Studs Terkel Working Essays

    This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence--to the spirit as well as the body.
        -Studs Terkel, Introduction to Working

I suppose that it's important, before we begin hammering this book, to recall that it was written in the early 1970's.  It is just barely possible that the attitude reflected in the epigraph above, and in the introductory essay and series of interviews that make up the book, was actually prevalent at that time.  Of course, coming in 1974, the book falls just at the end of the true industrial epoch and just at the point where inflation was catching up to the bloated Vietnam War/Great Society economy.  Most significantly, it comes just before the dislocations of the 1980's and 90's, when the American economy was wrenchingly transformed from a mechanical manufacturing basis into an information and service based economy.  This was perhaps the last moment for some time when you could complain about a relatively high paying and high skilled job and be taken seriously.

Many of the workers whom Terkel interviews, and who inform his negative view of modern employment and his skepticism about the work ethic, are autoworkers, fed up with their spiritually unrewarding assembly line jobs.  Of course, today these same people and Terkel himself are likely to be found dressed up as tree frogs, protesting the globalization which has helped export these boring but high-paying jobs overseas.  The whiny sections on the auto industry are reminiscent of Ben Hamper's Rivethead (see Orrin's review) and serve as a healthy reminder of why industry is now willing to entrust these jobs to illiterate Third-World peasants; they can't possibly be any worse than the American blue collar workers who previously held the jobs.

But the auto section only stands out because it is where Terkel's complainers are most spectacularly misguided.  It is important not to lose sight of the general error that animates the book.  Terkel who was at least a fellow traveler, remains in the grip of one of the greatest fallacies of Marxism: that workers don't really want to work, that the Victorian aristocrat, living off of his income, was some kind of beau ideal that we all inevitably aspire towards.  It seems unlikely that this ridiculous supposition still needs to be knocked down at this late date.  The past fifty years have amply demonstrated that societies, like ours, where work is rewarded, result in more and better work.  Rare are the cases where someone reaches a minimal comfort level and then coasts; instead they keep raising their sights, aiming higher and working harder.  Contrary to Marxist expectations, workers have not become alienated from the means of production, they've bought into it (through stock options, 401k plans and the like) and now own the very companies for which they work.

Now I know that this may be a contrarian view, but I find it unlikely that we are a uniquely privileged generation, lucky enough to belong to the first cohort in human history to actually enjoy work.  It's possible of course, but it just seems unlikely that human kind has been generally miserable for 50,000 years.  I know we're all supposed to assume that our ancestors lived joyless lives of back-breaking misery, but I don't buy it.  I'm sure hunter/gathering, subsistence farming, peonage, serfdom, mining, factory work and the like were no picnic, but what evidence do we have to suggest that the people doing this work hated it and hated themselves for doing it.   It's not like these folks had huge rates of suicide.  They certainly felt no compunction about bringing kids into the world.  When we find people still doing this kind of work they don't seem particularly unhappy.  Read Joe Kane's book Amazons and the tribesmen he befriends seem to be pretty satisfied with their somewhat precarious existence.  Heck, there's a whole cottage industry based around the belief that Native Americans led an idyllic existence.  And while we may not have extensive extant writings from the folks who had jobs like mining coal, the books we do have from their children who escaped the mines (Rocket Boys [see Orrin's review], How Green Was My Valley [see Orrin's review]) are more likely to be elegiac looks back at a lost way of life fondly remembered than to be angry polemics about injustice.  Isn't it likely that these folks had basically the same hopes and dreams that we do, worked hard to try and achieve them and found something personally rewarding in that work, just like us?

I'll relate just one anecdote.  Much of my life has been centered around the avoidance of hard work, but even I have had a couple of real jobs.  One semester in college a few of us worked on a seismic crew in the Texas oil fields.  The work isn't exactly back-breaking, but it's good hard physical labor.  We worked hundred hour weeks and at one point went over 30 straight days without a break.  The base pay wasn't terribly good, but put in 60 hours of overtime and you're making a decent wage.  Many of our fellow employees were illegal aliens from Mexico and we particularly befriended a young guy named Yeyo.  He was seventeen, living in a country whose language he barely spoke, separated from friends and family, working a low level job that most Anglos would consider to be beneath them.  Did he feel like he was being exploited?  Not hardly.  He worked his butt off, paid his taxes, saved his money and dreamed of returning to Mexico to start his own cinder block factory.  For me, he has always seemed to represent the capitalist ideal writ small.

Even though Terkel has a different agenda in this book--he certainly isn't writing a paean to Capitalism--this same kind of ambition keeps peeking through.  Time and again after Studs has extracted the obligatory complaints about how much their job stinks, the interviewees proceed to explain with great pride why they stay on the job.  Here a certain sameness slips in as they uniformly describe the feeling of satisfaction they get from the aspects of their work that they think are unique to them or from the quality of the work they do even at a job they maintain is unsatisfying.  Most significantly, few people define themselves by their job.  In America, you are not a ditch digger, you dig ditches.  Like our young Mexican friend, the great majority of citizens view today's job as a weigh station on the way to bigger and better things.

In the final analysis, complaining about our jobs seems to be a human birthright, after all Adam and Eve didn't even think that life in the Garden of Eden was good enough and Cain essentially killed Abel out of jealousy because Abel's job was easier.  But even after these fairly disturbing workplace episodes, they buckled down and got back to work, seemingly none the worse for wear.  It would be helpful if Left intellectuals could finally learn this lesson and let us all get back to work.  In fact, if they'd knock off the navel-gazing and get real jobs, maybe they'd find some personal fulfillment and get out of our hair.

It is striking how many of Mr. Terkel's subjects have found the meaning he says they are looking for. ''Obviously I don't make much money,'' a bookbinder says, but she still loves repairing old books because ''a book is a life.'' A gravedigger recalls how impressed a visiting sewer digger was with his neat lines and square edges. ''A human body is goin' into this grave,'' he says proudly. ''That's why you need skill when you're gonna dig a grave.''

There are disgruntled workers in ''Working,'' who feel caged in by their jobs, but many others exult in their ability to demonstrate their competence, to show off their personality and to perform. ''When I put the plate down, you don't hear a sound,'' a waitress says. ''If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I'm on stage.''

The 1970's were a slower age, and much of the workers' pleasure in their jobs is related to the less-demanding time clock. A hospital billing agent can take time off from dunning patients to look in on a man whose leg was amputated, who has no one to care for him. ''If he's going to live in a third-floor flat and he doesn't have anybody home, this bothers me,'' she says. A stewardess says she is supposed to spend a half-hour on a Boston to Los Angeles flight socializing with passengers.

Three decades later, we are caught up in what a recent book dubbed ''The New Ruthless Economy.'' High tech and new management styles put workers on what the author Simon Head calls ''digital assembly lines'' with little room for creativity or independent thought. As much as 4 percent of the work force is now employed in call centers, reading canned scripts and being supervised with methods known as ''management by stress.'' Doctors defer to managed-care administrators and practice speed medicine: in 1997, they spent an average of eight minutes talking to a patient, less than half the time they spent a decade earlier.

It is much the same in other fields. There have been substantial productivity gains. But those gains have not found their way to paychecks. In a recent two-and-a-half-year period, corporate profits surged 87 percent, while wages rose just 4.5 percent. Not surprisingly, a study last fall by the Conference Board found that less than 49 percent of workers were satisfied with their jobs, down from 59 percent in 1995.

When ''Working'' was written, these trends were just visible on the horizon. A neighborhood druggist laments ''the corner drugstore, that's kinda fadin' now,'' because little shops like his can't compete. ''Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit,'' an editor says. ''Jobs are not big enough for people.''

When America begins to pay attention to its unhappy work force -- and eventually, it must -- ''Working'' will still provide important insights, with its path-breaking exploration of what Mr. Terkel described as ''the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people.''

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