The Honorable Road

Labor Day weekend is almost here. Barbecues, bratwurst, boating, beer, baseball and Jimmy Buffett. Two other images popped into my mind – cowboys and greedy, unethical company executives.

According to the Department of Labor, Labor Day, the first Monday in September, “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

What made me think more about it this year were disgraced companies like Enron and WorldCom. Where is their contribution to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country? There are also seedy CEOs and other denizens of the ultra rich and shabby nouveau riche accused of super greed, aiming to get theirs tenfold or maybe dodge some taxes, even if it means tossing other people to the wolves. Then bleating when they get caught (or actually having their expensive lawyers bleat for them). What if George Washington had said “Dad, I’m keeping the cherries, but you’ll have to talk to my lawyer about the tree?”

They are the get-it-all-without-working-too-hard-for-it crowd, and they’ve become poster boys and girls for the worst of America. Is this how we make our money these days, with sneaky shortcuts that pick the pockets of other people? For heaven’s sake we live in an age when a CEO can earn an obscene multi-million dollar income even if his company is a disaster and employees are being laid off. We need the business world to create rich companies and rich people, but it has to be done, as the advertisement says, “the old fashioned way – they have to earn it.”

Just like you do.

Maybe the most persistent icon of a real American working man is the cowboy. Here was someone who worked his tail off in all sorts of conditions because that’s who he was. He knew the land, the weather, and horses and cattle far more intimately than most businessmen have a feel for their work. His life, and who he was, was intertwined with his work. Hard work, no shortcuts. When he was out there alone, he alone was responsible for getting the job done. He didn’t cheat anyone. He also earned a deep satisfaction at doing a tough, valuable job as well as it can be done. Not too many others could, or would, do it. There are still some real cowpunchers left.

Today the trucker is equally an icon for the American working man.

For many people, the work they do fulfills them very little. It’s a just a paycheck, not much of their passion, heart or soul goes into it. OK, so a lot of the time any job is just a job. But for most truckers, like cowboys, it’s more than just a lonely job. You can still “feel” an engine and a transmission, when you have to. You can still know the quirks of a clutch or how a turbo will react differently on a misty, cold mountain than it will out in Death Valley.

There is something tangible in your fingertips. There is timing, there is skill with 80,00 pounds on black ice, or a high load in the wind. When things go wrong there’s only you to straighten them out. The work you do requires more of you than just going through motions. It demands experience, understanding and judgment or it doesn’t get done. It requires you do it in rain, snow or heat wave and in the face of regulations that often don’t help. People simply expect you to get the job done, and that job is vital to American industry and commerce. And when it’s done, not too many people will thank you.

America still needs people who know how to work hard, day in day out. We are not a nation of money grubbing CEOs although international business headlines must have the rest of the world, and some people here at home, wondering.

When all is said and done, the heart of America is her hard working people. Always will be. When a few greedy company executives stuff their pockets with dirty money, they steal something from you, and from her.

Labor Day is for you.