Our world was built on the backs of laborers who toiled in the fields and created buildings that dared to touch the sky.


The food in our world is planted, tended, and harvested by the rough-hewn hands of migrant workers, farmers and locally hired muscle.

As we continue to emerge in the world — few people want to learn the means of making something work out of nothing.

Everyone wishes to wear the false honor of a white-collar manager.  Parents want their children sitting behind desks providing orders to minions rather than having their offspring do the work that breaks backs and stiffens joints.

Why have we come so far to only leave the best of us behind?

Vocational training — especially in the USA — is seen as a lesser job, a defeat of expectation and a disappointment of promise, rather an honorable job filling a necessary and, oftentimes, desperate, need in the marketplace.

How did we come to live in The Age of the PhD while The Need For Human Muscle is forlorn and scorned?

We are currently in the midst of two labor actions in the entertainment industry that may soon be coming to an end — but while we are in the center of these crises is the time to ask and wonder why these artisans are on strike.

The Writers Guild is on strike begging for a sliver — a full slice would never be allowed — of the new media pie.

The Broadway stage hands are on strike for a fairer deal that will continue to require the beating hearts of actual people behind the scenes. If the producers had their way, robots and machines would move all the sets and load in all the scenery for the shows.

As well, labor actions are looming in the next year with movie and television actors and directors.

Why is there labor unrest in what some might consider the soft, white-collar, entertainment industry?

What many people fail to realize is The Arts — movies, theatre, painting, music, television — are Crafts industries populated with artisan laborers. Artists are not business people. They do not run empires.

They serve their muses and demons and hope they are lucky enough to be paid for their sweat equity.

A Playwright is a “play builder” — a craftsman — who is required to form the structure of a play that is then executed by other laborers like actors and directors.

All laborers require formal training, dedicated mentoring and live learning in the field of moments to properly prepare and deliver on the hopeful expectation of society.

As we look beyond The Arts we must realize we must appreciate day laborers, box deliverers, garbage collectors, sign painters, line cooks, maids, street cleaners and other service workers who actually do the hard work of keeping a city and its core alive and running.

A city can do without multiple managers, but drive down the numbers of the police force, or the fire department or the city sanitation corps — and everything immediately becomes more dangerous, filthier and less humane as profanity and violence become the new commerce of the day.

Without labor — a city implodes.

Without labor — a state dies.

Without labor — the whole world lives in the dark waiting for the right trained hands to light a fire.

26 Comments

  1. Hi curtis!
    Yes, that’s an excellent point. Construction, big and small — and especially in Los Angeles and the West Coast — is run on immigrant backs and many of them are illegal day workers.
    What would happen to construction and lawn and garden and pool care in Los Angeles if we disallowed some type of fair and open immigration policy and clamped down on the “illegals?”
    There aren’t enough young people who were born here who want those jobs and those jobs must be done by someone.
    The “unwanted work” no one else wants to do has always, historically, been the prime landing spot for immigrants in America: They get a toehold in, move up the status ladder and their sweat and labor is replaced by the next immigrant wave. The USA was founded on the backs of those workers.
    I fear we are not only losing the ability to natively build our own houses and forge our own steel — but we are becoming incompetent in coping with a world that seems to be pressing us backward, not forward, into a less technologically fancy stage where the sweat on your brow and the callouses on your hands will determine your societal worth.
    We’re in a heap bit of trouble if that becomes the new work standard for success in America.

  2. David – what a magnificent article – on so many levels.
    You touch upon so many *ills* in society in one post.
    I post from the UK perspective , very few cooking lessons, very few woodwork lessons – art and music if you are lucky. No gardening there either.
    Vocational training is not encouraged – GB is aiming for 50% 18 year olds to get University places.
    No respect is given to the miner, the steelworker, the blacksmith, the stone waller, the road builder or the dustman.
    Not only are we loosing our trade skills – we are loosing our manufacturing industry and our ancient artisan base.
    A case in point – a friend of mine makes beautiful furniture by hand – tables, desks, chairs, wardrobes – each piece a work of art in itself.
    He was running a voluntary workshop in his own time for some of his local college students. He was consulted about setting up a permanent course in furniture making. Everything he suggested and wanted to do – was without exception vetoed on H&S and insurance grounds. The machinery was too costly to insure – the wood varnishes and solvents required special storage etc etc. The course they eventually suggested he refused to teach as it dumbed everything down and in his words “any qualification would not be worth the paper it was written on”
    We are lucky where we live there is a strong drive to keep ancient crafts alive – hedge laying, dry stone walling, fruit and vegetable growing, even knitting, crochet and sewing.
    If we allow these skills to be forgotten we will be in a very sorry state indeed.

  3. It seems that one of the biggest votes we can make is with our wallet and things like buying homemade show that we care about the laborer. My parents both went to school to become chemical engineers and they never gave thought that I might some day become a laborer of any sort – I think they always wanted my brother and I to ‘use our minds’ and that’s why they helped us get to Rutgers and beyond. The laborers of the world do need our support, though. It seems that there will always be people in the world who either do not finish school or get tired of their scholarly subject and want to do something ‘real’ with their life – some of the most ‘real’ jobs out there involve laying down brick and mortar. 🙂

  4. Hi Nicola!
    Thanks for the wonderful, juicy, comment that will set me off once again on a new twist! 😀
    We have discussed vocational training here in the past and I have thought a lot about it lately. Much of our expectation is set from the top of our government.
    Where once we used to be ruled by Rough Riders and Pioneers and Logsmen — we are now ruled by the crustless white bread crowd who yearn for nothing more than to perpetual the private wealth of their families at the expense of the larger interests of a nation.
    No one wants to willingly work a sewer, drive a bus or deliver a box any longer. So we pay them extravagant union salaries to do the dirty work the rest of us want to forget about but desperately need everyday.
    This had led to a new elite underclass where subway conductors are paid $100,000USD, UPS delivery men start out at $60,000USD and nurses are imported from Ireland — because they are better trained there — and given special visas and starting salaries of $78,000USD in New Jersey alone. Auto Mechanics is one of the most in-demand jobs in America right now and I can’t name a parent who would support that as a career choice for their kid.
    One former student of mine revealed in class that the only thing he wanted to do in life was to fix cars. But his father wanted him to attend college and graduate school to become “something better.” This guy loved cars and he had it all figured out that he could afford to do what he loved but he would not go against his father because his father kept him in a nice apartment, a BMW and a healthy monthly stipend as long as he was in school. He told us he’d go along with his father’s wishes for his life until his father died, and then he’d go his own way because to “rock the boat now would end the gravy train.” When I asked him who owned his life — he told me his father did and he made no excuses or bones about it.
    If we just keep paying people more and more and more to do jobs no one else wants to do — where does that lead us as a nation? We become windless and rudderless and we are easy prey to those who can outbid us with the talent of their hands and backs.
    Janna’s job is to get the Deaf jobs for the state of New York. Many of these young Deaf kids refuse to wash dishes for $15 an hour because their parents have taught them they are “better than that” and they want to go on to college on a full ride on the back of the state. When it becomes clear the student is unable to handle college and is best suited for vocational training, the parents freak out because they have been publicly humiliated that their child is not “management material.”
    How are we to deal with those in society who have been raised with false hope and high expectations? Where is the parental mediation that says, “It’s okay to wash a dish for $30,000USD a year? You can have a good life on that, you do the job well, and maybe you can move up to kitchen manager.” Those words are never spoken here anymore. You either start your life as president of the company or your life has been wasted and you are a failure.
    The craft of art is being lost as your friend so cogently demonstrates in his experience. We are soon meandering down a path from which we will not be able to turn around and recover.

  5. Hi sistapastah and welcome to Urban Semiotic!
    Yes, those romantic reflections on public television support the history of the working man in America. You see who risked their lives standing on girders to build skyscrapers and on tractors to plow the fields to build this nation. Farming is, believe it or not, a tremendously dangerous business.
    Trade crafts are dangerous. You risk your life more fishing for other people than you do running a fishing company. The direct link between hard work and success is lost in the ether of the internet and the fuzziness of what we used to be.
    Now we have businessmen claiming empires and entrepreneurship replacing the simple lemonade stand and taco hut.
    The American Spirit to create and build has been virtualized where anyone can do it by studying a computer book — but the real talent of forming stone into a keystone that can hold up a wall is lost forever as the craft dies in the hands of those who are unable to pass it on because nobody cares enough to continue on the tradition.

  6. Gordon!
    Thank you for your brave comment. You, of the Prep School World, are definitely not bred to work with your hands in a field picking fruit or planting seeds.
    We have a tear in American that is still ripping between the perception of working class and middle class. Middle class prefer the white collar moniker while the working class just want to get paid for a job done well.
    There is little thanks and fewer bonuses for someone driving a bus at 5am in the morning than the person who manages the bus fleet from behind a desk and is up for promotions and automatic pay increases just because they might have a better paper degree. Some talents cannot be measured by tests of examination or talk or thinking. Some talents come only in putting the hands together and molding something out of nothing.
    We need to lose the perception of failure for those born to do vocational work. We need them just as much as they think they need us managing them. They do the work where the skin meets the road and if something blows up, it’s their flesh that burns, not ours. It’s their family that mourns, not ours.
    It’s funny when I meet people who learn I am an author. The have romanticized the ideal of writing for a living as sitting in a chair and smoking a pipe and looking out the window all day. Now, I do look out a window any chance I get because I am so often locked alone in a windowless room on a hard deadline where I’m expected to perform — good or bad, rain or shine — on deadline or risk the loss of payment. There is nothing fun or romantic about writing or the theatre or television. It’s hard work you’re condemned to do because you are born into it and you have no other way out.

  7. I do not know the answer to your question ……. we have similar false expectations here. I think a lot of it is the *instant generation* the I want it now – without the hard work without the labour.
    That and we spoil out kids rotten – in a way our generation was not spoilt. This encourages the instant. ( ie if I stamp my foot hard enough – I will get what I want.)
    I think it is a back to basics situation – we need to recognise the individual and their talents – not the anonymous grey education system that turns out a product that ready for the office fodder market.
    Farming and food production has been decimated in the UK – we now only grow about 25% of our won food. Our manufacturing industry has gone the same way.
    The one thing that keeps us in trade balance – banking and financial services – and cheap Chinese goods.
    On a positive note though – my son who has never been suited to written /clerical work because of his dyslexia has just been offered the possibility of a job as a pool manager in Dubai. He started as a lifeguard .

  8. I think the people that think of writing as pipe smoking are thinking of the .0001% of writers to whom that does apply. It’s like how there are probably 1000 actors who failed miserably their entire lives for every one that turned into a regular 20 million dollar paycheck.

  9. Hi Nicola!
    Haven’t children always stomped their feet? Why do so many parents give in to it today? Is it because they’re too busy to care? Is it the lack of a generational presence in the home where the grandparents were always around to help in social connectivity and behavioral correction?
    I think not growing enough food to feed your citizens is a national crime that should not be tolerated!
    Your son’s Dubai opportunity interests me. Is his offer the other side of my argument today — that the young people in Dubai are “too good” to manage a pool and so they have to bring in “immigrant White Boy” labor from the UK? 😉

  10. Gordon —
    Yes, that’s the caricature of an author that the rest of us have to try to live down.
    Truman Capote never finished another novel after his smash hit “In Cold Blood” and he lived off that success for the rest of his life — his “genius monster” had been fed and the rest of us are the poorer for it.
    http://www.wordpunk.com/2007/11/genius-monsters.html
    Capote said something about being wary of answered prayers because they can ruin your life — and kill your muse. I guess the living example of the warning was his career. He was such a good writer he should’ve written 30 books. But he didn’t because he was scared he could never live up to the success of “In Cold Blood.”

  11. I would bet that Anthony Burgess probably felt the same way when ten, twenty, and thirty years after its publication, people were still looking at him as ‘the guy that wrote A Clockwork Orange‘ and disregarded everything that he wrote afterwards.

  12. In the US, when we think of the Norwegian band a-ha! we can’t help but think of their ‘one hit’ – Take On Me. In many countries, however, they continued to be successful despite not making any records that touch the heights of the early one.

  13. Hi Gordon!
    I think a-ha! is a talented band.
    Orson Welles probably had the hardest time with his genius because he kept trying to live up to the potential of “Citizen Kane” and repeatedly failed. His follow-up attempts exposed him and he was seen by many not as a SuperGenius, but rather as a lucky lad who took all the credit.

  14. I think the lack of grandparents, the splitting up of extended families has a lot to do with it.
    From what I understand he and the team he is part of have the expertise and the necessary bits of paper required. They can set up and manage the systems expected by the new *multinationals* in Dubai.

  15. Singing Take on Me over the phone won me a karaoke contest held by t-shirt giant Threadless.
    Maybe Orson Welles should have taken the path followed by Kevin Smith after Mallrats bombed in a major way and reinvented himself by means of simple yet touching film Chasing Amy?

  16. It used to be a sad thing, Nicola, when a child was from a “broken home” brought about by divorce.
    Now it seems to me all children are born broken in some, mysterious, irreparable way.
    I would love to live in Dubai and work in a pool, for a pool or watching a pool! What a great opportunity! 😀

  17. Do you have a recording of your performance, Gordon?
    What did you win for winning?
    Orson Welles tried a lot of different movie styles and found some interesting artistic success but since all the movies bombed financially, he was pegged as the frustrated evil genius and couldn’t break free from his early promise. He was supposed to be our American Eisenstein but he ended up our white panda.

  18. They gave me a $50 gift card for their store. The entire recording (including everyone else that called in) can be found here – you can download it and if you have mp3 editing skills you can cut out the part that’s not me. I’m honestly not sure how to do that quite yet! 🙂