Labor Day has largely lost its meaning. The holiday honors the contributions that workers make to America. Yet, how many celebrations or acts of appreciation for America’s workers take place on Labor Day, much less the remainder of the year? Since 1996, I have led companies whose existence depends on their ability to attract and retain labor. As a CEO, I understand that neither my company nor I can succeed without an engaged workforce.
In my opinion, the erosion of Labor Day’s meaning has its roots in a societal loss of respect for the contributions of the American worker. This is a tragedy. Today, we celebrate the hedge fund manager and venture capitalist. They are highly (sometimes obscenely) compensated. At the same time, the men and women who build our infrastructure, manufacture and repair goods, and transport products work quietly in the shadows. They receive little recognition, and their wages have barely kept up with inflation. Yet, when disaster strikes (think Hurricane Harvey), who is on the front line rebuilding our communities? The American worker.
If it were not for the American worker, the rest of us would be hungry and naked. President Lincoln said, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much higher consideration.”
President Lincoln’s words ring true today, but we have largely forgotten. It’s easy to blame America’s companies for this problem, but that is an easy excuse. This country is full of very progressive employers who know how to treat their employees. It is also full of awful employers who mistreat their employees.
Progressive businesses know how to engage their workers and to properly instill a deserved sense of dignity and nobility in every person. Components include fair pay, excellent treatment, opportunities for advancement and unconditional respect. Managers must understand that they are no better than their front lines. CEOs understand that we work for our employees as much as they work for us.
That said, even the most progressive businesses are working against a society that continues to lose respect for labor. We must abandon the myth that pursuing a skilled trade is somehow inferior to pursuing a college education. We need to accept the fact that wages must rise, even if that results in slightly higher prices. Wall Street must abandon its “quarter to quarter” earnings mentality and reward companies who invest in a long-term, stable, fairly-compensated labor force.
Each of us can make a difference. When you navigate around trucks or through construction zones, do you back off and give professionals the space they need to safely work? When someone has worked hard to deliver a product or make a repair/upgrade to your home, do you take it for granted, or do you make the time to offer appreciation? When your power goes out in the middle of the night, do you appreciate the men and women in high-risk environments working for your quality of life?
On Labor Day let’s honor America’s hard-working men and women and let’s continue to extend that gratitude all year. Together we can and must renew our respect for the American worker. In my company, I know that if we are strong on the inside, we are unbeatable on the outside. The same is true for America.
Brian L. Fielkow, JD, is the CEO of Jetco Delivery, a Houston-based multimillion-dollar transportation & logistics company specializing in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight. He also advises company big and small on issues of corporate culture.