Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.
—Nora Watson, editor
I’ve come across Studs Terkel via his good friend Kurt Vonnegut, who quotes him in A Man Without a Country, his memoir-esque final book.
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is a collection of over 80 interviews conducted in the 1970s with Americans from all walks of life. Studs Terkel, a broadcaster and oral historian, manages to both create a warm space for an intimate conversation and make himself transparent, and the transcripts read as insightful monologues constantly flowing between the personal and the universal. Working has been turned into a musical and adapted as a comic book by American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar.
This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all, (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of is. (…) It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.
Working tells the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, and the everyday grind of those in the limelight – in their own voice. Policeman, bus driver, pharmacist, professional hockey player, farm worker, switchboard operator, airline stewardess, actor, doorman, piano tuner, gas meter reader, private eye, hair stylists… sit for a while with Terkel, in their home, in a tavern, in the boss’s office, and share a moment with him, opening up about their life, their feelings, their dreams. Some have already put a lot of thought into what they’re being asked to talk about, for others it feels like they’re discovering themselves in the conversation, revealing their inner contradictions and sometimes finding resolution. There’s a precious quality of individuality that comes through every single interview, but also a sense of interconnectedness that emerges from the accumulation of stories.
Studs Terkel made a point of scouting for people whose voice is not often heard, those who toil in the dark, are oppressed, marginalised, or trying to escape their golden cage. Class, race and gender loom large in the life choices of Terkel’s interlocutors. Barbara Herrick, a farmer’s daughter and award-winning writer / producer in the male-dominated ad world, is often ignored by clients at meetings – or asked to make them coffee – until she starts one of her brilliant presentations. Roberto Acuna, farm worker, born on a cotton sack, picking the fields seven days a week from the age of 8, now organising for the United Farm Workers of America, has one wish:
If people could see—in the winter, ice on the fields. We’d be on our knees all day long. We’d build fires and warm up real fast and go back on the ice. We’d be picking watermelons in 105 degrees all day long. When people have melons or cucumber of carrots or lettuce, they don’t know how they got on their table and the consequences to the people who picked it. If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then they’d know how that dinner salad got on their table.
—Roberto Acuna, farm worker
Some are fulfilled by their job:
People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think of have any kind of aspiration other than to serve food. When somebody says to me, “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress?” Just a waitress. I’d say, “Why, don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?” It’s implying that he’s not worthy, not that I’m not worthy. I makes me irate. I don’t feel lowly at all. I myself feel sure. I don’t want to change the job. I love it.
—Dolores Dante, waitress
Others suffer from the daily drag, the erosion of their rights, the contempt from management:
All I do now is get up in the morning, go there, and I don’t be thinking about that. Like a machine, that’s about the only way I can feel.
—Will Robinson, bus driver
Some lose their illusions:
We were caught up in the American Dream. You’ve gotta have a house. You’ve gotta have a country club. You’ve gotta have two cars. Here you are at ten grand and getting nowhere. So I doubled my salary. I also doubled my grief. I now made twenty thousand dollars; had an expense account, a Country Squire—air-conditioned station wagon given by the company—a wonderful boss. We began to accumulate. We got a house in the suburbs and we got a country club membership and we got two cars and we got higher taxes. We got nervous and we started drinking more and smoking more. Finally, one day we sat down. We have everything and we are poor.
—Fred Ringley, ex-salesman, farmer
And some take action:
When I worked as a bartender, I felt like a non-person. I was actually nothing. I was a nobody going nowhere. I was in a state of limbo. I have no hopes, no dreams, no ups, no downs, nothing. Being a policeman gives me the challenge in life I want.
—Vincent Maher, policeman
Some find meaning in their life, beyond their job, by becoming reluctant leaders:
I was one of the organisers here when the union came. I was as anti-union in the beginning as I am union now. Coming from a small farm community in Wisconsin, I didn’t know what a union was all about. I didn’t understand the labor movement at all. In school you’re shown the bad side of it.
Before the union came in, all I did was do my eight hours, collect my paycheck, and o home, did my housework, took care of my daughter, and went back to work. I had no outside interests. You just lived to live. Since I became active in the union, I’ve become active in politics, in the community, in legislative problems. I’ve been to Washington on one or two trips. I’ve been to Springfield. That had given me more of an incentive for life.
—Grace Clements, felter in a luggage factory
We meet those who have found their calling, like Father Leonard Dubi, son of a steelworker and radical priest, taking on corporations and politicians to fight against pollution, poor planning decisions and corruption.
Others are making both a life and a living:
I knew when I was eight years old that I wasn’t going to amount to anything in the business world. I wanted my life to have something to do with adventure, something unknown, something involved with a free life, something to do with wonder and astonishment. I loved to play—the fact that I could express myself in improvisation, the unplanned.
—Bud Freeman, jazz musician
And there are those who are still searching, like Charlie Blossom, upper middle class college dropout, hyperbolic hippy on a brief stint as a copy boy for a Chicago newspaper, who bring sunflower seeds to his co-workers and dreams of murdering his capitalist boss.
For a job that is similar on paper, two workers might have completely different attitudes – because so much of how they feel about it is down to the level of autonomy and responsibility they are offered or have carved for themselves. To quote Norma’s words, they are satisfied when they can put their spirit, whole and sincere, into what they do, when the job is big enough for them to be a full human being. Studs Terkel makes no comment outside his introduction, he passes no judgement on his subjects, but the fact that he features so heavily union members, second-chancers, angry young women and men and people fulfilled by creating value and connections to others and to the world is a strong hint at the kind of society he favours. And when articulating the need for change in his Introduction, he goes on to quote yet another union leader:
Perhaps it is time the “work ethics” was redefined and its idea reclaimed from the banal men who invoke it. In a world of cybernetics, of an almost runaway technology, things are increasingly making things. It is for our species, it would seem, to go on to other matters. Human matters. Freud put it one way. Ralph Helstein puts it another. He is president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. “Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work. Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful—not just as the source of a buck—you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs. There’s no excuse for mules anymore. Society does not need them. There’s no question about our ability to feed and clothe and house everybody. The problem is going to come in finding enough ways for man to keep occupied, so he’s in touch with reality.”
Terkel concludes: “Our imaginations have obviously not yet been challenged”.
40 years on, technology has accelerated automation far beyond all expectations, education is still preparing young people for jobs and structures that don’t exist anymore, and chronic mass unemployment and underemployment are robbing many out of the right to make a life, fulfilled and dignified, out of making a living.
We need to challenge our imaginations to try out new ways of learning, of being together, of caring for each other and the world, and of valuing what is being produced within and outside formal contracts of employment. Universal Basic Income, or Citizen’s Income, is making its way into the mainstream, with pilots under way in Finland since January 2017 and starting soon in Ontario. It redefines the meaning of belonging to a community, enabling people to care for each other and removing the stigma of negative ‘benefits’; and it challenges the notion that employment is the source of all value, conflating money, status and identity.