Studs Terkel on the Dignity of Work, Why We Do What We Do, and the Extraordinary Dreams of Ordinary People
A humbling oral history of our search for meaning, mattering, and a sense of worth.
By Maria Popova
“I work in a state of passion and compulsion,” the great painter Juan Miró wrote in his reflections on art and the creative process. But to do so-called creative work at all is, in the words of poet Sarah Kay, “an immense privilege”; to let your life speak is a luxury. The vast majority of people in the history of humanity, as well as in the world at this particular point in time, have been compelled to work not by passion but by practicality: by the necessity for food, shelter, and survival. And yet even such work — often manual, sometimes seemingly meaningless to the outside observer, lacking in the trifecta of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that psychologists believe marks meaningful work — can be a tremendous source of dignity, pride, and integrity.
That’s what legendary interviewer, writer, radio broadcaster, and oral historian Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) captures in Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (public library) — a remarkable oral history of “the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people” and of working life in the 1970s, an era of radical change at once profoundly different and strikingly similar to our own. A generation after the Mad Men era but before we had plummeted into the Mad Machines one, that was a time of reckoning with the demise of the old, slower, inescapably human culture of work and the birth of the new, machine-assisted, often machine-driven age of productivity.
From bookbinders to miners to waitresses to firefighters, Terkel’s people speak to some of the most elemental and universal longings of the human heart through the particulars of their experience — the daily trials of making do; the pride in a task, however simple, performed with skill and care; the yearning to matter, to make a difference, to count for something.
Terkel frames his inquiry with his characteristic uncottoned acuity:
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.
The scars, psychic as well as physical, brought home to the supper table and the TV set, may have touched, malignantly, the soul of our society.
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.
Terkel senses in his subjects “more than a slight ache” about the longing for a day’s work to provide more than a paycheck — to provide a measure of meaning. A Brooklyn firefighter named Tom Patrick goes to the heart of the matter — the paradox of worth in a world of bad news, abstract accomplishments, and intangible goals:
The fuckin’ world’s so fucked up, the country’s fucked up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy’s dying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me, that’s what I want to be. “I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers. But I can look back and say, “I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.” It shows something I did on this earth.
The tangibility of one’s work need not be of the life-saving variety to count — lest we forget, we live in a world where countless interdependent skills conspire to craft something as simple as a pencil. A 37-year-old steel mill laborer named Mike Lefevre — a self-described “dying breed” doing “strictly muscle work” — tells Terkel:
You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how many logs he stacked. He built it and he was proud of it. I don’t really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me… ’Cause I would have to be part of it, you know. It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.
He steps back to consider the broader perspective:
It’s not just the work. Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building — these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting… A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to.
A woman named Donna Murray, who became an accidental bookbinder after inheriting her father’s large collection of books that needed repairing and spent the next quarter century binding books for private clients and institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago, tells Terkel:
Obviously I don’t make much money binding books, but it’s very cozy work… I usually arrive at about ten thirty. I work as long as it pleases me. If I fill up the table and the books are oiled, I often leave at four or six. I might work for one client two or three weeks.
One of the most beautiful emanations from Terkel’s interviews is the way in which the sheer attentiveness to the manual work seeds convictions about the larger significance of the work in its cultural context — something the bookbinder captures perfectly:
You must be very clever with a binding and give it the dignity it deserves. Because the pages are so full of stunning, fantastic things that say, This is life… I only enjoy working on books that say something. I know this is an anathema to people who insist on preserving books that are only going to be on the shelves forever — or on coffee tables. Books are for people to read, and that’s that. I think books are for the birds unless people read them.
I feel very strongly about every book I pick up. It’s like something alive or — or decadent, death. I wouldn’t for one moment bind Mein Kampf, because I think it’s disgusting to waste time on such an obscenity.
Books are things that keep us going… Keeping a four-hundred-year-old book together keeps that spirit alive. It’s an alluring kind of thing, lovely, because you know that belongs to us. Because a book is a life.
Terkel’s most poignant and pause-giving conversation is with a 34-year-old farm laborer and organizer named Roberto Acuna — one of the migrant lettuce workers who inspired Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Born on a cotton sack in the fields because his mother couldn’t afford to go to the hospital and literally imprinted by his work — both thumbnails on his callused hands are singularly cut, as lettuce-pickers’ thumbnails fall of from being banged on the box over and over — this young man’s entire life was marked by inordinate daily struggle for survival, and yet his hardship only amplified his idealism. After witnessing and experiencing first-hand the appalling inequality between the crop growers and the farm workers — “Growers can have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers,” he tells Terkel. “Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers.” — he went on to become an advocate for migrant workers’ rights in a heartening testament to the notion that the best way to complain is to do something constructive to change the conditions seeding the complaint.
Acuna tells Terkel:
I walked out of the fields two years ago. I saw the need to change the California feudal system, to change the lives of farm workers, to make these huge corporations feel they’re not above anybody.
The things I saw shaped my life. I remember when we used to go out and pick carrots and onions, the whole family. We tried to scratch a livin’ out of the ground. I saw my parents cry out in despair, even though we had the whole family working. At the time, they were paying sixty-two and a half cents an hour. The average income must have been fifteen hundred dollars, maybe two thousand… We’d go into the tent where Mom was sleeping and I’d see her crying. When I asked her why she was crying she never gave me an answer. All she said was things would get better. She retired a beaten old lady with a lot of dignity. That day she thought would be better never came for her.
Nobody knows the erosion of man’s dignity. They used to have a label of canned goods that said, “U.S. Commodities. Not to be sold or exchanged.” Nobody knows how proud it is to feel when you bought canned goods with your own money.
Indeed, a deep sense of pride permeates Acuna’s recollections of his early life — pride, and a grounding reminder that it isn’t poverty itself that erodes dignity but the contempt and derision aimed at the poor:
I’d go barefoot to school. The bad thing was they used to laugh at us, the Anglo kids. They would laugh because we’d bring tortillas and frijoles to lunch. They would have their nice little compact lunch boxes with cold milk in their thermos and they’d laugh at us because all we had was dried tortillas.
He recounts one particularly heartbreaking incident:
I wanted to be accepted. It must have been in sixth grade. It was just before the Fourth of July. They were trying out students for this patriotic play. I wanted to do Abe Lincoln, so I learned the Gettysburg Address inside and out. I’d be out in the fields pickin’ the crops and I’d be memorizin’. I was the only one who didn’t have to read the part, ’cause I learned it. The part was given to a girl who was a grower’s daughter. She had to read it out of a book, but they said she had better diction. I was very disappointed. I quit about eighth grade.
Acuna, who started picking crops when he was eight, reflects on the bigotry that resulted from the acute mismatch of realities — the rift between what he and his family experienced as the basic fabric of their lives, and what those in power assumed to be the givens of every life:
We used to work early, about four o‘clock in the morning. We’d pick the harvest until about six. Then we’d run home and get into our supposedly clean clothes and run all the way to school because we’d be late. By the time we got to school, we’d be all tuckered out. Around maybe eleven o’clock, we’d be dozing off. Our teachers would send notes to the house telling Mom that we were inattentive…
School would end maybe four o’clock. We’d rush home again, change clothes, go back to work until seven, seven thirty at night. That’s not counting the weekends. On Saturday and Sunday, we’d be there from four thirty in the morning until about seven thirty in the evening. This is where we made the money, those two days. We all worked.
He joined the Marine Corps at seventeen with mixed feelings and then got a job as a correctional officer in a state prison. In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s ennobling conviction that even when everything is taken from us, we still have moral choice as our most important and most indelible freedom, Acuna reflects on his prison job:
I quit after eight months because I couldn’t take the misery I saw. They wanted me to use a rubber hose on some of the prisoners — mostly Chicanos and blacks. I couldn’t do it. They called me chicken-livered because I didn’t want to hit nobody. They constantly harassed me after that. I didn’t quit because I was afraid of them but because they were trying to make me into a mean man.
Acuna draws a parallel to the condition of migrant workers:
Working in the fields is not in itself a degrading job. It’s hard, but if you’re given regular hours, better pay, decent housing, unemployment and medical compensation, pension plans — we have a very relaxed way of living. But the growers don’t recognize us as persons. That’s the worst thing, the way they treat you.
The solution, he suggests, must be a systemic one. It begins with helping people at the receiving end of the food chain — people like you and me — open our eyes to the daily indignities by which the food at our table is produced. He tells Terkel:
If we had proper compensation we wouldn’t have to be working seventeen hours a day and following the crops. We could stay in one area and it would give us roots. Being a migrant, it tears the family apart. You get in debt. You leave the area penniless. The children are the ones hurt the most. They go to school three months in one place and then on to another. No sooner do they make friends, they are uprooted again. Right here, your childhood is taken away.
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 onto the ice. We’d be picking watermelons in 105 degrees all day long. When people have melons or cucumber or 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 fine salad got on their table.
Working is a sobering and, in an unexpected way, enormously elevating read in its totality — a record of daily dignity even amid the most trying of circumstances. Complement it with a very different perspective on the psychology of work, then revisit Terkel’s wonderful conversation with Maurice Sendak about the eternal child in each of us.
Published March 21, 2016