For the hardest of workers, more hardships than ever

August 31, 2013 

I’ll always remember my mother’s words: “Oh, Tommy, you might want a real job some day.”

She made this pronouncement when I told her I had passed my contractor’s exam more than 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve used my hands and my body to provide for my family. When I began my career as a building contractor, it was a realistic way to make a living. It wasn’t easy work, but if you were reliable and competent in your craft, you could put food on the table, pay the mortgage and put a little money in the bank.

I got married and had children. While it took planning and some extra work, it was never a problem providing for my family. I even managed to save a little money for retirement. However, over the past 10 years or so, it has become much more difficult for a contractor, or any blue-collar worker, to make ends meet. Fewer young people are coming into the trades.

I can’t blame them. Starting a small business was once a legitimate way to climb the economic ladder. In fact, there is now more social mobility in Great Britain, that bastion of class society and socialized medicine.

U.S. wages are flat or shrinking. Lacking other opportunities, workers are pitted against each other for scarce jobs. Partisan bickering created the debt ceiling debacle resulting in the “fiscal cliff” and sequestration, leading to approximately $85.4 billion of budget cuts this year alone. Most of the government-funded programs that comprised the “social safety net” were decimated. It is a myth that abandoning the social safety net creates opportunities for families of modest means.

The opposite is true. I speak from experience.

There is not much more central to providing for your family than caring for your children when they are sick. When my daughter was in college, she developed health issues. She was in her early 20s, but our insurance no longer covered her. Because she had a pre-existing condition, a reasonable health care insurance policy was unavailable at any price. As we waited for test results, we realized our only options might be to choose between retirement and our daughter’s survival.

The test results were negative. Millions of Americans aren’t so lucky. Yet Congress has voted more than 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) while ignoring pressing issues facing families across this nation.

Whatever its flaws, had “Obamacare” been in place, I would have known I could save both my child and my future.

Legislation that grew from the Great Depression established Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits and government-funded work opportunities. Laws passed that enhanced worker security, creating opportunities for generations of families.

Today, unemployment remains high, wages are down and the economy is stagnant for working families. Yet, in the wake of the Great Recession, there is no legislation to help working families, the elderly, disabled and poor. It’s the opposite with Congress and many states cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps and cynically working to deny affordable and accessible health care to millions of working Americans.

The same politicians who exhort working folks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps oppose any increase in the minimum wage. They do nothing as the cost of a higher education soars out of reach for young people from working families. This is akin to cutting straps from the boots.

If people expect the lights to go on with the flip of a switch, the toilet to flush and the garbage containers emptied — as if by magic, it should also be expected that the people who make these things happen have access to affordable health care, enough money to provide for their family and the ability to retire with dignity.

Our society — any society — is defined not by the values we espouse, but how we put those values into practice. This is how I ran my business and what I taught my children. It is tragic that so many of our elected officials are out of touch with this reality.

After 30 years of being a hands-on general contractor, I am hanging up my tool belt.

One of the great things about this career has been my association with people who show up every day, ready to do work that is often difficult and dangerous. They do this because it’s their job. They don’t expect much in return. They deserve our respect and appreciation, along with the modest wage they take home. I would like to thank those with whom I have worked, as well as working people everywhere.

Because, dear Mom, it is a real job.

Tom Murray is a general contractor who lives in Arroyo Grande. He and his wife, Cathy, have two grown children.

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