Studs Terkel keeps calling me. I’m really not sure if it’s him or the caller who called him to write Working about 40 years ago. All I know is that I’ve wanted to raise a collective consciousness about work, what and why we do what we do and how we feel about it, since first reading Terkel’s tome 25 years ago.
If this is my calling and not a narcissistic fantasy coinciding with a break in reality, I don’t take it lightly. I simply want to take it. And do it.
Before I sound like I’m taking myself (and not the calling) too seriously, I’ll do my best to assure you that I probably have more doubts and hangups about my career path and what I’m doing in/for this world than you have. Maybe I don’t have more, I just ruminate longer. As far as I know, I don’t have low self-esteem, just a combination of a high need for achievement and ADD with a little OCD sprinkled on top.
I went to school a long time to study labor history, motivation theory, diversity/multiculturalism and the nuts and bolts of human resources. I have a background in journalism. I like to help people find their voices through nonfiction, poetry and other artistic forms. And I feel happily compelled to further your interest in your own work life: what you do, why you do it and how you think and feel about it.
My long-range goal is to collect, with explicit permission, stories (any genre), poetry, and other art forms into an anthology that honors Studs’ original work. I want to hear from you often and build the kind of trust Studs had between himself and the more than 100 workers whose voices remain true and important today.
Another way to understand Worker Writes is through Studs’ voice, so I’ve included a couple passages from Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1972). Here, Studs describes his research methodology:
I realized quite early in this adventure that interviews, conventionally conducted, were meaningless. Conditioned cliches were certain to come. The question-and-answer technique may be of some value in determining favored detergents, toothpaste and deodorants, but not in the discovery of men and women.* …In short, it was conversation. In time, the sluice gates of damned up hurts and dreams were opened.
*from the preface to Division Street: America
and here, the ramifications of technology (forecasted 40 years ago):
Perhaps it is time the “work ethic” 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 the source of a buck–you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs. There’s no excuse for mules any more. 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.” Our imaginations have obviously not yet been challenged.
Finally, my daughter Sarah Bill suggested this excerpt from 1984 by Orson Welles. I think it speaks to the seamiest type of organization. Hopefully, you don’t recognize it.
He looked round the canteen again. Nearly everyone was ugly, and would still have been ugly even if dressed otherwise than in the uniform blue overalls. On the far side of the room, sitting at a table alone, a small, curiously beetle-like man was drinking a cup of coffee, his little eyes darting suspicious glances from side to side. How easy it was, thought Winston, if you did not look about you, to believe that the physical type set up by the Party as an ideal-tall muscular youths and deep-bosomed maidens, blond-haired, vital, sunburnt, carefree — existed and even predominated. Actually, so far as he could judge, the majority of people in Airstrip One were small, dark, and ill-favoured. It was curious how that beetle-like type proliferated in the Ministries: little dumpy men, growing stout very early in life, with short legs, swift scuttling movements, and fat inscrutable faces with very small eyes. It was the type that seemed to flourish best under the dominion of the Party.