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Voices -- Studs Terkel, May 17, 1987

October 31, 2008 |  4:13 pm

Photograph by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Studs Terkel, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Oct. 23, 2001.

Bewildered, Insecure, Cynical

Studs Terkel on today's troubled blue-collar worker

By Stuart Silverstein,
Times staff writer

Chicago's Studs Terkel, 75, is an oral historian and the author of eight books, including "Working," which was published in 1974, and "Hard Times," which came out in 1970. The following was taken from an interview with Terkel by Stuart Silverstein, a Times staff writer. In it, Terkel talks about the changing self-image of the American blue-collar worker.

I think there's a bewilderment among blue-collar workers today. To use an obvious case, the steel workers, more and more, are not working. For one reason or another, the plants are closing. Imports have something to do with it, but not quite as much as the nature of management itself diversifying, not giving a damn about the community. Whether it's Youngstown, Ohio, or Gary, Ind., they're becoming ghost towns.

And so they feel they're redundant, a great many of them. The important thing, I think, about the blue-collar guy, particularly those who are skilled and get fairly good pay, is that their sons--their children--can't expect to have it as good as their parents had.

So the American dream is taking a beating. It's as though the American dream has come to an end. Because the dream always has been, from the immigrant days on, that my kid will have it better than me. That has always been a fundamental of the American dream.

That is no longer the case, it appears. The kids wonder whether they will be as well off as their parents. So more and more, you hear conversations among blue-collar veterans who either are laid off or have retired or are worried about what's going to happen. . . . So, obviously, there's a tremendous insecurity on the part of the blue-collar worker.

When I did "Hard Times" in 1970, I interviewed a man who worked for a farm equipment plant. And he got punished because he took his time with his work. He was an old-time craftsman who wanted his product to be good. And his bosses said: "Look at the guy next to you. He's putting out four times as much as you are." The stuff he does isn't too good, but it doesn't matter! We get people to buy new ones. You know, planned obsolescence. And so, we're told craftsmanship is no goddamn good today, not compared to what it was before. I think it's true, to a great extent.

People point out that the TV repairman doesn't do his job, or the auto mechanic. Well, where does the lesson come from? The farm equipment worker I just told you about is penalized by the plant's owners because he was too careful and not contributing enough to the gross national product, and I mean gross! And so, the guy who did sloppier work, but put out more in quantity, was rewarded. And so, what example does the car mechanic or the TV repairman, what role model does he have to use? . . . If there's one adjective that describes the blue-collar worker today, most of us would say, I think, cynical.

Let's not romanticize the past, either. Remember, before the '30s, those guys worked all kinds of hours and there was child labor, there were horrible conditions, and things have improved considerably. Not because the guy who owns the plant is nice, but because of their working together through unions and, of course, a very sympathetic Administration during the New Deal days. Occupational safety and health and welfare and all that came into being, but it was still pretty rough.

However, I think, many of the steel workers were proud of their work. In "Working," they say, "See that building?" Again, I don't want to romanticize, but inside there was a feeling that they were a part of something, that they did produce something.

Having a job was the important thing, during the Depression and after the Depression. But the job also was some semblance of income and self-respect and security, especially when industrial unions came into being.

Until World War II, a great many working people in the country didn't have much dough in the bank. It was day-to-day, let's save a little, frugal here and there, but working people always had the razor's-edge life to them. You know, they got along, but they didn't have (much). But then came that moment. Money in the bank. Two cars. Three cars! A boat, and suddenly, "Hey, this is my life."

And then (there was) looking down upon the new arrivals, whether it was the black or whether it was the asiatic or whether it was the Hispanic coming from Mexico. (The attitude was) "we've got to do something about keeping them in their place."

But then during the '60s, something interesting happened, with the civil rights movement and the consciousness of people and the feminist movement and everything else. The young at the time were questioning the nature of work. They wanted work to have meaning. The older people caught some of that, too.

Then came the '70s, '80s and deregulation, Reagan and the move to the right. Now the question is, geez, a job, because tightness has set in. . . .

High technology is coming into the picture. There'll be less and less of the work by hand, and less and less of the horny-handed, blue-collar guys, and more and more of the computerized society, a new kind of work--machine tending rather than producing. And so, machines will now make machines.

Now we have another thing happening. How statistics are used by the government is a joke. We have more and more (jobs); they tell me that the unemployment situation is not that bad because a lot of people have gone back to work. Sure, the steelworker who made $15 an hour, $12 an hour is now pumping gas at three bucks an hour. He's back at work, you see.

And you find these cases by the scores, by the hundreds. They're considered employed, but they're making one-fourth of what they did before. Aside from those who don't even apply, who have given up, who don't even make the statistics.

Ironically, you've got flight attendants forming a union. They're very militant. So we have crazy switches occurring. There's a sort of paradox, a contradiction. Certain working people, flight attendants and pilots, are union-conscious. Whereas in the old days, they never dreamed of that. You've got athletes, professional athletes, belonging to unions. Never dreamed of that before. At the same time, you've got labor taking a beating in the traditional areas.