WORKING, by Studs Terkel (Book Three, Part Four – Watching, Concluded)

Here we have an interesting mixture of jobs: a private investigator, a photographer and a film critic. What’s notable about this section is that despite however much you might think a photographer and a film critic may have to say, it’s the PI who spends around ten pages talking about his job, not the critic or the photographer.

There’s some interesting tidbits from all of them though. Even though the photographer and film critic both have their interview (presumably) cut down to a pitiful 1-2 page summary, there’s still plenty to chew on. And if that’s not the sign of a great interviewer, I’m not sure what is.

First things first though, the PI.

Anthony Ruggiero (Industrial Investigator)

Okay, so the title is a little different, but you can basically think of Ruggiero as a PI. A PI who doesn’t necessarily work for individuals but is instead usually contracted out by companies. Either way, he does investigating separate from the police force which by default makes him a sort of private detective.

Semantics aside, let’s take a look:

He’s an undercover investigator for a private agency. “My outfit has forty-five undercover agents. They have three surveillance teams, eight polygraph operators…” (p. 143)

There are a few mentions of polygraphs being used in these investigations. So just to get this out of the way: this book was written in the early 70s, before polygraphs were known to be unreliable.

Early on it’s easy to see why I could never do this line of work:

Undercover guys are the greatest actors in the world. You make a mistake and you’re not allowed to come home. (Laughs.) If they knew I was an undercover there, they woulda thrown me out of the window.

(pp. 143-44)

As much as I’d love to assist the window repair industry, I think I’ll pass.

As Diane (Ruggiero’s wife) says towards the end of the interview, “I couldn’t do it. I can’t lie. When I lie it shows all over my face. I can’t even lie on the phone.” (p. 153) I’m the same way, even with my managers when they’re on the phone. I have to remember when I am in those situations that it’s OK to say “no” and they can’t make me come in. I’m not sure if they could legally punish me but my work almost never has, or at least not in any consistent way I’ve ever noticed.

Regardless, I have a tough time talking to managers and giving excuses about why I can’t cover someone else. From time to time I’ll do it if I know they really need me and I don’t want my co-workers to suffer. But other times I’ll be exhausted, want some time to recover and maybe even do something I want to do (like write!).

Those are the times where I’ll usually just tell them that I’m busy.

Ruggiero talks about the benefits of his job: Not being stuck in an office, good pay, a few raises a year and he likes people. He feels like the work he does is important and that security is a necessity in the society he lives in. So here we have, for the first time in a while, someone who unambiguously enjoys their job…though I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I won’t belabor the examples he gives of his job, but I’ll use his first one:

In this one job I was a baker. They threw me in. You have a training program. I was hired as a dough mixer.

They had a theft of butter. It sounds ridiculous but it ran into quite a bit of money. Seventy cartons of butter was being swiped on an average of once a week. This was going on for six months to a year, which amounted to something like four, five thousand dollars.

This wasn’t too important.

The one problem was this company had a contract with the city. It was well over a million-dollar contract and they were worried about losing it.

After working in the mixing room about two or three weeks, I was positive these guys were clean. I needed more mobility, so I went on the sanitation gang. … We knew the butter was being taken out of the refrigerator, I stationed myself on top of the refrigerator, which was a completely dark end of the room. I stayed up there four days, eight-hour shifts. I sat, I walked around, there was room.

The ceiling was a foot over my head.

Nobody saw me. (p. 144, emphasis mine)

The thief was eventually caught, he gave a confession but the confessions was signed without any witnesses and he didn’t have any counsel. The thief couldn’t get unemployment for being fired due to theft so it went to arbitration and according to Ruggiero, “my testimony destroyed the man” (p. 145) and Ruggiero met his deadline.

But Diane chimes in:

You want it honestly? I can see sometimes where it really makes him feel bad. Where he really feels like the villain. Like the time that guy lost his job. (Addresses him) I couldn’t talk to you for a couple of days.

(p. 145)

Let it be known that Diane saves this interview from merely being about Ruggerio’s job. She makes it a wider conversation about the implication of his job and how he feels about it. Without her, this interview wouldn’t be half as interesting.

Apparently the thief in question was with the company for twenty-five years. And although Ruggiero often sees eye to eye with the employer, he didn’t here. Diane recounts his feelings, “He said, “The employer should have more rapport with the guy than that. He shoulda called him in and said, “What’s the problem? What do you need that extra money for?” (p. 146)

Although you may think Ruggiero would become a hardened person through this job, he instead become more sympathetic in some ways. He learned to understand the motives behind thieves actions and concluded that “there are thieves and then there are thieves” (p. 150) Even his wife agrees he’s become more tolerant thanks to the job.

Unfortunately, here’s Ruggerio’s idea of the “good” side of his job:

Contrary to popular opinion, we do more good for people than damage. I wish I had a penny for every guy that became a manager because of me. (p. 146)

From my perspective (and Diane’s as we’ll see) the managers are not necessarily the good in the world that Ruggiero thinks they are. And although Ruggiero downplays the fact that he more often than not gets people fired than gets them into jail, he fails to recognize that one can often lead to another. And perhaps all you could say at that point is, “Well it’s their fault for stealing” but as Ruggiero points out, there’s sometimes good reasons why people steal.

I agree with him that a thief who steals just for the heck of it and a thief who steals because they want to feed their family are two very different kinds of thieves. Although in either case, I think capitalism tends to create conditions whereby theft is sometimes the only logical option for people, the bootstrap isn’t as tight or reliable as some may think.

Diane and Ruggiero have an interesting discussion I wanted to highlight:

Diane: Do they have to get the polygraph test before they get the job?

Sure, ooohhh sure. Imagine they hire you to drive a truck loaded with a hundred million dollars worth of fur coats. Hey, you drive away, you’re set for life. (Laughs.) the guy’s out the money.

Diane: If you refuse, you don’t get the job?

I’m gonna hire a cashier, right. I want you to take a polygraph and you say no. I can say to you, “I don’t want to hire you.”

Diane: That’s stupid.

You don’t have to take test.

Diane: But you don’t get the job.

Yeah. Why wouldn’t you want to take it?

Diane: Because I wouldn’t. I want people to accept me as I am. I don’t need a test to prove my honesty.

Who said so?

Diane: I said so.

This is the first part of the conversation. Let’s start here.

Let’s leave aside that a polygraph test is completely ineffectual.

Putting that aside, I understand and respect Diane’s belief that an employer should simply take her as she is and accept the risk of doing business. On the other hand, if an employer wants to double check and make sure they aren’t going to lose a lot of money on the chance, it does make a certain kind of sense in the short-term.

But in the long-term, people can change and so can their attitudes. Maybe at first they seem like they would be an upstanding person. They pass the interview great, the polygraph goes fine and they leave a good impression. They came well-prepared and well-dressed and managed to impress you.

Over time though, they feel demeaned by the job. They start resenting the position and wishing they had a better life where they think they might be able to have more leisure. At this point and especially if they are desperate for that better sort of life then they might be liable to cost you a bit of money. But how could you have prepared for this?

Ultimately, I agree with Diane that the risk of employment (to the extent that we should have it at all through bosses or managers) is a two-way street. The employee is taking a chance that the work will be fair and they’ll have opportunities to move upwards and be paid decently. At the same time the employer is taking a chance that their guaranteed income towards this person will be well worth their time now and in the long-run.

But ultimately, no polygraph or test can guarantee either of these people’s happiness.

Now, for the second part:

It’s your word against the employer’s. He’s got more to lose than you. He’s gonna pay you X amount of dollars a week to do X amount of work. Maybe you’re a loser, maybe you’re a turkey.

Diane: That’s the chance he takes.

Why should he take a chance? You’re gonna be guaranteed a week’s salary. Shouldn’t you guarantee a week’s work?

Diane: I’d want to polygraph him.

(Looks heavenward.) Everybody looks at the employer like he’s the evil guy.

Diane: He is the evil guy.

He is not, he wants to make a buck, just as much as you do.

Diane: He wants to make a buck on you, not the same as you.

Of course. If he can’t make a buck on you, you’d be out of a job. If my company wasn’t makin’ money on me, you think I’d be working there?

Diane: You always seem to think people are doin’ you a favor and they’re not. You’re really doin’ them a favor because they’re makin’ money on you.

Of course. This is capitalist society, whether you like it or not. It’s not like goin’ on welfare, you gotta work. There’s nothing wrong with it.

Diane: Big businesses uses people. They use people as long as they can.

No news in that. (pp. 148-9)

Lots of things to cover here.

First, Ruggiero is making the presumption that many defenders of capitalism make: That the employer is somehow always making a bigger sacrifice or taking a bigger risk than the employee. And because of this disparity in chance and risk, the employer is just in setting the conditions for the contract, even if they can be unfair.

The trick here though, is that employees, because they often have significantly less capital than the capitalist (otherwise they’d be the capitalist) are also in a risky situation. If their employer is a prick, if the wages turn out to be garbage, if the hours are inconsistent or too much for them to take then they often have to risk unemployment.

And because they have significantly less capital than the capitalist, they’ll risk economic punishments in the way of having less material goods in their life, often things they need such as reliable sources of income for food, shelter and so on. If the owner isn’t great or their co-workers are a handful or the customers are too much for them to take then they’ll often have to deal with the psychological toll of a bad job until they can find a better one.

I’ve talked previously about the toll of a bad job vs. unemployment. But the short story there is that it’s far worse for people to be stuck in awful jobs they hate then be unemployed and looking for a decent job.

And ultimately Diane is correct that the purpose of the boss is to make a buck off you, not to worry about your well-being at the job. They may also care about that, but it isn’t their main concern. You and the employer do not have many things in common and Ruggiero’s defense of capitalism presumes that we do, but we don’t.

Lastly, going on welfare doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t working. I’m not sure about what the situation was like back in the 70s but in the 21st century, there have been plenty of jobs that you can work while still qualifying for welfare and especially if you happen to have a few kids. And even if you don’t have kids, welfare doesn’t count all the work you do in trying to find a job for you that will be reliable and help you get by.

Here’s the last part I want to tackle:

You’re gonna have a lot more security. I think the neighborhoods are gonna instill their own police force, ’cause as far as cops are concerned, they’re complete failures. Eventually every block association is gonna hire their own police department. I belong to an association and I got two patrolmen on my block, I’m payin’ their salary and I have a voice in what they do and how they do it. (p. 152)

I thought this was a pretty fascinating idea. Although Ruggiero says that it’ll cause a lot more surveillance in society, which from my position as an anarchist, isn’t a good thing. Still, to hear a prediction of more decentralized police forces that are more accountable to their local neighborhoods was an interesting thing to see, especially from a PI.

Of course, just the reverse has happened historically.

I don’t think we have much to thank for folks like Ruggiero but I do think it’s interesting that he recognizes that most people who steal are just normal people. Most of them want the money or whatever it is for a particular purpose and aren’t just some sort of evil automaton or “degenerate”, etc.

Even so, I think there are better jobs we can learn the value of multiculturalism from.

Jill Freedman (Photographer)

This interview (and arguably the next) are the textbook definition of the phrase, “short but sweet”. Freedman gets right to the heart of photography in this interview and about the ethics of taking photos in particular.

There are times where if I’d used the hidden camera I’dve had things that I don’t have. But I’d never use it. I hate sneaky photographers, there’s no respect.

Sometimes it’s hard to get started, ’cause I’m always aware of invading privacy. If there’s someone who doesn’t want me to take their picture, I don’t. When should you shoot and when shouldn’t you? I’ve gotten pictures of cops beating people. Now they didn’t want their pictures taken. (Laughs.)

That’s a different thing. (p. 154)

Here, Freedman is able to distinguish (quite rightly) between folks whose privacy shouldn’t be invaded and whose privacy depends on the perpetuation of abuse. These are two very different situations. It reminds me of when people try to justify the abuse (physical or emotional) that parents can put kids through. People will justify it by saying it’s the parent’s businesses and not yours, but if your “business” is abuse then it deserves to be spotlighted.

I hate cheap pictures. I hate pictures that make people look like they’re not worth much, just to prove a photographer’s point. … You use people as props instead of as people. (ibid)

Freedman uses the example of taking pictures while people are picking their nose and I can easily imagine tabloid photographers or photo journalists who are trying to make some sort of political point through their pictures. This person is a conservative but look how fat they are! This person is a liberal but look how normal their family is!

Weegee took a picture of that woman and daughter crying. The sister had just been burned in a fire. It’s one of the most touching pictures in the world. Yet I know I could never have taken that picture. Especially shooting off the flash in their face at the time. And yet I’m glad he took the picture.

Freedman contrasts this with a picture from My Lai during the Vietnam War (I presume this picture) and asks how the (military) photographer could have taken that shot while those people were being shot. A little confusingly worded but it’s a great question to ask: When does our obligation to help override our job and getting it done well? Surely the pictures of My Lai are powerful and tell a tale of the inherent brutality of war, but is just taking pictures immoral?

Should the photographer done something more? If he had what would he have been able to do, exactly? It was him against his comrades who would have likely out numbered and outgunned him, killing him so that his photographs wouldn’t have gone public. Then again, isn’t heroism worth it at any cost, even if it means your life?

This is such a good question and it’s asked in such a short span of time. It gives us plenty to think about with regards to the obligations we have to those around us. There’s a bit more to the interview than this but I think I’ve said enough about it. Check it out for yourself, check this book out while you’re at it!

Pauline Kael (Film Critic)

Kael starts the discussion with a great point, one I’ve noticed too, “Work is rarely treated in films.” And this is absolutely true and a source of frustration for me. This changed in the 90s with movies like Clerks, Slacker and of course Office Space but back in the 70s many movies about work still hadn’t been made.

My theory about why movies and culture more generally doesn’t focus on work is because, 1) It’s considered boring 2) Entertainment is often provided as an escape from people’s day to day lives, so focusing on what those day to day lives are constituted by would be counter-productive, or so goes the thinking.

But in point of fact there’s much one can do with workplace drama. Just look at The Office (both the UK version and the US remake) and see how much comedy, drama and interesting scenarios they were able to give viewers. You also have shows like Workaholics and newer shows like Corporate which also target how hilarious or evil work can be.

So there’s plenty of room for discourse about work. I’m not saying it all has to be negative (though I think that’s a more realistic portrayal of course) but work should always be discussed on some level. Kael spends some of the interview in the beginning reminiscing on hospital bureaucracy and how that’s been shown through culture, but I’ll skip that.

Instead, let’s check out this insightful quote:

Movies set up these glamorized occupations. When people find they are waitresses, they feel degraded. No kid says I want to be a waiter, I want to run a cleaning establishment. there is a tendency in movies to degrade people if they don’t have white-collar professions. So people form a low self-mage of themselves, because their lives can never match the way Americans live—-on the screen. (p. 155)

Kael says for herself that she enjoys her own work but much of the work she is aware of “mechanize” and “depersonalize[s]” the workers (ibid). She talks about how when she tried to work a job to support her family she often had to take aspirin and then reflects on the housewife who is often shown in commercials as a total mess.

But to accurately show what is happening, to show that industries are exploiting workers, to show that industries are polluting rivers, to show that airlines treat their stewardesses as disposable at a certain point, would outrage the industry as Kael points out. But we’ve seen more and more outrage over the years (most recently because of #metoo) from industry leaders who want to refuse their culpability in the abuse of others and yet it continues.

Lastly, Kael muses that she hasn’t seen a movie about a strike in a while. I haven’t seen many movies about strikes in general and I try to specialize in movies that tackle the themes around work. This is another sorely needed topic to be addressed within the movie industry. But hey, when in doubt, look to reality.

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