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Studs Terkel’s “Working”

Studs Terkel’s “Working”

by William H. Benson

September 19, 2019

     I consider 1974 a great year, perhaps my best. In May, I graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, spent the summer driving a tractor and a combine, and in September, I moved out of my parent’s house and into a basement apartment, owned by a retired North Dakota Methodist minister and his wife, Ray and Ella McClure, in Greeley, Colorado.

     On September 25, classes at the University of Northern Colorado commenced, and everyday that school year, I attended a sequence of History Department classes. There was Dr. Rowe’s Colonial History, Dr. Knott’s Diplomatic History, Dr. Boeck’s Early American History, among others.

     I sat at the feet of, what I believed then, were the best professors. Although poor, hungry, bookish, and overstudied, I was fascinated. The lectures stimulated my thinking. I felt as if the encyclopedias that I had read so often when a child had come alive and were teaching me.

     With a little reflection, I began to contrast my work on the farm with that of a university professor. Life seemed easier at the university, more mentally enlightening, more pleasant working conditions, more gratifying, whereas life in the field was monotonous, dirty, dusty, dangerous, smelled constant of oil and diesel fuel. It was more physical than mental, more blue than white collar work.

     Yet, with a little further reflection, I realized that the university professor owns no tractors or equipment, no wheat ground, no pastures, no sheds, no cattle. Save for boxes of books and a pension, she or he has little opportunity to accumulate capital, as does a farmer. 

     In 1974, the radio host Studs Terkel published his book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day, and How They Feel About What They Do, a bestseller. Studs had traveled around Illinois, and interviewed over a hundred people, recording their stories about their work on reel-to-reel tapes.

     In the book’s “Forward,” Terkel said that he found that “work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, for daily meaning as well as daily bread.”

     Once Terkel published his book, he packed his tapes into boxes, and there they remained until he passed away in 2008. People who enjoy archival work discovered his boxes and began to listen to the tapes, still in good condition. On a recent podcast on “Planet Earth,” I listened to him interview people. 

     For example, Terkel interviewed Sharon Griggins, a teenager who worked for the telephone company, as an operator, in Waukegan, Illinois. She agreed that it was “a lot of talk, but no human communication.” Her talk to callers included “seven to eight stock phrases” that she stated over and over, for eight hours, with nothing personal permitted. Sharon did not like her work, and soon quit.

     Terkel interviewed Gary Briner, an automotive worker at a plant in Illinois, who described his job, as “boring and monotonous.” He said, “we show up for work, but we are not robots. We sweat, we have emotions, we are hungover, but we want the company to treat us with some dignity and respect.”

      Briner said he did not set out to join the autoworkers union, but he soon learned “that every gain we made for better working conditions was because the labor union voted to strike, and because of those gains, the labor union forged a middle class.”

     Terkel interviewed Renault Robinson, an African-American police officer in Chicago, who said that the officer in charge would pair a different white officer with each black officer, and the two would ride around in a car for eight hours together, and never speak, with “very little or no communication.”

     Robinson became quite disenchanted by the way the police expected him to stop cars for almost no cause in the African-American communities. Out of hundreds of stops, the policemen would find some violations, but the process upset the people stopped. They felt harassed and persecuted.

     Robinson was one of the founders of the African-American Patrolmen’s League, a labor union for black police officers. One of the things his league pushed for, and was successful, was the removal of sawed-off shotguns loaded with double 0 buckshot from the squad cars. He said, “Those guns could take a kid’s head off,” an unnecessary resort to violent force.

     The early 1970’s was a different era for America’s labor force. Unions were stronger then, and certain jobs, like telephone operator, have disappeared. Today, “computers have transformed the workplace. Productivity has soared, but job satisfaction has plummeted.”

     Also, the absence of strong labor unions means that the majority of workers cannot strike for increased wages and better working conditions, and this absence may have caused the gap between rich and poor to widen even further.

     What has stayed the same over the past forty-five years is that each worker has a predilection for certain work and a disgust for other types of work. America today has low unemployment, and if a worker does not like his or her job, he or she can quit and find other work.