When I heard that the new Wilshire Grand hotel was going up at Wilshire and Figueroa, I got in touch with my friends in the building trades unions and suggested a film that followed the hotel’s construction from start to finish – from the first record-breaking cement pour to the topping off and finishing. They were enthusiastic about the idea.
I come from a “building trades family”– my electrician father attempted to instill the love and mysteries of his craft to me during my youth. While I’ve never done construction work myself, I’ve always felt comfortable on construction sites, emotionally at home with the unique atmosphere and rough camaraderie.
I don’t merely want to archive the rise of a building with this film. I want to take a closer look at what the men and women who work there feel about their skills, their work and about the values they cultivate amongst themselves as they diligently move forward and upward.
There is a long tradition in the United States, and perhaps most of the world, of binary thinking when it comes to work. We all know the categories and the language: blue collar and white collar, vocational and academic, skilled and unskilled, those who work with their minds vs. those who work with their hands. This is a political and class language masquerading as an “objective” description of our complex work lives.
Anyone who has spent even the briefest time talking to construction workers about what they do quickly realizes how warped and outdated these distinctions are.
My interest is in deepening our understanding of what construction workers do, what their unions mean to them, how their crafts are learned and how their work contributes to identity and meaning in their lives.
When iron worker Chris Ahrens talks about the ritual of the evergreen tree as a “symbol of life,” he is extending his moral imagination to the eventual visitors to the hotel that he will never meet. His work is an expression of his values.
Insulation worker Reginal Butler struggles daily with the tools and tasks of his trade. The pride he has in his work flows from those moments of self-creation.
And journeyman electrician Dino Degrassi understands the intricate relationship between “book” learning and practical experience — the thought, nuance and creativity that are required to polish his craft.
If one aspect of freedom is the desire to describe and therefore define oneself, then reinforcing the shared vocabulary of craft and quality makes possible a circle of autonomy and pride at the worksite. Union craftspeople teach each other how to interpret their own work.
When the final film is finished it will be shown in schools throughout the country, providing a more accurate look at the opportunities available in the union construction trades.
(Kelly Candaele is a writer, filmmaker, teacher and has served as a trustee for the Los Angeles Community College District.)