News+Opinion » Barney Blakeney

Working for a living

The Grind: Out of the office and into the trenches

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Life sometimes throws you some strange twists. After almost 30 years writing news stories and editorial columns, I find myself doing manual labor to make some extra cash.

And I've got a whole new appreciation for my chosen profession. It's been a lot of years since I've lifted anything heavier than the wastebasket under my desk. I like working indoors at a computer, but physical labor has its merits.

I was taught there's honor in anything done honorably. Doing something well is its own reward. But doing the manual labor thing makes me wonder about the reward part.

I know that laborers build communities. It's the people who pour the concrete, hammer the nails, and dump wastebaskets at night who make life easier and more enjoyable for the rest of us. But they are rewarded the least. Most can't afford health care insurance, and rarely do their jobs provide it.

Working in that world can wake you up to some unfortunate realities.

The first thing that came back to me was that the work is hard. I'm using muscles I forgot I had. I remember them because of the aches and pains I feel after a day of pushing, pulling, and lifting stuff. The other thing that comes back to me is that money is a finite resource. In the manual labor world frugality is a necessity. After the hard work and low pay comes the realization that nothing happens unless you go to work.

Many of us take for granted the benefits we get on our jobs. For millions of Americans who do the jobs most of us never think about, their only option is to go to work. They don't get sick leave, holiday pay, or vacations. If they don't work, they don't collect a paycheck.

In the past few months I've worked at a retail business, restaurant, and landscaping service owned by friends who give me the opportunity to make a few extra bucks. Most of the people I've worked with at those businesses have second jobs. Typically they leave one full-time job to go to another. Despite working two jobs many of them still receive some type of public assistance, usually housing.

Surprisingly, manual laborers seem to just accept their stations in life. They realize they have to work twice as hard as most other workers to earn half as much.

In my years as a worker in this beehive we call American society, I've found that all work is important and essential to the end product. I write the stories, but it's all for naught if nobody delivers the papers. That's why I've always thought our society needs a redistribution of its wealth.

The Iraq War and universal health care will be key subjects in the upcoming presidential election. But those are just buzzwords to distract us from the real issues. What we really need to talk about is redistributing this country's wealth. Thirty percent of Americans own 70 percent of its wealth. That's a recipe for disaster.

I watched a recent PBS program that analyzed inner city riots in several American cities during 1966 and 1967. The theory was that government policy fostered public and private initiatives which disenfranchised millions of Americans.

Jobs and educational opportunities were diverted after WWII, deferring America's promise to its masses. A few generations of that deprivation created a powder keg that exploded as the war in Vietnam sent the children of America's poor off to die in a war that only benefitted the wealthy. See any parallels?

I don't know if our present society will see civil unrest like that of the past, but I do know that working like a rented mule and not earning enough to get sick is a hard pill to swallow. Sooner or later something will give.

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