Working, by Studs Terkel (BOOK ONE)

Working The Land

Pierce Walker

This chapter has a lot of logical progressions and it starts off with a solid choice as far as land laborers go: An old-fashioned (and self-described poor) farmer. Walker has “about five-hundred acres” to labor on and has lived where both his father and his grandfather worked the land. Tradition is important to Walker and this shows in the passages where we see him wistfully hoping that his son will take up the farming once he is unable to anymore.

However, the prospects for farming aren’t good. The yields on crops are typically low and according to Walker only people who are about to retire because they’re rich are doing well for themselves. Part of this, Walker muses, is because of the effects of the cities, technology and the general lack of interest that farming suffers from due to other options.

One point I think Walker and others like him in this book mention is that people have many preconceived notions of what a laborious job is. Some people think farmers are the hardest of workers and while this is true it’s a very seasonally based occupation. In the wintertime Walker describes most of his time as “loafing” and preparing for the Spring.

The aspects of prices and weather also affects how farmers are able to do their jobs. Sometimes weather “will make ya or break ya” as Walker says and that’s fairly unique to farming as far as an occupation goes. When it comes to the occupation itself, it’s often filled with hard days that doesn’t have much room for stopping. So when a farmer lays down, “he’s tired enough he’s not gonna have trouble sleepin’.”

Another interesting aspect of this section was Walker mentioning how people “jump up and down” when they see the price of meat has risen. But they never question why the prices have jumped to begin with. They don’t think to check on who is actually making that meat (which farmers often have a lot to do with via their cattle) and the fact that when the costs of the relevant machinery goes up, farmers are jumping up and down (in anger) just like them.

Walker makes a great point about social hierarchy and the place of the farmer within that pyramid

Break the dollar down for food and the farmer’s down at the bottom of the list. He’s got the most invested of all but he’s the smallest percentage wise out of the food dollar. The processors, it seems like that’s the big end of it. The ladies like to buy this ready-prepared and frozen and all that, and that costs ’em.

-BOOK ONE, p. 5

As we find in much of this book (even just so far), the people at the bottom who put in non-stop work are almost never treated in a particularly fair, much less compassionate, way. And it shows.

On the other hand, Walker clearly takes some amount of pride in his job and enjoys the work:

When you get a good crop, that’s more or less your reward. If you weren’t proud of your work, you wouldn’t have no place on the farm. ‘Cause you don’t work by the house. and you put in a lot of hours, I tell ya.

If you didn’t like your work and have pride in it, you wouldn’t do that.

You’re driving a tractor all day long, you don’t talk to anyone. You think over a lot of things in your mind, good and bad. … I can spend all day in the field by myself and I’ve never been lonesome. Sometimes I think it’s nice to get out by yourself. (BOOK ONE, p. 6)

Walker adds that, on top of all of that, at least he’s not in any kind of factory. He tried that when he was younger and didn’t like it, complaining about the feelings of being confined and the odor of the environment wasn’t to his liking.

The interview ends with Walker musing about the future of farming (it’s going to turn into a business) and hoping his son will change his mind about not becoming a farmer and working in the city. Both are rather pessimistic (though Walker doesn’t like to be that way) themes that run throughout a farmer’s life then, I can’t speak to now.

Roberto Acuna

Perhaps the most interesting individual in this chapter and the one worth spending the most amount of time with. Acunda is a union organizer and details his fascinating (if not dour) story of how he became to be one. Specifically, Acunda worked with the United Farm Workers of America and was motivated by a familiar name, Cesar Chavez.

Acuna is a very distinguished and well-educated storyteller. He weaves the struggles of her family (such as his father’s passing and the effect this had on his mother), himself in school and in the military as well as otherwise. The overall story, as I read it, was a story about desiring acceptance from the people around him.

Instead, Acuna often had to deal with racism (explicit and loud to boot) that affected his mother when he was young and affected him as well. Whether it was the “nasty remarks” and “passes” people made towards her mother as she worked in a restaurant with Acuna, the refusal to accept Acuna’s language (Spanish) as legitimate in school and the way his brother would have to get in fights because other kids would pick fights with them.

Interestingly, while Acuna was brought up very religiously, he clearly ended up not having much faith in church officals:

That’s another thing: when I see the man things in this world and in this country, I could tear the churches apart. I never saw a priest out in the fields trying to help people. Maybe in these later years they’re doing it.

But it’s always the church taking from the people.

We were once asked by the church to bring in vegetables to make it a successful bazaar. After we got the stuff there, the only people havin’ a good time were the rich people because they were only ones that were buyin’ the stuff… (BOOK 1, pp. 8-9)

Acuna was brought up on the little language his mother knew, which was mostly a few prayers here and there but still resists the influence of religion in his later life. Perhaps because he recognized what his uneducated (and I’m saying this because this is how Acuna describes her) mother could not and especially through the work of Chavez.

Poverty is a constant theme running through Acuna’s story and is made only worse through the prejudice others showed to him and his family. Even within the family, the work was long and hard and often left them too drained for school. Acuna in particular was written up multiple times for being “inattentive” in class after working before it and having to work after school is over and Acuna was only 8 when this was happening.

Before Acuna went into the marines he tried his hands as a foreman and trying to keep other workers motivated. He tells about how he would help some workers write letters to their families. Acuna describes himself as “naive” and tells of how when he asked for more money he was told he could accept his current rate or quit…so he quit and joined the marines.

Acuna quickly realized by going through the marines that respect could be attained…but at a heavy price:

I got a job as a correctional office in a state prison. 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. I couldn’t see it. This was Soledad State Prison.

(BOOK 1, pp. 11-12)

From here Acuna realized how exploitative much of the labor system was. He saw how there were experiments with pesticides that left people with diseases, or worse. He saw how awfully workers were treated and usually far worse than the supposedly lower animals on the farms. He saw how hard the labor was on many people and how, as they got older, they were less and less likely to continue to do their work and suffer from rheumatism and arthritis.

Ultimately he got involved in strikes, finding himself something to belong to. He told his mother and got her approval (which Terkel notes causes him a long pause after he recounts this) and talks of scaring the growers from the united power of the planters. As he says, it isn’t just one race of people who plant these seeds, but that’s how the people in charge (the growers, the industry leaders, the bosses, whomever) want to play it.

Acuna reasons that when they don’t play by these rules and instead use solidarity to strike out against abuse, this is what scares them. As a final note for this interview, I thought I’d quote Acuna on an important facet of his beliefs:

Working in the fields is not in itself a degrading job.

It’s hard, but you’re given regular hours, better pay, decent housing, unemployment and medical compensation, pension plans—we have a very relaxed way of living. (BOOK ONE, p. 13)

Really, all Acuna wants is for the farm workers to be treated with some level of dignity. For there to be some sort of assurance that society will give them the funds they need to live after giving so much of themselves for society.

Unfortunately, Acuna expects both too much out of society (especially American society) and out of the US government, not to mention the joint machinations of capitalism and the limits of how much you can actually reform it.

Aunt Katherine Haynes & Joe and Susie Haynes

Aunt Katherine (as I’ll call her for short), is the shortest of the interviews thus far, so I figured I’d combine it with some of her relatives. In fact, Terkel spends almost as much time describing where Aunt Katherine is as he does interviewing her. She talks about her hillbilly ways and how she’s going to stick to them. She speaks briefly about her time in school (which is equally as brief), her life as a hard worker and the way she brought up 10 children (by herself, as far as I can tell).

She talks about how she can “run circles” around most girls in the house, but won’t be able to do that for long. She’s getting “used up” (Aunt Haynes is 77 at the time of this interview), thinks technology is overrated (doesn’t watch television and can barely hear her radio) and taught herself writing outside of school.

Nothing particularly interesting here, but it isn’t for a lack of content. I am just speculating but I imagine Aunt Katherine may have not had the capabilities that someone like Acuna may have had. Or perhaps she just didn’t think it was important to weave a long story about her children or her hard work in the farms. I’m not really sure.

In any case, the far more interesting of the two are Joe and Susie Haynes.

The Haynes are made up of Katherine’s nephew and his wife with Joe being a “deep miner” and his wife who are both fighting for their land and its use against the gas company which claims superior mineral rights over them. As a result of the gas company’s obvious advantages both financially and legally, they’ve bulldozed much of the land around them.

One of the most striking parts of this (brief, all things considered) interview was this:

Susie: Our boy in the Navy when he comes back, he says all he can see is the mountain tore up with bulldozers. Even the new roads they built, they’s debris on it and you can’t hardly get through it sometimes.

I guess that’s what they send our boys off to fight for, to keep ’em a free country and then they do to us like that. Nothin’ we can do about it.

He said it was worse here than it was over in Vietnam. Four times he’s been in Vietnam.

He said this was a worse toreup place than Vietnam.

He said, “What’s the use of goin’ over there an’ fightin’ and then havin’ to come back over here an’ pay taxes on something’ that’s torn up like that?” (BOOK 1, pp. 17-18, emphasis mine)

Another interesting part was the Haynes and their disgust of their son trying to become a strip miner himself. Again and again they tell him that if he tries to get a job doing that, he’ll be kicked out of the house. “Don’t want none of ours in that, no way.” declares Susie. I don’t know whether to have some weird sense of pride that these people have such commitment to their principles or a low-level disgust that it extends to threatening their son with homelessness.

Susie reasons that her son would have died over there and she didn’t want to held responsible for any of the funeral costs or doctor bills. A somewhat reasonable point from someone who is poor and heavily against the strip miners.

In fact, Susie is so against them that she briefly mentions that if the government won’t do something about the gas companies try to encroach on their lands, maybe they will. With guns.

As a last note Joe said their grandfather got millions of dollars “sweated” out of him by the gas companies, which sure sounds like duress to me.

But then again, good luck getting that recognized in a court.

Is it any wonder then that people will turn to violence when they feel like they have no other options to defend what is rightfully there? Again, the gas companies may have the mineral rights but they don’t have the actual deed to the land itself. The Haynes still legally own that.

Unfortunately we don’t get any sort of post-script on how this turned out.

Bob Sanders

Remember how I said this chapter follows a nice progression? We get a farmer to a farm worker to some miners and then a deep miner who really hates strip mining…to (you guessed it!) a strip miner! Sanders is a bona fide strip miner himself and I was very interested to see what he’d have to say about the work that he does that others detest so much.

One of Sanders big regrets: He could have been a star in the MLB. But because of his marriage and his father’s illness he was unable to follow up on a promising tryout. To his credit,he does say:

There’s a lot of things I don’t like about my work. I’ve never really appreciated seeing ground tore up. Especially if that ground could be made into something. I think about it all the time.

You tear something up that you know has taken years and years and years … and you dig into rock. You get to talkin’ about the glacier went through there and what caused this particular rock to come out of the bank like it does. You see things come out of that bank that haven’t been moved for years.

When you see ’em, you have to think about ’em. (BOOK ONE, p. 21)

It’s easy to chide someone like Sanders but he does have opinions on the “environmental thing” and thinks that “Ninety percent of this ground, even twenty-five years ago, was rundown. Ninety percent of the ground I’ve seen torn up, you’d starve to death tryin’ to raise a roastin’ ear on it.” On the other hand, it’s just as easy to reply that environmentalist don’t always want to preserve the environment so humans can exploit it for their own gain. Sometimes (perhaps even most of the time?) they just want things to be left as they are and that’s the whole point, not growing things.

Regardless of whether the coal companies will be able to actually grow anything based on the strip mined land (and I can’t argue one way or another, I don’t know much about environmental science) it seems that companies often just say things that sound nice to appease others. I’ll always remember how in the documentary, If a Tree Falls one of the logging company representatives says how they replant the trees after they cut them down.

But the environmentalists respond by saying that the logging companies are engaging in mono-cropping and only planting trees that aren’t indigenous to the original environment. In other words, while the logging companies are replanting trees it’s for their own benefit (having one type of tree makes cutting them easier and more predictable), not the environment.

So I have reason to be suspicious of Sanders claims about the environment and how the coal companies will supposedly be bringing the land back to some sort of healthy state once it’s strip mined. Regardless, towards the end of the interview Sanders says he’s been making a good living at it and entertains the idea of being an operator.

…Which brings us to Hub Dillard.

Hub Dillard

To finish up this book, Dillard is a heavy machines operator. And if you thought some of the stories that were told previously were sad bordering on tragic, take a gander at this:

With an air of fatalism, he relives the moment: [The crane] threw me out and it was a real hot day. I said, ‘My leg is broke.’ [My boss] said, ‘No it can’t be broke.’ They see me lyin’ there, these women came over and started throwin’ blankets on me. I said ‘Jesus, as hot as it is now, you’re gonna smother me.’ The ambulance came. They started takin’ the shoe off. They ended cutting’ it off. and the bone came out.

(BOOK 1, p. 24)

There’s a little more to the story, a few more surgeries, how the crane had extra weight on the back of it which made it tip over (this was a known unsafe practice that the boss did nothing about). Dillard talks about how he was out of work for 18 months and how the union, Workmen’s Compensation and Social Security all chipped in alongside his wife to make it work. But even then, the amounts from all of these seem (at least now) fairly paltry.

Dillard is just another case of workers not being believed, punished for the problems of the company and then made to take a majority of the burden afterwards. Dillard told his boss that “it can’t be done” but of course his boss is…his boss, so he didn’t have to listen to Dillard and his opinions about safety. And Dillard paid the price, not his boss.

While Dillard is thankful to the unions he’s also not uncritical of them, denoting the presence of cliques and as a result the favoritism that happens within the industry. He makes this odd point about “colored boys” and only getting there through favoritism and not their own hard work, but it comes off as presumptuous and, quite frankly, racist.

By the end of the interview Dillard rehashes a similar sentiment we’ve seen before, but I think it’s helpful to keep seeing it as it’s important and worth paying attention to:

There’s a certain amount of pride—I don’t care how little you did. You drive down the road and you say, “I worked on this road.” If there’s a bridge, you say, “I worked on this bridge.” Or your drive by a building and you say, “OI worked on this building.” Maybe it don’t mean anything to anybody else, but there’s a certain pride knowing you did your bit.

(BOOK ONE, p. 26)

There’s a good deal of pride throughout this book in what many of these people do. But it’s often marred by external factors of unfair economies, abusive bosses, exploitative systems, systems with few options for marginalized folks and dangerous working conditions that put most of the burden on workers, not the system itself.

All of this pride is one of the big reasons I don’t think a post-work society would have as much trouble as some might think. Plenty will still be able to take pride in their labor and if anything they’ll be able to take more pride in what they’re doing because their love of the work they do won’t be marred by capitalism.

It’s tough to enjoy your job when you know that even losing a leg is barely enough to help you get by.

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