Steve and I worked for the same company, but our jobs were decidedly different.
He was blue collar; my collar was white (or, occasionally, pale yellow). He was union; I was management. He worked with molten steel; I slaved over a hot word processor. He worked different shifts at different times — days, swings, graveyards. My job was strictly 9-to-5.
Still, we were friends. We lived in the same neighborhood, and we went to the same church. I knew his family, and he knew mine. We could talk openly with each other, and we usually did (except during labor negotiations, when we found there were some things that we were better off not to discuss).
One day I was taking some VIPs on a tour of the steel mill at which we were both employed and I saw him out by the blast furnace. He was covered with sweat and soot as he worked confidently just a few feet from metal so hot a miscue would melt him, me and the tour van I was driving — instantly.
“I don’t know how you do that,” I told him when I saw him at church the following Sunday. “It’s so hot up there, even in the dead of winter. And if you make a mistake people die. How do you handle the pressure?”
He scoffed at my question. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for years. The furnace pretty much runs itself. I’m just there for the ride.”
“Well, I’m glad it’s you and not me,” I said. “I couldn’t do what you do.”
A few weeks later Steve and his crew came into the office to pick up some tickets for a football game the company was sponsoring. I was on a tight deadline to deliver some advertising copy, so after I greeted Steve I returned to my computer to continue working while my staff took care of the tickets. After a few minutes of tip-tip-tapping on my keyboard (interrupted, as usual, by phone calls from the CEO, a newspaper reporter and the radio station that was waiting for my copy, respectively) I had that funny, awkward feeling that I had an audience. I glanced up and saw Steve leaning against the wall, watching me.
“I don’t know how you do that,” he said. “There’s so much stuff going on up here. I don’t know how you keep track of everything. And if you make a mistake millions of people are going to hear it on the radio. How do you handle the pressure?”
I scoffed at his question (even though it sounded eerily familiar). “It’s no big deal,” I said. “I’ve been doing this for years. Most of this stuff writes itself. I’m just here to make sure it all gets to the right places on time.”
“Well, I’m glad it’s you and not me,” Steve said. “I couldn’t do what you do.”
It wasn’t until Steve left the office that I realized we had pretty much had the exact same conversation twice — once with regards to his work and once with regards to mine. Without even trying, Steve and I had stumbled on a simple fact of life in the workplace: it takes all kinds.
Thankfully, we live in a world in which there are all kinds of people to do all kinds of work. And Labor Day provides us with the perfect opportunity to pause for a moment to consider all of the people who make such a difference in the quality of our lives by doing work that we would rather not do. So while that burger is sizzling on your grill, think about all the people who helped to get it there: the rancher, the farmer, the veterinarian, the broker, the trucker, the butcher, the distributor, the grocer — and all of the people who provide goods and services to them to help them do their work. It’s an incredible, industrial-strength chain of workers that we honor and celebrate on Labor Day.
Regardless of the color of their collars.
(To read more by Joseph B. Walker, go to www.josephbwalker.com.)