WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FOUR – Part One, The Demon Lover – Continued)

The Ford “Demons”

Last week we started from the bottom and now we’re…here? This continuation of The Demon Lover (referring to those who work with cars) is more focused on the middle and upper echelon of the Ford factory we saw in the last part. Whereas Phil Stallings the spot-welder wanted to be a utility worker, this time we’ll see how a utility worker themselves enjoy the job. We also get a small look at the top through a plant manager and next time may get even further up.

But first, let’s start around the middle with Hobart Foote, a utility worker.

Hobart Foote (Utility Worker)

Foote has been with the company for over 15 years and as such, knows the job well. Although originally planning to work until he could save up for his own car and move back south, he met his wife instead and stayed in Chicago. Foote works at the same plant as Stallings and makes reference to him and his hatred of the job, we’ll discuss that later.

The key word in this interview is “routine”:

From the word go, the clock radio goes off. About four thirty. First thing comes to my mind is shut my eyes just for a few minutes. Yet I know I can’t shut ’em for too long. I know I gotta get up. I hate that clock.

(p. 169)

This reminds me of being back in school and hating my clock that woke me up. Whatever alarm I set, no matter how pretty or how quiet it may have been, was a burden on my brain. It was a burden on my very being because it dictated when I had to get up and I was almost never ready to get up that early in the morning.

These days I make it clear with my employers that I’m not willing to work in the mornings. I like staying up until 2 in the morning and watching YouTube and relaxing. I don’t want to wake up at an early time unless I’ve got somewhere really important to be (which is almost never work) and the only exceptions I may make are for dog-walking.

But it doesn’t sound like Foote is quite so happy:

I get up when the news comes on. Sometimes it’s five to give, sometimes it’s five o’clock. the assembly line starts at six. I go to the washroom, comb my hair. That’s routine with me. I have to get every hair in place.

… In the meantime, I’m watchin’ that clock. I say, “I gotta go, it’s eight minutes after. … You tell your wife, of course, you’ll see her tonight. It’s routine. (p. 169)

This passage reminds me of George Woodcock’s Tyranny of the Clock which I’ve republished, here.

All of our lives are dictated by the spaces around us and this is especially true when it comes to the space known as time. While this isn’t an inherently bad thing, time can be weaponized as a sort of prison that either others put us in or we put ourselves in. For example, I’ve noticed hat I am constantly trying to time things out instead of enjoying them.

It’s next to impossible to enjoy our lives as much as we could when so much of it is reliant on factors outside of our control. Time is not necessarily an oppressive construct but a tool that society has mismanaged with certain bad priorities, especially when it comes to work and how folks should spend their time.

Here’s more routine:

Well these tensions [of missing or getting trains to work] … It don’t bother me, really. It’s routine. … I check what job is in the hole, what small part has to be put on. We work those jobs out of the hole. Maybe we put in a master cylinder or a headlight. If it needs any small parts, screws, clips, bolts—-you know, routine.

(p. 169)

This got me thinking about when routine and habit take over our lives. At what point does work become more of a burden on our backs than a liberator of our energies? At what point in working a terrible job do you just say, “Well that’s just part of the experience!” and move on. Truthfully, I’ve done this with my retail job in accepting that some of the customers are just terrible or at least annoying in their own small ways that translate to big ones during the job.

Accepting these things does mean, to some extent, that I’ve given up some of my emotional energy to the excuse of, “Well, that’s just the way it is and not much can be done.” Many of these things are idiosyncrasies or things that it seems to me anyways, would be unfair of me to challenge or come off as very rude if I did.

That said, let’s talk about Stallings and Foote:

I think a lot of it is in your mind. you get like … Phil Stallings. He’s grown to hate the company. Not me.

The company puts bread and butter on the table. I feed my family and with two teen-aged kids, there’s a lot of wants. And we’re payin’ for two cars.

And I have brought home a forty-hour paycheck for Lord knows how long. (p. 170)

There’s a lot of things wrong with this.

Just because someone helps feed your family doesn’t mean they’re a good person or worth liking. Plenty of people can get their money from unscrupulous individuals or companies. Getting money from someone doesn’t obligate you to feel positively about the person, or company in question, though I can understand why some may feel like that.

Ultimately, no matter what you get in life from a person or anything else, this doesn’t put some sort of obligation to feel only positive things towards them. And to be fair, Foote clearly doesn’t like some aspects of the job, he just doesn’t hate the company that has given him the job because of the benefits it provides.

And while it’s great to get decent benefits from a job, for some folks there’s a lot more to a successful and happy life than just being able to pay what’s in front of you. Foote talks about being let go and brought back a few times when he was younger and says at one point, “I guess they just want to make you feel bad”. But this is the problem with most work, whether individual folks want you to feel bad doesn’t match up to a system almost designed for negative feelings.

A final passage on routine:

It’s the same routine. But I can rotate mine just a little bit, just enough to break monotony. But when it catches up with ya and all of a sudden it’s real quiet, nobody says nothing—that makes the day go real long. (p. 171)

This sort of freedom is why Stallings hates his job and Foote is better able to put up with it. Foote doesn’t realize the sort of movement and freedom he has over Stallings. He doesn’t realize that when the monotony catches up to him that this is the everyday experience of the folks on the assembly line, not just a passing feeling.

That’s not to downplay the monotony Foote himself deals with. I’m sure it isn’t pleasant either and I think that sort of monotony speaks to the inherent degradation or drollness of the job itself. Something that I think Foote is underestimating just because of the greater privileges he has as a utility man.

Foote deals with the monotony by joking with his co-workers and I completely understand that. Whether it’s messing with customers, my co-workers or even sometimes my managers, keeping a good sense of humor about things is often what keeps me alive, let alone employed at my crummy retail job.

Lastly,

Suppose a car could be made by robots, and all the people were free to do what they wanted for a living…

The land’s runnin’ out. Maybe they would like to have a service station or a grocery store or sit on the creek bank and fish or be a loafer or turn hippies or whatever or nothin’. I’d say it’d be thirty percent hippies in the country. they’d just give up.

It wouldn’t be safe for you to walk out of your front door, because you’d have too many people with unoccupied minds. they got the money and that’s all they care. They’ll either have a gun, they’ll either have dope, they’d be hot rodding.

They’d be occupied with trouble.

Because someone has got to work. (p. 173)

This is the whole, “idle hands are devil’s plaything” argument which I think John Danaher counters nicely, here:

The second objection might be termed the “idleness” objection. Proponents of this will say that the opportunity cost argument presumes a far too rosy picture of human motivation. It presumes that if left to their own devices, people will pursue projects of great worth to both themselves and others. But this is mere fantasy. If freed from the discipling (invisible) hand of the market, people will simply fall idle and succumb to vice. We know this to be true because people suffer from weakness of the will: it is only the necessity of meeting their economic needs that allows them to overcome this weakness.

I find this objection unpersuasive.

One reason for this is that it is difficult to determine what is so bad about so-called “vice” and “idleness”.

But suppose we could determine this. In that case, I have no doubt that in the absence of work many will succumb to “vice”, but I’m pretty sure they do that in presence of work anyway. It’s not clear to me that things will be any worse in a world without work. People have basic psychological needs — e.g. for autonomy, competence and relatedness — that will drive them to do things in the absence of economic reward. Ironically, the major driver of vice and idleness might be advances in automation and artificial intelligence. If AIs don’t just takeover the world of work, but also the world of moral projects (e.g. the alleviation of suffering), scientific discovery and artistic creation, then there might be nothing left for us humans to do. I suspect we are a long way from that reality, but it is something to consider nonetheless.

This is an interesting interview and there’s still some sections I excluded for space so check it out.

Ned Williams (Stock Chaser)

So this interview starts out like this:

I done the same job twenty-two years, twenty-three years.

Everybody else on that job is dead.

(p. 174)

Chipper, huh?

One of the first things I noticed about this interview is how work can, over time, affect your demeanor:

He cannot sit still. He moves about the room, demonstrates jabs at the air in the manner of an old-time boxer. He has a quickness about him… (p. 174)

Though, to be fair, this could have always been an issues with Williams. Perhaps it’s a personality quirk or something else and work just exacerbate it or maybe something else. In any case it’s not a big deal by itself but it got me thinking about the ways in which work shapes our relationship to the world in action and thought.

For myself, I think I’m a lot more mindful of cashiers. I have a much greater respect and I always try to keep things moving for them and maybe make a quick joke or make their day more memorable somehow, if I can. I also try to not dump liquids in trashcans because I know someone has to take out the trash and won’t appreciate it.

So there are some ways in which even terrible jobs can have some small benefits for you. I don’t think it outweighs the harm that is being done, but it can at least shed some light on the harm that others may have to go through all of the time in their own lives and workplace.

This was a nice passage from Williams:

If somebody else is treated bad, I’ll talk for him. Maybe he don’t have sense enough. They say, “Tend to your own business.” My business is his business. He’s just like me. When a foreman says to me it’s none of my business I say, “If I was in the same shoe, you’d try to do that to me, but you better not. No, they ain’t never gonna get me till I’m down and dead.” (p. 175)

In the nearly 200 pages of this book so far this might be the best example of worker solidarity in theory and practice that we’ve seen. This encapsulates, “An injury to one, is an injury to all.” very well.

Williams also talks about how robotic (“a mechanical nut”) he feels during his job and how he has had more than once  on a Sunday, think he has work. Again, going back to school, I feel like many of us have had a day earlier in our youth when we thought we had school that day and woke up with a fright, when we realized (or told) it was Saturday.

Williams says he has a “certain area of proudness” about his work when it comes to the automobile, but I’m not so sure he’d rather just be lying on a hammock or enjoying some riches. He says in the interview that if he could do his life over, he’d do the first 35 years over where he never worked, “I didn’t do nothing. I don’t like work, I never did like work.” (p. 176)

Amen to that.

Tom Brand (Plant Manager)

Brand will be the last interview I’ll highlight and while it’s interesting to get the head of the firm (or one of them anyways) I didn’t find the whole interview worth arguing with, like I did with the cop of a few articles ago.

There’s some interesting bits though so let’s dive into those as they happen.

Then I go out on the floor, tour the plan. We’ve got a million and a half square feet under the roof. I’ll change my rout—so they can’t tell every day I’m going to be in the same place at the same time. The worst thing I could do is set a pattern where they’ll always know where I’ll be. (p. 178)

Brand gives some credence to the idea that he should be friendly to his subordinates (he doesn’t use this word) and that to seem too distant from them would be a managerial mistake. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to make himself legible in the ways that his subordinates clearly are. This speaks to the power differences between both.

He also goes at length about the things the company provides its workers. Brand talks about earmuffs for when it gets loud, reduced price safety shoes ($11.50 instead of $30) as well as prescription lenses free, safety goggles and other such accessories to make work safer. But it should be noted that a safe workplace is a bare minimum foundation for having a meaningful job and it certainly doesn’t do much besides provide that critical foundation.

To his credit, he doesn’t seem like a terrible manager. He says that people have had suggestions for him about how the plant should be run and he invites them in. That’s more than you could say for many people in his position. In addition, he recognizes that the earmuffs, while valuable for ear protection can get hot in the summer, so he fixed that as well.

Brand discusses giving more benefits to the workers turning around the turnover rate from previous years. He also seems to think the people of color in his plant have gotten calmer and that their militancy has died down. That doesn’t seem to be the case as far as Grayson was concerned though, so I wonder if this is just selective reading on Brand’s part.

This interview isn’t very long and is mostly made up of boring details of his job, not much in the way of personal thoughts but we do get the following towards the end:

When I’m away I’m able to leave my work behind. Not all the time. (Indicates the page boy on his belt) Some nights I forget and I suddenly discover at home I’ve got the darn thing on my belt. (Laughs.) We just took a fourteen-day Caribbean cruise. They sent me a telegram: “Our warranty for December, $ 1.91 Enjoy yourselves.” That’s better than some single-shift plants in quality. (p. 181)

Even bosses can’t escape work. In fact, sometimes the boss is one of the people most tied down by work. That’s certainly not always the case but at times, it almost seems as if no one is above the constraints of work.

One last thing Brand says sounds good-natured but upon a closer read, seems disturbing to me:

If I could get everybody at the plant to look at everything through my eyeballs, we’d have a lot of the problems licked. If we have one standard to go by, it’s easy to swing it around because then you’ve got everybody thinking the same way. This is the biggest problem of people—communication. (p. 181)

I agree that communication is a huge issue in work, but it’s a huge issue in almost any part of life (even if especially work to some degree). Trying to get everyone to think the same way would be nothing short of ruinous even if it succeeded and if it did, it wouldn’t make things better. Making things more uniform, legible and easily regulated hasn’t historically led to better outcomes in the long-run.

In the long-run having systems predicated on population control (even if under the pretense of universal cooperation) stifles our individual spirits and ultimately makes us rebel against those oppressive systems. In many ways we already have managers, owners of capital, politicians and more who are trying to make this world possible.

Be like the Williamson’s of the world.

Give ’em Hell.


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