All We Want Is Dignity, Respect and a Job
As I interview blue-collar workers about their jobs, their futures and their struggles with an unequal economy, I’m struck by how compelling their stories are compared to the rhetoric of the presidential campaign.
I get caught up in the details of their work and lives, their concerns about how automation is changing their jobs, their worries about child care. So interesting—and sometimes moving—are their stories that I almost forget to ask them how they feel about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
That’s what happened this week when I visited Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, a community college centered on vocational education and preparing students for the increasingly technological workplace. Carpentry, plumbing, diesel and electric engine repair, air-conditioning installation and repair, the culinary arts and nursing are among the many trades and professions taught. The student and faculty experiences were more interesting than hearing campaign correspondents and anchors excitedly report on a 1-point shift in the polls.
Trade Tech proudly considers itself the college of the second chance—another chance for those who messed up in high school, served time in prison, are looking for a trade after time in the service, or have been laid off because of downsizing or job obsolescence. Some are there because they’ve found themselves stuck in a dead-end job. It’s a cross section of working-class America, and I wondered how people were coping in this time of factory closings, the loss of millions of blue-collar jobs and growing incomes for the rich.
I saw no posters, tables of volunteers, banners or other signs of the presidential election. It’s hot on cable television, but this campus seems to be in another world, grittier and grimmer than the political news.
The school’s unassuming buildings occupy 25 acres near the gaudy Staples Center—the multipurpose sports arena next to the restaurants, clubs and theaters of L.A. Live—in the increasingly luxurious downtown Los Angeles. The contrast is striking.
Trade Tech has a student body of 25,000: 56 percent Latino, 27 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian and 6 percent white. Nearly half of the students work more than 30 hours a week.
Carlos Gonzalez was fired from his dead-end job as a supervisor for a chain that sells food to poor people with government food-stamp vouchers. An Army vet, he served in Iraq since the beginning of the war. East Los Angeles College didn’t work out. Neither did his job in the food stores, where, as a supervisor, he made $15 an hour after eight years. So he enrolled at Trade Tech to study plumbing. After a year and a half, he has a 3.8 grade-point average, has won two awards from deans and one from the college president, and is president of the plumbing club.
“In my family, there are welders and electricians, but we don’t have a plumber,” he said.
The work involves more than fitting pipes together or fixing stopped sinks and toilets. Gonzales studies architecture and how to use the computer to make blueprints, plus a thick book on building codes. “A union job, that’s my goal,” he said. “Jobs are not hard to get for a plumber.”
Not far away, I sat down in the smoking tent with Angel Carrizosa, 18; Eric Chavez, 21; and Raul DeLeon, all carpentry students.
“I wanted to learn a trade, get a job,” said Chavez.
“My dad is a carpenter and I want to follow in his footsteps,” said Carrizosa.
I asked him what was different about what he was learning at Trade Tech compared to what his father taught him.
“Blueprints,” he said. “He never learned blueprints. Blueprints tell you where everything goes.”
Math, computers, and complex, quick decision-making are all involved in the process. Jobs await those who make it.
“It’s a prime time for carpentry,” said DeLeon.
I asked them about the presidential election.
“I’m not voting,” said Chavez, who’s not registered and doesn’t intend to register. “I’m not really into it.”
Carrizosa said he was voting for Clinton.
Then, Chavez ended the conversation. “Sorry, Bill,” he said, “but we have to go to class.”
Bianca Alvarez, a chef coming back for more education, had made her mind up—to vote against Trump. “I don’t like the racist stuff,” she said. “I know he is not directing it against me personally, but I hate him. I am Hispanic. My own father comes from Mexico and his [Trump’s] words of hate, I don’t like that.”What about Clinton?
“I don’t know much about her,” Alvarez said. “There’s the fraud thing.”
She and Christian Oso, 23, another culinary student, are more interested in how they will cope with their challenging profession, where, as he said, “people in our industry burn out in two or three years.”
Federal and state governments can do much to help them on their way. Veteran Carlos Gonzales is attending Trade Tech on the GI Bill. Many advocate that all community college students in the United States should get tuition, books and a living stipend from the government.
How about a GI Bill for those displaced when jobs are eliminated through downsizing or being shipped overseas? Government should pay them a minimum salary whether or not they find a new job. Let the corporations pay from the big profits they earn by eliminating jobs, or from their new clean-energy facilities that are heavily subsidized by government. If coal is obsolete, why should unemployed miners starve?
As I saw at Trade Tech, jobs are available. But it takes determined students and instructors such as those on the faculty—skilled carpenters, plumbers, designers, nurses and many others with the ability to teach their skills—to make it.
That’s what I learned at the college of the second chance. If the candidates talked about this, about something truly relevant to people’s lives, the students I met and millions of Americans across the country might be interested in this election.