Sweat Equity Love of Labor Not Lost on Local Workers
By Deborah Salomon
In the labor market, butcher, baker and candlestick maker are cushy employment compared with carpenter, mason, roofer and farmer.
"I'm old school. You go out and work your butt off and get what you deserve," says Ken Howell, a stone/brick mason and lifelong Moore County resident.
Mechanization and outsourcing may have diminished their numbers but not the importance of the labor force whose toil Americans celebrate on Monday. The precarious economic climate has trickled down to trowel and tractor; now, to stay afloat, workers frequently diversify.
John Blue Jr. of Aberdeen, a sixth-generation farmer, cut back on tobacco and started growing bok choy and daikon radishes for Farm to Table subscribers.
Construction workers are not so fortunate. Larry Parker of the N.C. Department of Employment Security reports that statewide, construction jobs were up by 200 in the past year - from being down by 3,700 the year before.
Gene Norton, manager of Aberdeen Workforce Solutions/ N.C. Department of Commerce, doesn't have much better news: "There are lots of skilled construction people out there looking for work because commercial (and especially) residential construction is down in the dumps."
Furthermore, Norton continues, out-of-town construction companies may bring their own people, rather than hiring locally. Unskilled helpers earning $8 to $12 an hour have slightly better job prospects.
The law enforcement center in Carthage is the only government project under construction in Moore County. Commercially, Dick's Sporting Goods in Aberdeen, a junior Walmart in Carthage, stores at Southern Pines Village and the widening of N.C. 211 have provided some construction jobs.
The American laborer's heavy lifting has, paradoxically, long been romanticized by writers of poetry and fiction - from Walt Whitman to John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel and current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, author of "Overhand the Hammers Swing: Poems of Work."
Farmer Blue chuckles at the notion: "When you get up in the morning and the tractor's broken down, you have two flat tires and (by afternoon) it's 108 degrees, that's not very romantic."
Labor Day Origins
Labor Day originated in Canada, in 1872, when striking typographical union workers organized a parade protesting 58-hour work weeks. A decade later, on Sept. 5, 1882, a "workingmen's holiday" was observed in New York City. The idea took hold. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894. Celebrations, often contentious and sometimes violent, have morphed into summer's final barbecue and, during an election year, political rallies.
North Carolina made labor waves in 1934 when a United Textile Workers strike that closed 104 mills in Gaston County spread throughout the South and New England. Half a million workers joined the protest against wages and working conditions. Presently, the N.C. State AFL-CIO represents a variety of unions. Their annual Labor Day parade on Sept. 3 in Charlotte honors "the accomplishments of organized labor in this country, region and community."
These laborers working in Moore County illustrate a breed beyond hard hat and metal lunch pail.
Butch Ciarrocchi, grandson of a welder, looks every inch the iron worker: lean, muscular, tan, grimy hands and a five-day stubble.
"Physical labor's my strong point," Ciarrocchi says.
He's been at it for 15 years, mostly in New Jersey. "My wife worked for a steel company - I started as an apprentice doing the dirty stuff and worked myself up."
"Up," meaning 100 feet in near-zero temperatures for 50 to 80 hours per week, sometimes into the night. Ciarrocchi has never been seriously injured but had a friend who was killed on the job. "It's good to be a little scared up there," he nods respectfully.
Heat is the enemy. "Me and three guys drink three cases of water in a 10-hour day." His uniform: a ripped T-shirt, well-worn jeans and high boots, for safety, costing $125.
Ciarrocchi, 46, has erected steel structures for the military; now, he is framing retail space on Brucewood Road in Southern Pines, which means a 90-minute commute from the horse farm he bought in Oxford. His wife loves horses and his daughter wanted to attend nursing school in North Carolina.
Ciarrocchi appreciates the slower Southern pace although wages are considerably less than in the union-controlled Northeast. As for the commute, iron workers are accustomed to following jobs - and completing them with pride. "I drive my wife crazy saying 'I built that,'" he admits.
Erecting steel beams, Ciarrocchi concedes, is a younger man's profession. "But I plan to work until the day I die," eventually, he hopes, as a project manager.
What's missing from this poster is stress. "Office work would drive me crazy," Ciarrocchi says. Replacing it are phrases rarely heard in today's workplaces:
"I'm living out the American dream. I have my health, my wife, my father in heaven. I'm as happy as can be."
Want poetry? Ken Howell uses a trowel. Romance? Howell laid a good percent of the bricks that make downtown Southern Pines so charming. Southern Prime Steakhouse is his, along with sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Yeah, I did that."
Besides the manual labor, Howell, 54, is a businessman, bike racer, runner and creator of brick sculptures.
"I have to have a vision of what something's going to look like," Howell says. He calls stone subjective and creative, and says "My tools have to be comfortable in my hands."
This mason can recognize a straight plumb line at 35 mph.
Tall, lanky, wearing jeans and wraparound sunglasses, Howell is unmistakably an outdoorsman. "I got my work ethic working on farms," he says. Son of an architect, he tried college for a year. "Not for me."
Howell started as a tender/helper about 1977, working himself up to apprentice, journeyman and mason. Along the way, he worked side jobs, learning that construction is a hard, cruel business.
"You're out in 110 degree heat and the customer is complaining and the bills are due tomorrow - that's the most frustrating."
Yet rewarding. "If you're smart about your body you become strong, like an athlete."
Projects have been scarce during the economic downturn. In the past, 90 percent of his work was residential, 10 percent commercial. "Now, it's the opposite. Collecting from the state or federal government is hard," Howell says.
Still, regrets are few.
"It's nice to look over your shoulder and see what you've created. I wouldn't trade it to be behind a desk. After a lifetime of physical work I'm happy," says the brick connoisseur who started out carrying a metal lunchbox.
"Now I run over to Betsy's for a crepe."
A Case of the Blues
John Blue Jr.'s labor continues six generations who farmed the 400 acres in Aberdeen.
"My dad was a hard worker. He plowed with a mule. I was on a tractor at age 6."
At 15, Blue's father gave him land to grow a test crop. Along the way, he learned the science, mechanics and labor of farming, from tractor repair to navigating 700-pound hay bales and pulling pigweed manually.
"Harvesting tobacco is the hardest, dirtiest job. We still do it by hand," Blue says.
His mind wanders while working in the field. Sometimes he meditates on the responsibility he has assumed. "You're more like a steward to the land (than an owner)," Blue says. "This makes the hard work tolerable."
Big, burley Blue may be the boss, but he works 12 to 14 hours a day with his crew during the growing season, in long sleeves and a hat. Nothing protects him from the muscle soreness that sets in with age. "You learn to do things smarter," Blue says.
In the winter he cleans equipment and builds greenhouses for diversity crops.
Farming can be just as tough business-wise. Months of labor and their proceeds can disappear in a hailstorm. A farmer is at the mercy of drought and infestations.
At least, after a lifetime of farming, Blue knows the score.
"Faith comes into it," he says. "I pray a lot. But I like physical activity. I'd go mad inside, in front of a computer. You can't hear a cellphone on a tractor."
The future of Blue's labor lies with his only son, Sam, now 12. Sam answers the expected question with, "I don't really know for sure."
Blue exerts no pressure, but the strong young man is already growing radishes to earn money, and helping with other farm work. He's considering a degree in agriculture before becoming the seventh-generation farmer Blue.
A Roof Under His Head
Bob Greenleaf can do almost anything: build, repair, move, flash, shingle, demolish. Just ask him.
'My father (who owned a machine shop) made me work every day of my life. I had to fix things, make them work," Greenleaf says with broad Massachusetts vowels.
When Greenleaf tired of working in the machine shop he learned flashing/roofing at a small company. "I went in as a laborer and after a week I was the foreman."
Flashing took him high (30 stories up the Prudential Tower in Boston) and low (underground subway grates). His mother's love of horses and friendship with equine luminary Ginnie Moss brought the family to Southern Pines where he labored bedding and stabling horses at Carolina Horse Park.
"Anything, as long as it was outside," Greenleaf says.
Then, roofing full-time for nine years at a local company. He's not afraid of heights and has witnessed serious accidents but never had one, unless you count a tense rooftop face-off with a rabid possum. The roofer prevailed.
Greenleaf is slight of stature but agile, energetic and strong, with the ruddy face and hands of a laborer. "Going out at night with roofing glue and cement on my hands - that's the worst," he says.
Greenleaf's accomplishments include the Southern Pines Civic Center, train station and Hawkins & Harkness jewelers. He solved a 30-year roofing problem on the old governor's mansion in Greensboro in three hours.
During 25 years in the trade, Greenleaf has developed some definite ideas: He won't tear off a perfectly good roof, and he won't work with certain materials. Other than that, "I like a challenge. If it's easy everybody would do it. I like to do things nobody else wants to do." He loves Moore County, where people greet him with "good morning" instead of "get out of my way."
At 50, Greenleaf plans to work for another 10 years, some of it blowing pine straw off roofs. Then, an active retirement with plenty of horse involvement.
"I like to get up and do something every day. I've worked with my hands my whole life - no smartphone, email or computers, only a calculator. I work with people I respect. As long as I can eat and pay my bills, I'm happy and can enjoy life."
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story