Labor

The beauty of steel and the pride of steel working

 

 

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I recently took a tour of a value-added steel fabrication plant in the Portland area that takes raw steel products and welds and shapes them into finished products for buildings, bridges, and other critical infrastructure. I had forgotten how much I loved manufacturing as an act of creation and permanence.

The plant itself is a nearly 200,000-square-foot cavernous facility that allows for assembling large and complex products, like suspension arches in bridges that are assembled on site.

Workers were busy welding finished products or using plate processors. plasma cutters, and some very powerful steel drills. I kept thinking during my tour how critical steel manufacturing was to the rise of United States. Today, the U.S. steel industry faces a wave of subsidized foreign imports. One CNN story reported that nearly 12,000 U.S. steel jobs were lost in 2016, mostly due to pressures from overseas producers. Since 1960, the steel sector has lost nearly 400,000 jobs, according to the news show Marketplace.

As someone who used to work in blue-collar jobs, I know how brutally tough they can be and how the body is dead tired after an honest day’s work. The plant was cold, and I was clearly not ready for being in that environment. I felt great admiration for the crew on the factory floor. They were creating products made of something permanent, to last decades, if not hundreds of years. I do not know what the crew itself felt about their jobs.

The great American oral historian Studs Terkel perhaps best explained what people feel like having a real hands-on job, where they produced things that mattered. In 1995, the then-83-year-old Terkel was asked to name one issue America had most neglected or ignored throughout the years, he responded: “The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots—always. … the key issue is jobs. You can’t get away from it: jobs. Having a buck or two in your pocket and feeling like somebody.”

Walking the plant that cold day, I felt like the crew making these beautiful works of steel were genuine, proud craftsmen.

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Honoring those who work for a living

I have been fortunate to see how many people work around the world. I have seen flower pickers running at breakneck speed in the pre-dawn hours to their jobs in greenhouses around Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. I have met Mexican migrant farm workers in central Washington state, who pick all of the apples, cherries, and other fruits and vegetables we eat around the country. I have met the men who do the hard labor building roads and buildings in Vietnam. And there are so many more. The work I have seen humbles me in its physical intensity and also brute reality. But people have to work, to make better lives for themselves and their families. So, today, on Labor Day, a moment to honor those who have to use their bodies to eek out a living, where ever they call home.

Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.