A report from a vanished world
Forty years ago this month, Studs Terkel published his epic oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How they Feel About What They Do. Today, the book reads like dispatches from a lost world.
Chicagoans knew Terkel, who was 96 when he died in 2008, as a legendary broadcaster and master interviewer. Nationally, his reputation rested on his oral histories — books of edited interviews, mostly with unsung Americans, about their lives during the Depression, in World War II, or in old age. One of them, “The Good War”, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Working was probably Terkel’s best and best-known book. It includes interviews with 137 persons, from steelworkers to truckers to stewardesses (as they were called then) to jockeys to bosses. Recurring themes run through the book, and it is these themes that make it ancient history. There's no better way to gauge the changes in working life than to re-read how it seemed then.
The book came out in March of 1974. Neither Studs nor the people he interviewed knew that the world of work was about to change forever. The steady post-war growth in median incomes ended in the mid-1970s: median wages, especially for men, have been basically flat ever since. Union membership was still near its peak but beginning to erode. The law establishing 401(k) plans, which have come to replace fixed pensions, passed in 1978. Decades of increasing equality between high and low wage-earners stopped in 1975. Heavy industry still ruled: with a strong back, a man who punched in on time could afford a middle-class way of life, with a home of his own, a non-working wife and college dreams for his kids. In 1974, that’s the way it was.
What comes through, though, is the drudgery, both blue-collar and white-collar. “I’m a machine,” a spot-welder says. “I am a robot,” a bank teller says. She had no idea she was about to be replaced by a real robot, called an automatic teller machine.
Some of the people in the book loved their work or found fulfillment in it. Most, though, hated the long slog through a working life, the unending routine, the dehumanising assembly line, the petty tyranny of foremen, the damage to the human body by decades of labor.
As Studs’s people tell it, it was bad. It was about to get worse.
Nobody saw this coming. If workers complain of drudgery, it’s partly because they felt it would never end. There is a feeling of forever-think in the book. Hard work is all there is, or will be. The factory will be there and so will the union. Between them, the factory and the union support a decent way of life. Almost nobody in the book complains about the pay or the benefits, including the pension (“thirty years and out”). If they hate their daily eight hours in the mill, they know they’ll emerge into a better life when they clock out.
“I’m proud of what my job gives me,” a factory worker says. “Not the job. I couldn’t say I’m proud of workin’ for the Ford Motor Car Company, but what makes it good is what the union and the company have negotiated over these period of years.”
It was a man’s world. Of the 137 interviews, 95 are with men. Most of the women worked at what was known as “women’s jobs” — bank teller, teacher, maid. Housewives, too: most women who worked didn’t get paid for it. That, too, was about to change.
The “thirty glorious years” of American blue-collar prosperity lasted from 1945 until the mid-'70s. In 1974, it was as good as it got. Clouds hung on the horizon, but no one saw them.
Almost all the interviews take place in what has become the Rust Belt, in working-class Chicago and the Midwest, at the height of its power. Working makes virtually no mention of the possibility that factories might go south to the Sun Belt, or that benefits might be taken away, or that computer-driven robots might replace real people.
“Let’s face it, a machine can do the work of a man,” a steelworker says. But he saw the machine as a promise, not a threat.
“I’ll be goddamned if a computer is gonna eat before I do!” he said. “Machines can either liberate man or enslave him, because they’re pretty neutral.” What he saw was the use of automation to cut his work week to 20 hours. “I’d get to know my kids better, my wife better.”
It didn’t work that way. This steelworker, a friend of mine, quit the mill, then died. Many of the other workers in the book were in their twenties. Few kept their jobs to go thirty-years-and-out. Between robots and the Rust Belt, too many ended up with a no-hours week.
Terkel, like the steelworkers, thought that the computer and other technology could free workers from the drudgery of work. People were becoming aware of the possibility of a better life, he felt. Many of the workers in the book crave recognition, some sign that they actually created something. Working such anonymous and repetitive jobs, they often committed small acts of sabotage, a dent here or a missed weld there. Absenteeism was rife. The goal was to cheat the system and survive.
But the system changed and they didn’t survive. Forty years on, Working makes mournful reading. It’s an echo of a better time described by people who didn’t know it was a better time.
Reading it now, I want to grab the younger workers and tell them to get out, to get an education, to refuse their fate, to tell them that nothing in this world last forever, that a revolution was coming, that the sequel to Working, for most of them, would be Not Working.
This post was originally published at The Midwesterner. Richard C. Longworth's latest column, "Left behind," is available in The End of a Pax Americana, the current edition of American Review. Subscribe now!