Respect for those who labor

Published 6:01 am Saturday, September 8, 2018

When it’s time to put the extra leaf in the dining room table for the upcoming holiday celebrations and neither you nor your husband is up to the task, you understand- again- the meaning of laborers.

At one time I could paint, wallpaper, mow the lawn trim a tree, and stand on my head to vacuum the back seat of my car, but all of that is now a distant memory.

I’ve always respected carpenters, plumbers, tile installers, and persons who have skills that escape me and most other Americans. These people have special abilities, and it’s insulting to believe they should work for low wages and be happy to get the work.

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It’s also insulting that wages are so low in some factories/industries that employees cannot pay the rent, provide health care, and feed their families. And what about the cost of child care? The days of grandmother taking care of the children for free are over, and I see grandmothers working at Walmart and McDonald’s, trying to supplement their income in order to pay basic bills.

A recent study by the nonprofit research organization Urban Institute and reported by Sarah Skidmore Sel indicates, “Despite a strong economy about 40 percent of American families struggled to meet at least one of their basic needs last year, including paying for food, health care, housing or utilities.”

Ohio’s premier Cleveland Clinic advertises that “Every life deserves world class care.” Some employers restrict the number of hours employees work so as to avoid paying health insurance. Then for those who are covered by health insurance, there is the issue of the rising costs of co-payments and the rising cost of deductibles before insurance kicks in as employers look for ways to manage the rising costs of healthcare.

The Janus decision this year was an attack on labor and has dramatically weakened unions. The decision diminishes the voices of unions and the laborers they represent while allowing lobbying by the wealthiest groups to continue and accelerate.

Of course, the leaders of unions have made mistakes. At any time, some in any organization fail to operate from ethical/moral platforms that embrace high standards. We learn about these lapses daily through media outlets.

I’ve studied American history, so I’m aware of working conditions in this country for laborers prior to unions: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 lost their lives; the dozens of accidents in manufacturing, energy, and mining as owners seek to maximize profits and ignore the safety and lives of the very people whose labor produces their profits. Without labor unions, the benefits of sick leave, health care, vacation leave, regulation of overtime requirements, and a host of other working conditions would probably not exist.

Greed and corporate profit continue to take precedence over the lives and health of men and women who are making it possible for CEOs and their shareholders to live in luxury with all kinds of tax breaks as the U.S. deficit rises. And where do decision makers in D.C. look to make up the lack of monies in the U.S. coffers? Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, raises for civil servants. The military will get its pittance- less than 2 percent, in the upcoming year but have you ever researched the wages of the men and women in the military who put their lives on the line for us week after week, year after year? Pitifully low.

One thing that is overlooked is the wear and tear on the bodies of many who labor to fulfill the needs of consumers and raise profit margins for companies and corporations. At what age should those who do physical labor be able to retire with dignity? I notice men at Home Depot with their ancient trucks and their aching hips and knees as they load those vehicles to go to yet another job. These workers are also encouraged to delay taking Social Security, and the talk continues to circulate that eligibility ages for this benefit should be raised. This makes me think of places where human beings – laborers- were and are considered disposable, easily replaced when killed or too weak, too ill, too old to work.

If you are a reader of my column and you are educated, can afford quality healthcare, live in a safe neighborhood, and enjoy other amenities, I would ask you not to be dismissive of those who are unlike you. Opportunities come in varying degrees according to our genetics and the families into which we are born. Once we acknowledge the advantages we have, we should consider our responsibilities to those who have not had the same. Additionally, we should recognize and respect the ways in which these “others” contribute to America and the diverse roles they play that are necessary for us to continue as a strong nation.

Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at