Salvatore (Sal) Stella has been the Director of the Forest Park Public Works Department — what you might call a white-collar management position — for about a year now. When asked if he sees himself differently now that he has been promoted, Stella replied, “I have a white-collar job but at heart I’m a blue-collar guy.”
Labor Day, which we celebrate on Monday and became a federal holiday in 1894, is more than just a day off for the recently promoted public works director. It is also a day to recognize the contributions and achievements of men and women who work with their hands.
Stella traces his sense of who he is back to his father who was born in Sicily, moved to the Chicago area in his forties and worked long hours in a factory to support his family. Looking back at life in his working-class family, he said, “I always had what I needed. When I was a kid, I got toys if they could afford it. Once in a while we got a pizza on Saturday when they had the money. Other times we ate whatever was in the house.”
Having learned a strong work ethic from his dad, Stella got a work permit at 15 years old and went to work at Caruso’s hot dog stand at the at the corner of Sixteenth and Central in Cicero. He got a job at Dominick’s where he moved up the ladder from bagger to manager. He was then hired as summer help at public works where he worked during the day while working at Dominick’s at night.
Meanwhile he went to Triton College for two years to save money and finished up at DePaul earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing. During his senior year at DePaul, a full-time position opened up at public works, so he went full time there and went to classes at night.
It was these blue-collar jobs together with his work ethic which enabled him along with financial aid to pursue his goal of getting a white collar job.
Then 9/11 happened, the economy went south, white collar jobs were hard to find, and the young college graduate continued working as a blue-collar guy towards the beginning of his 25 year commitment to serving in public works.
“I was a little anxious when I was promoted regarding my relationship with the guys, I had worked with for so many years,” he admitted, “so I had a pep talk with my guys and I told them that I wasn’t put in here to fire people or crack heads. I was put in here to keep the good work going and as long as we do our work, everything is going to go smoothly.”
You might say that nowadays Stella’s collar has both blue and white stripes, which gives him a unique perspective not only on the meaning of Labor Day but also on some of issues in current society.
Unions – Stella was a member of Teamsters Local 705 for over two decades, and now he is on the other side of the negotiating table. “I don’t think unions are bad,” he said. “They keep things in order in the workforce and make sure everyone gets their fair share.
“It all boils down to respect and trust. In the past, the negotiations with village have for the most part been civil. Now as a director I get along with the Teamsters very well.”
Promoting from within – “I get that when management wants to hire from the outside,” he said, “they are looking for a change in the department. But under John Doss, my predecessor, nothing was broken. The village hired me from within to keep the good work going on. My workers want to work for me, because they know who I am. I grew up with a lot of these guys.”
Attitude – Stella pointed out that his blue-collar guys have a good work ethic. They are not into climbing the promotional ladder as much being proud of what they do and serving the village. “Even though I am a white-collar worker now,” he said, “whenever I get a chance I’m out there in my orange shirt helping my guys out. I give them respect. I’m still one of them.”
College – “When I was growing up,” Stella began, “there was always that sense that you have to go to college. Nowadays that’s not the case, especially with the way the economy is. I see so many kids getting out of college, having tremendous student loans, not finding a job they were trained to do and working for Target or Walmart.” Stella himself wrote a check for $250 every month for10 years to pay off his student loan.
“Don’t be ashamed to go into the trades,” he added. “You are going to make good money. They are looking for people right now. You will make good money. And you get a good pension when you retire.”
Mentoring young people – This summer Stella oversaw 10 students sponsored by the Proviso Leyden Council for Community Action (PLCCA). They did manual labor cleaning sites in the village. They experienced what it’s like to get up every morning and get ready to punch a time clock. Perhaps most important, they worked alongside public works department people who modeled for them what a good work ethic looks like.
Along with the students, Lincoln Smith, a coach at Proviso East and what Stella referred to as a white-collar worker, was part of the summer crew. “On his last day,” Stella said, “he told me he enjoyed working here and that I was one of the best bosses he has ever had.”
“White-collar people,” Stella added, “sometimes don’t know what it is to be a blue-collar guy, but once they get into it they find that it’s enjoyable. It’s just as good of a job.”