Uncommon Ground

Working It

This is Montana, a state where the working class remains active, often managing a seemingly endless supply of tourists patronizing our great hometowns

By Mike Jopek

Montanans who work for a living know. My dad sure did. He worked sunrise to sunset. Rose early and went to bed early. He worked his entire life. After retirement, he built a home at 70. 

Many Montanans work with their hands and minds. It’s what we do. Sure, there are plenty of retirees collecting Social Security while living in the Flathead. Earlier they worked their time.

I was at Nelson’s hardware store as a construction guy grabbed plumbing fittings. I looked at his hands. They were big, bruised and worn. The lines ran deep. His face plenty weathered. The sun burned wrinkles onto his skin. I gave him a friendly nod. He said, “Hey.”

The waitress brought us our food. She’d been swirling about the restaurant for hours tending to hungry patrons. It was busy. She paused momentarily, shook her head ever so little as she saw the gratuity left behind from the obviously wealthy patrons previously occuping the high-top for hours. She cleared the table, said nothing.

A retiree volunteers at the local Habitat for Humanity build-site in the lower valley. I saw him the other day. He looked way tired after working all day taping and mudding. After a lifetime of skilled labor, he was quite capable of doing the job correctly. Retirees often donate their life’s skills to a community in need, to remain active and participate.

A woman works in Columbia Falls teaching young school kids about growing food and cooking. She’s a works full-time, travelling from one end of the valley to the other. Every morning she gets up, drives to across the big county doing the work that matters.

I looked out into the field. The sun has barely risen and the cold dew clung onto the freshly greened grass. There would be frost damage. It looked like a good day to get outdoors early. I felt tired. We had a long farm season before us.

Everywhere I look, local people are busy working, doing their best to provide for family and get ahead a little. Workers simply want a fair shake, a better chance to succeed. 

Locals aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. This is Montana, a state where the working class remains active, often managing a seemingly endless supply of tourists patronizing our great hometowns.

Many locals started businesses. Montana has great entrepreneurial spirit. We’re tough and independent. People know how to work and are willing to risk to get ahead. Success is not guaranteed in this opportunity to try.

I watched the excavator digging out footers to pour concrete. A couple men are making short work of the long project. Having done some of this work, I marveled at their efficiency and tenacity. They put up the forms and laid the rebar. Their work ethic was strong.

The dump truck driver hauled rocks to the site. She backed in the long winding drive, dropped the load and quickly left seeking to refill. There’s no stopping the work. She must have kids to feed or obligations to family.

Working mothers endured an extremely difficult and stressful time during the last years of this evolving pandemic. As child care and schools closed there was little prospect but to feed the growing family. Many moms had to keep working. There was no choice.

Even with schools again open, childcare remains extremely expensive and essentially non-existent. Working moms have withstood a lot. It’s not over yet for any local worker.

There are lots of anecdotal stories of businesses not finding adequate labor to perform the daily work. Wages remain low relative to the stratospheric cost of housing in a bustling state that previously chose to return $53 million of federal funding targeting emergency rental assistance to locals.

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