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By Robbie Hunter, Special to CALmatters

Toward the end of the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, asked him: “What is the dirtiest, hardest job you’ve ever had?”

Kavanaugh responded that he had a job one summer in high school working construction but incredulously spent more time talking about mowing friends’ and families’ lawns in suburban D.C.

I have no doubt that the lessons of the Kavanaugh hearing will forever be an ugly chapter in American politics that have triggered the wounds of generations of Americans.

And certainly, socio-economic privilege is not a predictor of criminal propensity. But the question of privilege and entitlement jump out as we think about who is best served to represent Californians in either Sacramento or Washington D.C.

What is the hardest, dirtiest job you’ve ever had?

This is a question that we need to be asking all of our elected and prospective elected leaders, as it is an important lens for how they experience blue-collar Californians.

The California State Building Trades Council represents nearly half a million construction workers including over 50,000 apprentices who, for a lifetime, go to hard, dirty and dangerous jobs every day and who look to Sacramento and Washington for lawmakers who will represent them and their work.

Like American manufacturing jobs, these voices are becoming almost impossible to find. We at the Building Trades are trying to change that.

Watching kids from the toughest neighborhoods in California graduate from our apprentice-training programs is like having a front row seat to watching someone’s future expand.

Kids who grew up in rented rooms work hard to master trades that put them on a path to the middle class and home ownership. And I can guarantee you that I was as proud when I watched my son graduate from the ironworker’s four-year apprentice program in La Palma as any parent might be watching their kid graduate from an Ivy League school.

It’s important to understand what it’s like to wash dishes, load pallets, work on an assembly line or wrestle a 30-ton girder into place 70 stories above the street.

There’s value in knowing what it’s like for a single mom to have to pick up shifts in order to afford sneakers so her kid can go to school and not be teased, and working the third shift after coming from your day job so you can pay for your daughter’s braces.

For many young men and women, getting a manufacturing job is a path out of working in the fields. And understanding the meaning of hard work is a crucial qualification for holding higher office.

Politicians like to talk about their education and degrees, and yes, those things are important. But equally important is an understanding of the blue-collar jobs and industries that make California work.

I spent a couple of years when I came to this country working in a meat packing house in Vernon while learning to weld at night school in Huntington Park.

Then I spent a lifetime as an ironworker building the LA skyline, and it’s with this context I proudly work for California’s construction workers.

Although we are fortunate to work with a handful of leaders who have not forgotten where they come from, it has become increasingly hard to find leaders who really understand what a day is like in the life of a blue-collar worker or understand the pride that comes from working with your hands, day in and day out.

I suspect, because of that, we increasingly see legislation and policies advanced that do not value blue-collar jobs and the families that rely on those jobs. Sadly yet, intolerably policies seem to indicate an entitled disdain for working families and the industries that pay their bills.

Busting one’s butt to go to Yale when you graduate as a jock from Georgetown Prep is no substitute for understanding what it feels like to be physically spent from a hard day’s work or what it means to risk life and limb in order to earn a paycheck to feed your family.

Going forward, at the Building Trades, we’re going to borrow Sen. Durbin’s question when speaking with candidates for public office: “What is the hardest, dirtiest job you’ve ever had?” We’re going to be real interested in their answers.


Robbie Hunter, an ironworker, is the president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.