an uncle, or a brother or sister, today's governing and media elites are several generations removed from such experiences. The work experiences of their immediate families are more often than not those of businessmen, lawyers, academics or members of some other professional, white-collar occupation. As such, they cannot, and they do not, intuitively grasp the importance of wage and benefit protections, workplace safety standards, or collective bargaining protections.

The current attacks on prevailing-wage statutes are a perfect example.

In short, prevailing-wage laws require construction contractors doing business with the government to pay workers at wage levels determined to be "prevailing" in the local area in which the project is being constructed.

These laws were enacted in order to protect local construction craftspeople from being undercut by migrant contractors who employed a migrant workforce and who would enter a state and undercut established wage rates, take the contracts and move on.

Removing prevailing-wage statutes provides an incentive for contractors to eliminate training costs, health insurance, and pension contributions in order to achieve low-bid status. In states that have prevailing-wage laws, privately funded pension and healthcare coverage, as well as privately funded construction workforce training investments, are over 50-percent higher than in states without prevailing-wage laws.

And that is vitally important to taxpayers, because when the construction industry does not pay for the long-term costs of training the next generation of skilled craftworkers, as well as the long-term problems associated with the health and retirement costs of the last generation of construction workers, those costs typically fall into the lap of the taxpayer.

Additionally, there is currently no solid evidence demonstrating that a state that has already repealed its prevailing-wage law has actually realized any cost savings.

For example, in 1996 the state of Kentucky chose to apply its state prevailing-wage law to state-funded school construction.

In 1997 the state of Ohio chose to do exactly the opposite. They moved to exempt school construction from its state prevailing-wage law.

According to pro-repeal logic, Kentucky should have been faced with higher school construction costs, while Ohio would have seen a dramatic reduction.

However, median square foot costs for school construction did not increase in Kentucky, nor did they drop in Ohio.

All of which raises the question: Where did the money go in Ohio after prevailing-wage rates were reduced yet the state did not realize any savings?

The answer to this question brings me back to the inherent bias against blue-collar work in America today.

Ohio did not realize any cost savings because the money that was slashed from the paychecks of the construction craftworkers was simply transferred to the pockets of the other entities involved in government-funded construction projects, including the developers, the architects, the Wall Street financiers, and other professional services.

For decades, prevailing-wage laws benefited from bipartisan consensus. The original sponsors of the federal Davis-Bacon Act -- Pennsylvania Sen. James Davis and New York Rep. Robert Bacon -- were both Republicans, as was President Herbert Hoover, who signed the measure into law.

In fact, today over 50 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives are on record in support of the federal Davis-Bacon Act.

However, that has not stopped many ultraconservatives, and some limousine liberals, from attacking these statutes.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) holds the distinction of being the most prodigious opponent of the Davis-Bacon Act in Congress.

He has been quoted as saying, "Davis-Bacon is bad for taxpayers, and it is bad for small businesses and bad for workers needing a job. Repealing this outdated law would be a big step towards ensuring taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and efficiently."

What continuously amazes me is that the most vocal opponents of the federal Davis-Bacon Act, like Congressman King, more often than not come from districts where the federal wage determinations for construction work are already abysmally low.

Below are current federal wage determinations for highway construction involving the following crafts in Rep. King's home county of Carroll County, Iowa:

  • Concrete finisher: $22.70 per hour

  • Laborer: $13.85 per hour
  • Heavy-equipment operator: $22.95 per hour
  • Construction work, especially highway construction, is seasonal work. Weather plays an integral role in the ability of a construction worker to earn a decent living. A good year for a construction worker is roughly 2,000 hours, while an average year is about 1,500 hours.

    Therefore, the annual wages (before taxes) of the above-referenced crafts equates to:

    • Concrete finisher: $45,400 (for 2,000 hours) or $34,050 (for 1,500 hours)

  • Laborer: $27,700 (for 2,000 hours) or $20,775 (for 1,500 hours)
  • Heavy-equipment operator: $45,900 (for 2,000 hours) or $34,425 (for 1,500 hours)
  • These numbers are even more compelling when contrasted with the federal poverty line for a family of four, which for 2015 has been determined to be $24,250.

    So, in effect, Congressman King is arguing that the current prevailing wages for construction craftworkers in his home county, which hover near or below the federal poverty rate for a family of four, are simply too damn high!

    Thus is the disdain our culture has developed for America's blue-collar professions.

    As a nation, we are on a path that seemingly forgets that our society, and our economy, is critically dependent on the strength of those who build and maintain our infrastructure, and who go to work every day and build things with their hands.

    It is high time that America, and specifically America's political and media elite, adopted a more unrestricted vision of our nation so that we once again value blue-collar occupations (and the standards and protections that afford blue-collar families a chance at a decent life) in order to create a truer, richer sense of all that is American and all that is involved in the wide range of work that surrounds and sustains us.

    Sean McGarvey is President of North America's Building Trades Unions.