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My Father Built This: A Labor Day Reflection

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My father was a construction electrician. Attending trade school after World War II under the GI Bill (he was in the Army Air Force, serving in North Africa), he then apprenticed through the electrical workers union, the IBEW (Local 134). He made a good wage, especially for a man with only a high school diploma.

He worked hard and long hours, sometimes, always hoping for “overtime,” especially those Sunday, holiday and overnight shifts, when he earned “double bubble” wages. He would point with pride as we would sometimes go into Downtown Chicago, traveling from our comfortable, but modest, home in the north suburbs, to the skyscrapers that make Chicago’s skyline one of the most beautiful in the world: the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), the AON Building (then the Standard Oil Building), the John Hancock Building, McCormick Place, and so many others.

He helped build my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the vast expansion many years ago of O’Hare International Airport. He was a lifelong Democrat, teaching us that the labor unions made our lives possible. When he died, the IBEW took care of my mother, who was legally blind, helping her stay independent in many ways with my dad’s union pension and medical coverage.

The Republicans would have us believe that labor unions are evil, the bane of forward progress in this country. They must be sought out and destroyed. The Republicans are wrong.

We look down derisively at China and other countries where labor is cheap, working conditions horrific, and where we acquire nearly all our own goods. “Made in the U.S.A.” is a great slogan, but I’d bet that less than 20 percent of your clothing is made here, and nearly none of your (or my) electronic gizmos. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that American factories and mines were sweatshops, places so unsafe and unhealthy that worker mortality was a given Wages were barely enough to eke out a living, much less give the next generation a better life.

Unions helped build the great middle class, helped make this country strong and prosperous for our generation. They are not evil; they have been, and still are in many ways, the hardworking backbone of our nation. Tough economic times call for compromise, and the unions have done their part, saving airlines, auto companies, school districts and more, understanding the great stake they have in the success of their industries. They are not perfect, but neither are the companies for whom their members work.

It makes me nauseous to hear Republican after Republican boast “I built this” in response to President Obama’s recent statement that no one builds a successful business without a lot of help. It is narcissistic and it is a lie. Nobody “builds this” alone, in a vacuum, with his (or her) own two hands.

Of course, what the President actually said when he uttered those words, was that businesses owe part of their success to the government and to the taxpayers who fund it: public roads, public schools, government grants, loan guarantees, public utilities, waterways, and other parts of our now-crumbling infrastructure.

Besides government, businesses owe their success to their workers, these days more and more marginalized, pushed further down the ladder of success by stagnant wages and the fear of becoming outsourced and irrelevant. Unions protect workers from the unbridled greed of corporations that would otherwise cut corners on health, safety, and environmental protections to increase profit, and cut wages to the bone while adding millions to the bonuses of those at the top.

When I was in college, my dad, with pride, gave me an alabaster brick taken from his job site at the (then called) Standard Oil Building. They had just completed the work on the beautiful, stark white building. “I helped build this,” he told me. “Keep it and show it to your kids someday, and remind them that their grandfather helped build this great city.” It is as ludicrous for Mitt Romney to say “I built this” as it would have been for my father to take sole responsibility for creating the Amoco Building. Nobody builds anything themselves, with no help from government, from stonemasons, electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, truck drivers, teachers, policemen, firemen. It’s especially fitting to remember that on this Labor Day.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Igor

    You’re right, Barbara.

  • That “I built that” mentality, so lauded by the Republicans these days made me furious. My thoughts landed on my dad this morning, and I simply had to channel them.

    I wonder what Studs Terkel would have written about “I built that.”

  • Glenn Contrarian

    You and I both know what Studs Terkel would have thought, but because he would have had an opinion that would have been, shall we say, unflattering of today’s GOP, he would have been instantly branded either a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a tool of the left-wing MSM, a moonbat, a bleeding-heart liberal, and as someone who “just doesn’t understand America”.

  • Barbara, I must agree with your assessment of unions as worker representatives. But they have lately become political hacks, not their initial or intended purpose. This link and this link and this link illustrate my point. If unions return to their original purpose, they will do a great job. If, however, the union “leadership” continues to force members to contribute to a single political party, then criticism will continue.

    Plus, I seem to remember that Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren said, “You didn’t build that.” Are you, as you apparently in comment # 2 are, saying they are wrong?

  • Warren B–But destroying the unions (as the GOP seems bent on doing for a variety of reasons) is not the answer either. The unions, flawed as they are have for decades in this country in many ways have forestalled the decline (if not destruction) of the middle class.

    They said “they didn’t build that…” without a lot of help. They referred to “the evil” government. I extended the argument to everyone else involved in creating one success.

  • Re: comment # 5, Barbara, I don’t remember anything in my comment # 4 saying that unions be destroyed, just return to their ORIGINAL purpose. And have you seen this link?

    And, you say, “They said “they didn’t build that…” without a lot of help. They referred to “the evil” government. I extended the argument to everyone else involved in creating one success.” Can you offer substantion, or is that your interpretation and/or opinion?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Warren –

    Can you offer substantion, or is that your interpretation and/or opinion?

    How well will a business succeed if there are no taxpayer-funded roads? Or employees educated well enough to do their jobs well? Or government regulation to ensure that the business has reliable access to water, power, sewage, police and fire protection?

    Warren, NO business can prosper without taxpayer support, as the above paragraph clearly shows. You get what you pay for – and if you’re not willing to pay the taxes necessary to provide for the education and roads and regulation that enable your business to succeed, then you’re not willing to pay what it takes to live in a first-world nation.

    I do so wish I could take you to the Philippines so you could see what life is like when government is truly small and weak, when tax laws are weak and often unenforceable, where there’s little regulation of business and what life is like where what America calls “right to work” is applied on a nationwide basis.

  • Re: comment # 7, Glenn, you offer your opinion rather than substantion.

    Watch this. Glenn, ANY business can prosper without taxpayer support, as the above paragraph clearly shows. See, that’s my opinion, worth exactly what yours is worth.

  • Warren–Give me an example.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Warren –

    Watch this. Glenn, ANY business can prosper without taxpayer support, as the above paragraph clearly shows. See, that’s my opinion, worth exactly what yours is worth.

    Oh? Okay then, that means you’re saying that ANY business doesn’t need roads for its customers or its suppliers, educated employees, or reliable access to water, power, sewage, police and fire protection.

    I’ll repeat Barbara’s question – can you give us a single example of a business that needs zero taxpayer support? Here’s a hint: there are none in the modern world – not even online businesses would qualify. But you go right on ahead and give us an example, y’hear?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And Warren –

    See, that’s my opinion, worth exactly what yours is worth.

    So if my opinion is that 2+2=4 and your opinion is 2+2=chitlins, your opinion is worth exactly what mine is?


  • Re: comment # 9, Barbara, I TRIED to give you two examples, but twice my response got rejected.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Of course they did. That’s why you were able to post #11. Did your ‘examples’ use links? If so, just give the names and where they’re at.

    I can’t wait – THIS I’ve just got to see!

  • Re: comment # 13, Glenn, including links has worked before – see comment # 4.

    But anyway, here goes. Barbara, in response to comment # 9, try this: It documents (not an opinion or interpretation) how Obama bailed out the UAW.

  • Warren. Two things. A Heritage Foundation analysis (this, by the way, is an opinion piece) is hardly objective. But I (and Glenn) asked you to give us an example of a business success story that needed no help or support from the government or from anyone else.

  • seancabrillo

    As a navy vet, I was educated by the U.S. navy, University of California undergrad, and NPS . I now run my own secure document and shredding business. Obama should have said: “You didn’t build that ALONE.” I am grateful for the opportunities govt. gave me. and disdainful of a Romney/Ryan experiment in withdrawing health care, Pell grants, support for public education, etc…
    I didn’t shed blood, sweat over the books, and bust my butt building my business, to further benefit Romney’s billionaire buddies.

  • welcome, seancabrillo! Well said. Obama actually did say that. The quote spread by the GOP was truncated and out of context.

  • Christine

    I am horrified to see that so many are still drinking the Kool-Aid. Do you even know what you’re fighting about? I guarantee most wouldn’t be able to give a half viable argument as to WHAT exactly Obama has done that’s so wonderful. However, given the chance at rail-roading the other…?? It seems like it’s the popular thing to do. Facts and our country’s future are less and less important, but building the “big bad republicans” to be the evil, rich and greedy is done so readily.

    Obama has been blaming Bush since PRIOR to day one of his presidency. Of course he wouldn’t ever take any responsibility for not digging out of the mess, he condones pushing one’s personal responsibility onto the shoulders of fellow-Americans.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    seancabrillo –

    NPS? I was in class 8204, where I found out a rural Mississippi education just did not prepare one for NPS, and so I soon became nuke waste – and gained a lot of respect for those who made it through.

    But I’ll always be grateful for what I learned in my Naval career – good on you, shipmate!

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Christine –

    bin Laden is dead, GM is alive. The Dow is double what it was. We’re out of one war and we’ll be out of the other in less than two years. Any Republican would be shouting to the rooftops with pride if a GOP president had accomplished these things in his first term given what Obama faced on his first day – an economy in full meltdown losing 800K jobs per month and two wars…but since it was a Democrat, well, THAT means none of what he accomplished counts, right?

    And as far as blaming Bush goes, it takes a lot longer to rebuild a house after someone burned it down…but you don’t start blaming the one trying to rebuild the house, do you? No, you blame the stupid individual who set it on fire in the first place. That, and you do NOT replace the one rebuilding the house with one whose policies and political beliefs are just as bad but more extreme than the one who initially set the fire.

  • Chris

    Does anyone else see the irony in the GOP using “We built this” as a slogan at a convention dominated by speeches about “how bad things are” in America today?

  • Labor/Management relations is easier during good times. The hard times bring about more conflicts because there is a smaller pie. During the Great Depression, management took bonuses in the form of stock options. They were rewarded handsomely for their sacrifices after the Great Depression. Labor clearly benefits from the social safety net which government provides along with funded pensions and worker savings.

    Infrastructure is physically put into place by the toil of many workers. Professional accountants, lawyers, engineers and others do the planning so that projects can go forward. The government facilitates the process by approving permits and sometimes participating in securing funds in the form of grants and long term financing.

  • Igor

    @18-Chrstine: there’s an extensive list of Obamas accomplishments at list of Obama achievements, and every one includes reference citations.

    There are several categories, here are the first two:

    Arts and Culture
    Increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to the highest level since 1992. ref, ref, ref
    Created an artist corps for public schools. ref
    Championed the importance of arts education. ref
    Promoted cultural diplomacy. ref

    Banking and Financial Reform
    Established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. ref
    Established President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability to assist in financial education for all Americans. ref, ref , ref
    Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010. ref, ref
    Dodd-Frank (DF) Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the biggest financial reform law since the Great Depression. ref
    Managed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) ref
    Assigned a Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009. ref
    Pension relief Act of 2010. ref
    Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act. ref, ref
    Played a lead role in G-20 Summit re: financial crisis. ref
    Reformed deferral rules to curb tax advantages for investing overseas. ref
    Established new offshore investment policy that promotes in-sourcing. ref, ref
    Cut salaries for 65 bailout executives (Pay Czar). ref
    Banks have repaid 75% of TARP funds, bringing the cost down to $89B as of June 2010. ref
    Closed offshore tax safe havens, tax credit loopholes. ref , ref , ref
    Created the Financial Stability Oversight Council to monitor stability of the financial system and individual firms (DF). ref
    New requirements for reporting financial data (DF). ref
    Created self-funded Office of Financial Research (OFR) to collect information from financial firms (DF). ref
    OFR employees must wait a year before working for certain financial firms. ref
    Provided for orderly liquidation of financial companies (DF). ref
    Limited trading activities of banks (Volcker Rule) beginning 2 yrs after passage (DF). ref
    Swaps Pushout Rule prevented federal assistance to swaps (including derivatives) traders (DF). ref
    Derivatives must be traded transparently through a clearing house (DF). ref
    Defined the amount and nature of assets required to meet capital requirements (DF). ref
    Originators of asset-backed securities must retain 5% ownership/risk (DF). ref
    Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (DF). ref
    Stronger client fiduciary duty for broker-dealers (DF). ref
    Higher standards for securities advertising and disclosures (DF). ref
    Expanded “insider loans” (DF). ref
    Higher standards for sytemically important ($50 billion assets+) institutions, including annual stress tests and restrictions on bank acquisitions (DF). ref
    Executive compensation must be determined by an independent committee (DF). ref
    Issued compensation guidelines for bank executive salary and bonuses. ref , ref
    Financial agencies must establish Offices of Women and Minorities to promote more diverse hiring (DF). ref
    Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act. ref, ref
    Credit CARD Technical Corrections Act of 2009. ref
    Established a credit card bill of rights. ref
    Reformed credit card swipe fees. ref
    Created new criminal penalties for mortgage fraud. ref
    Congress pursued Goldman Sachs for securities violations. ref
    Permanently extended Research and Experimentation Tax Credit for domestic investments. ref
    (Treasury) Sold 1.5 billion shares of Citigroup at a profit. ref
    G-20 summit produced a $1.1 trillion deal to combat the global financial crisis. ref
    Negotiated deal with Swiss banks to permit US government to gain access to records of tax evaders and criminals. ref
    Financial reform has ‘strongest consumer financial protections in history.’ ref
    Section curator:

    Here’s a list of all the categories:

    Arts and Culture
    Banking and Financial Reform
    Civil Rights
    Commerce, Trade and technology
    Education: College
    Education: Health of Children
    Employment: Jobs
    Energy: Green
    Energy: Old
    Energy: Oil
    Foreign Affairs and International Relations
    Government Efficiency
    Health and Wellness
    Health Care Reform (See also Taxes)
    Law and Justice
    Medicaid/Medicare/Social Security
    Military and National Security
    Military Veterans and Families
    National Disasters and Emergencies
    National Service
    Scientific and Medical Research
    Space Exploration and Space Station
    Transparency and Accountability
    Recovery, Progress and Change

  • Bob

    @4 You agree with Barbara on representation, but use your first link to prove your point. I see a Union representing it’s members. The workers were promised a pension as part of their agreed upon wage package. I am tired of “restructuring” used as a means to steal loyal workers pensions, union or not. Your second link I am guessing you are referring Obama’s relationship with the SEIU. Democrats have traditionally been pro labor and pro union. Republicans pro business and corporations. I can say four years ago Candidate Obama did ask the SEIU and other unions for an endorsement. He sat over two hours speaking frankly with the SEIU. There was NO taboo subjects. Can we say the same for the other candidate? Third link looks like someone threw up a website with their beliefs (unless Andrew Dart is someone I should know. lol). There are strict Federal rules covering dues. Union PAC money is seperate. SEIU as by law, allows it’s members to optout of political contributions. I worked with members that did optout of the SEIU PAC. IBEW gives you a slip when you accept a job with an employer. You make a choice each time if you like to contribute. IBEW also has merchandise you can purchase whose profits go to PAC. Unions and it’s members vote for canidates that are supportive a the labor movement. I have not worked for all Union’s, so I can not omment on the others. We do split our vote. Collective bargaining rights and the good unions have done is being constantly attacked. Unions have no other choice but to have a political voice.
    @ Barbara, I have been with the IBEW five years now. (Local 176) I am so proud to be part of this family. The compassion and generosity I have witnessed is unparalleled. We know the living wage’s and safe working conditions we enjoy came from the suffering and hard work of your father and those before him. Brotherhood to the end, RIP fine Sir.

  • It’s great to read the discussion generated by my article, whichever side of it you’re on! Chris–Fantastic catch about the irony. “I built this.” Yep, they surely did build – this mess.

    Bob. Welcome! My dad and my grandfather (my mom’s father) were both IBEW Local 134 guys. My dad was an electrician on big construction jobs from the time he finished trade school to the week he died in 1980 at a too-young age. The IBEW was there for my mother when he died, keeping us all on his insurance, and making life possible for our mother.

    The response to this column makes up for my not winning the Samuel Gompers scholarship (which required an essay) so very long ago (LOL).

  • Clav

    bin Laden is dead…

    Big deal! The mightiest military machine in the history of the world managed to bump off one middle aged guy!

    GM is alive…

    Barely. Word on the Street is it’s sliding back into bankruptcy, thanks to the ineptitude of the government-appointed management.

    The Dow is double what it was.

    Um not really. The dow closed at $8000.86 on January 30, 2009; today it closed at $13047.48, up $5046.62 (63%) since January ’09; a healthy increase to be sure, but well short of doubling. And in any case, the president has little influence on the Dow.

  • Wait – wait a minute… the GOP convention slogan is “We built this”?

    But – but – but… I thought any achievement with even a smidgen of worth could only be the product of a rugged individual’s blood, toil, tears and sweat…

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Looks like Clav is sticking to the script – Thou Shalt Not Give Any Credit to the Dems no matter what. Thou Shalt Belittle all Dem accomplishments and shout their failures to the masses. Thou Shalt Not pay any attention whatsoever to anything Republicans or conservatives do that is wrong…

    …for if you fail to abide by these commandments by the Trinity of Rove, Norquist, and Ryan, Thou Shalt be cast out to live among the 99%!

  • Yep! But Bill was brilliant last night in getting to the heart of it. Way to go Bubba!

  • Clav

    Looks like Clav is sticking to the script

    Good show, Glenn! When you can’t refute the facts, obfuscate, muddle and throw out strawmen.

    You are so predictable…

  • Clav


    I agree, Bubba was brilliant as always, in his delivery last night. Wish he were the Dem candidate this year, I like him better than both of the guys actually running. He did, however throw out a few questionable numbers and “facts.” Not all, mind you; but a few.

  • Will there be comparisons of Presidents Clinton and Obama when the latter speaks today? They will be hard to avoid, just as would be comparisons after riding in a shiny new car and then getting back into the old wreck one has got along with but in which one is becoming a bit uncomfortable.

    Such comparisons are unlikely to produce much fervor for the old wreck and perhaps, just perhaps, a little bit of admiration morphing into a decision to try to find a perhaps even just moderately better car.

  • Can’t see Romney as even a minutely better car. I’m looking forward to barack’s speech. I’m guessing that if anything, Bill’s speech last night inspired Barack to up his game even higher

  • Igor

    @18-Christine: “I guarantee most wouldn’t be able to give a half viable argument as to WHAT exactly Obama has done that’s so wonderful. ”

    You’re wrong. Here are some MORE good things done by Obama (cf. my #23, above):

    Obamas list

    Civil Rights

    Provided $12.2 billion in new funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Act though the American Recovery and investment Act. ref
    Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Instituted equal pay for women. ref, ref, ref
    Presidential Memorandum extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. ref , ref , ref , ref
    Presidential Memorandum protecting gay and lesbian partners’ visitation/healthcare decision-making rights (4/15/2010). ref
    Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include gender, sexual orientation and disability. ref
    Supported the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). ref
    Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act. ref
    Established White House Council on Women and Girls (Executive Order 13506 ). ref
    Financial agencies must establish Offices of Women and Minorities to promote more diverse hiring.
    Increased minority access to capital. ref
    Pushing through settlement in the black farmers lawsuit against USDA. ref, ref
    Signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. ref
    Increased Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities (Exec Order)(celebrating 20th anniversary of the ADA). ref, ref
    Section curator: ^roytoric

    Commerce, Trade and technology
    Promoted internet freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy. ref, ref , ref
    Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009. ref
    Satellite Television Extension Act of 2010. ref
    Expanded loan programs for small businesses. ref
    Small Business Act. ref
    Small Business Investment Act. ref
    Proposed tougher meat industry antitrust rules. ref , ref
    Denied federal contracts to tax delinquents. ref
    Appointed the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer. ref
    Established Federal IT Dashboard. ref
    Modernized the USA.gov portal to connect people to the services they require. ref
    Launched the National Export Initiative, with the goal of doubling US exports by 2015. ref , ref
    Provided National Export Initiative/Progress report and named President’s Export Council. ref, ref
    Launched piracy crackdown. ref

    More to come.

  • Maurice

    Barbara – I read your article and appreciate your point of view. When I got laid off from my high paying job I started a small business. It was just me going around in my truck and doing repair work as a handyman. Eventually I got more and more work and hired 5 full time employees. When I got my high paying job back I gave my business to my brother in law. He is a good guy but lacks some of the skills needed to drive a business. Now the growing business I gifted to him is down to just one employee. It does take a special person to create and run a business. Not everyone has that talent. Certainly few have the guts to take out a second mortgage on their house to start a business.

    Yes I did not do it alone. Yes I used the roads the government provided. But ultimately I was the driving force for my business.

  • Clav

    And more, Maurice, and more.

    I’m sure of that.

  • Agent 54 here again. People have asked me how I got my job at the Nominal Secrets Apparatus (NSA). I went through the Union of course. It’s the Brotherhood of Secret Electronically Recorded Surveillances (BSers).