Studs Terkel – Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

“You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day–all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”

William Faulkner

A few months and nights ago, I was sitting by the bush in front of a building with A. His face was buried in my lap and my arms were around him, as if trying to keep him from literally falling apart. It was quite a melodramatic sight, as attested by the people who couldn’t help but gaze at the scene. At that time, I was wondering if they were thinking of us as lovers who had a quarrel of some sort, and it amused me (whatever the measure of amusement was allowed in a situation where the person you care about was sobbing) that out of all the possible assumptions that could have popped in their head, work was probably not at the top of this list.

A had a job. He had been on this job for years. That job drained his body, his soul, his every waking day, in exchange for a meager amount of money that couldn’t pay off his debts or set him and his family on a good future, something to provide a family with just the stability of food, clothing, and shelter. In short, that job sucked. A had been applying to other companies to no avail. And to him, life didn’t just suck; he sucked.

This wasn’t the first time friends and colleagues have shared such strong emotions about their work. I remember B from an office, who would always send me messages of violent fantasies she has of blowing things up just to end her suffering of having to work on weekends for tasks that didn’t contribute to eradicating violence against women or maybe world hunger. I remember C, a colleague in teaching, who would share her rants about the administration during breaks so short it could hardly even be called a break. Teachers were expected to be teachers all the time. And that meant the school always comes first over health as heard from growling stomachs, that teachers should accept the low pay because “teaching is a calling,” and that teachers couldn’t go home early for “the sake of the students” even if their wife was about to deliver their baby and called for them. These stories of D, E, and F were just the tip of the iceberg of things that were shared with me or even personally witnessed. And all of these are also the tip of the iceberg of the rest of the working alphabet, all of who are facing violence in one way or another and that back and forth tug of what work should be and what work should be not.

Studs Terkel’s 1970’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do gave us a front seat view of these similar lives, some familiar and some not, depending on which part of the iceberg we make up of course. As for Terkel’s subject position, he is a Chicago-based oral historian that made it a point to collect the experiences of the American alphabet of his time: from farmer to miner, from receptionist to prostitute, from writer to janitor, from policeman to hotel clerk, from housewife to tv/radio executive, from a retiree to a gravedigger, and so on and so forth.

“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 us.”

Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

Studs Terkel’s Working is an ode to the daily struggle–mostly violent, sometimes profoundly joyful, and not rarely enlightening–as well as the tension between meaning and discontent at the work place. For three years, he collected over 130 conversations with “ordinary” people that discussed the “ordinary” part of their lives. It was one of his works that meant to place a mic in front of voices that are rarely heard in the mainstream, that revealed how much such an “existential” question about work is not exclusive to the middle-class sector to ponder, it “turns out to be crucial to a great many workers, of all ages, with little education and less ideology but plenty of passion and intelligence” (Marshal Berman 1974).

The importance of such reflections is apparent in the sameness, the differences, and the variety of the people’s insights and answers to this “existential question” that give birth to more insights and questions to the readers, especially those from forty plus years later.


Work and Identity

Over and over in the book, these questions were asked and answered in so many different ways: Are we defined by our work? Are we our work?

In the book, work and identity went head to head in both an unconscious and conscious manner.

For instance, in his interview with a photographer and film critic, the women who held these jobs talked more about the ethics and state of their respective industries instead of what they were exactly doing step by step as per their profession. Their manner of discussion presents them as women imbibing their work. Even while they were discussing with Terkel, they were still working, like a tick they could not stop and like a habit they could not break; they were part of their respective fields and they could not simply detach themselves from these.

In contrast, there were people under what are more commonly known as menial jobs, such as those who work in steel mills and car manufacturing. The drudgery of their work most often led them to draw a clear marker on when their life starts, at the punching out of the time card, on who they were and on who they were not. Outside work, they were students or they were family men. Outside work, they were humans. Such is the desire to be human, to differentiate themselves from being the cliche cog of the wheel, that they would purposely make an indent in the steel, that they would purposely let a mistake go by and down to the end product, just so they could make a mark on the otherwise perfect machine. These are individual yet telling rebellions against the imposition of discontent.


Happiness and the Work Ethic 

This impulse to rebel was, however, shown not to be present in every exploited worker. What is to be made of the people who actually have faith in the work ethic, that labor is good regardless the circumstances surrounding the unfair solicitation of labor from the worker? These are the people like the supermarket checker who looked forward to doing repetitive and tiring tasks, her reflections, no doubt insightful on the nature of her everyday life, but an insight that refused to see beyond so that she would be able to glimpse the big picture and see the injustice done upon her and many more. As Berman said:

“By political standards, these people are drowning in “false consciousness.” They don’t even know they’re being exploited! And yet, they are the salt of the earth. Oblivious to politics, living as if they were outside history, they have been able to pour meaning and beauty into social niches and activities that appear to be barren and empty. Their sort of creativity can generate self-deceptions, can (in Rousseau’s phrase) teach them to love their own slavery. And yet, without their capacity to create meaning, the human race would be lost. We must wrestle with contradictions like these, and there is no end in sight” (1974).

But these people and reflections also remind us that work in itself is not truly evil. Regardless of this seemingly “coping mechanism” of the enslaved, we are reminded that people find joy in such tasks however menial they may be to others. It is when we are not well compensated for such tasks that we are exploited. Here then, do we ask, not just the meaning of work, but also the meaning of compensation.

“Everyone needs to feel they have a place in the world. It would be unbearable not to. I don’t like to feel superfluous. One needs to be needed. I’m saying being idle and leisured, doing nothing is tragic and disgraceful. Everyone must have an occupation.

Love doesn’t suffice. It doesn’t fill up enough hours. I don’t mean work must be activity for activity’s sake. I don’t mean obsessive, empty moving around. I mean creating something new. But idleness is evil. I don’t think man can maintain his balance or sanity in idleness. Human beings must work to create some coherence. You do it only through work and through love. And you can only count on work.”

– Barbara Terwilliger, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

According to to Terwilliger, creation is the gift of work. But how does this gift fit and do well in the same big picture the supermarket checker did not glimpse?


Humanity and Globalization

The stories about work are the stories about the people that make up the big picture.

According to Carolyn Kellogg, “Work is one of those basic human activities so crucial to life and identity that to pursue the detail of doing and the feelings it compels inevitably leads to something more: the way we feel about ourselves and our experiences, our children and our friends — and enemies, our country and the way we live, our past, present and future. For the subjects, and for the reader, the book is a deep penetration of American thought and feeling, evokes the lives of more than 130 men and women in their own words, candid, insightful and honest, challenges them and us to the hard question of those homilies, banalities and Fourth of July abstractions which our politicians recite with such smug certainty and more often than not with self-delusion.”

But one of the powerful aspects of Terkel’s work was not just his choice to give the “ordinary” person a mic, but that he gave every “ordinary” person a mic, however differing these voices were. He was able to present various perspectives such as the newspaper boys who loved delivering newspaper and the newspaper boy who didn’t. He shared the story of the car factory’s spot-welders who stopped work briefly in solidarity of their co-worker harassed by the boss. Still, he facilitated the story of the factory owner who refused to be called a boss and saw himself as a fellow worker in his company. He presented people that proved and disproved the stereotypical dichotomies of good guys and bad guys. Nevertheless, his American liberal left bias was still apparent in the big picture he was able to present–though of course, it can be argued that we could only do what we could do with the material in front of us and the material in front of Terkel drew the big picture on its own. In any case, he gave space to the white policeman who believed the need to discipline and punish people and believed he was treating all citizens equally regardless of color, while also giving space to the black policeman that poked holes through the belief of the previous one, revealing the corruption, racism, sexism, and police violence rampant in this armed force of the most powerful government of the world.

This is obviously the big picture found in Working. The reflections about work in the book painted a reflection of humanity of the 1970’s. It was a period of inflation, Vietnam war, and dislocations. The significant event of that time was the American economy shifting from a manufacturing to a service-oriented industry.

Working has been referred to as “a time capsule of the agricultural and industrial eras that preceded the Information Age” (Stuart N. Brotman 2012). But it seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

The same reflections of humanity found in Working can be argued still applicable today. Aside from the brief stories that this review started with, stories that are shared seas away from where Working was positioned, the necessity of humanity’s push and pull with labor, who owns and should own it, who defines and who gets to define it, is as alive now as it was then and there. There are, of course, nuances that come in today’s big picture, with our own significant event, with the the tsunami of Information Age, with today’s version of colonization and imperialism–globalization: narratives of racial tensions are growing beyond 1970’s United States, solidarity and struggles now also exist in cyberspace, dislocations, discontent, and meaning are concepts still questioned but probably have moved from the 130 men and women Terkel talked to towards the thousands and millions of men, women, transpeople, queer, and so on and so forth, of different third world countries that have caught the leftover jobs from the machine’s takeover in the United States.



*This is a book review assignment for my Women and Development 230: Women and Work class during 1st Semester AY 2015-2016. I had to jump-start my brain that I actually started it as a blog post, forcing myself to think of an anonymous audience waiting for what I had to say. I edited it a bit, some grammar stuff I saw, and corrected myself for saying that Terwilliger was a retired woman. She just had lots of jobs when she was younger and at the time of the interview, she was in her thirties who then had an “independent income.” It wasn’t ever elaborated, I think, but it was put there to show “hard” types of work weren’t necessary for her anymore. Basically, she could afford to be idle. She had a very short interview but she was my favorite. I quoted another thing she said in my other blog. Featured image from here.