WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FIVE – Part 3 – Footwork)

Had to make the joke.

There’s a lot of variety in this section of book five. There so much in fact that I’ve had to split it up into two different sections. It certainly helps that some of the interviews are short and to the point. So Terkel ends up getting around 4 interviews in about 15 pages which is impressive in some ways and disappointing in others.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with short interviews they can sometimes leaving you wonder more about the person involved. It can also feel like you didn’t learn enough about the things they discussed, though to Terkel’s credit he supplements these short interviews with another one directly after that usually compliments the previous one.

An organizer, an order filler for a shoe factor, a mail carrier, a gas meter reader and a supermarket box boy are the folks I’ll be covering this week. Let’s get to it!

Jack Spiegel (Organizer for the United Shoe Workers of America)

Woah, this sounds like an impressive title, right? I’m sure Spiegel has some fascinating stories to tell us about how organizing in the shoe industry goes right? I mean, we got that pretty hefty story a few chapters back about how the industry surrounding trucks is holding up thanks to an organizer there. How are shoes doing?

Well, apparently, if you haven’t guessed, this is one of those short interviews. It’s in fact one of the shortest interviews I’ve seen in the book. Spiegel, for some reason, only gets italic text and gets a page and a quarter to talk about how the shoe industry is running (in the 70s) and what he’s trying to do about it.

Here are some…highlights, for what they are:

Traditionally the shoe industry has been on piecework. We discuss it and, in many cases, struggle with our own people. They can pick up twenty-five, thirty percent over their time week. But we don’t accept the philosophy that you’ve got to work till you drop. (p. 267)

I wasn’t sure what piecework is but apparently it’s getting paid on commissions. For every unit of shoes you get out on the factory floor you are paid, instead of a standard hours pay per whatever rate the factory offers. This seems like a really stressful sort of job as I’ve noted before and am glad the organizers discourage it even if it leads to internal struggle.

Here’s what I really want to talk about though:

The same manufacturers who exploit here open up factories there, bring the shoes in here, finish ’em in some places, and put a “Made in America” label on them. The consumer thinks [their] getting a break. [They] get it a little cheaper, but the quality and workmanship may not be as good.

If some measures aren’t taken by the government to tax those who send money out and establish those factories in other countries, and take jobs away from people here, it will be good-bye to the American shoe industry. Those in their sixties will retire. Those who are still able to work will find it more difficult.

(pp. 267-8)

I have a big problem with this kind of rhetoric. For one thing both conservatives and liberals agree on it which immediately makes me more suspicious. Everyone from nationalistic socialists to bible thumping conservatives will say that more jobs need to come to America. But what is so bad about international competition?

I don’t like that it’s controlled by huge corporations, but taking out the corporations, if you can’t compete with people who are getting paid less and somehow inherently may produce less quality products (seems like racism to me but OK), then my philosophy is, “Find a better job or do a better job.” No one owes you the job you have or the money you get, you aren’t entitled to the fruits of someone else’s labor and that thinking is pretty capitalistic, honestly.

If you’re not doing a great job or corporations start making more money from exploited labor out in the third world (whatever that means) then it may be time to work for a better company. But the thing to not do is get nationalistic, act like things that are made in the US are somehow inherently better and ask the government (you know, the organization that largely allows these corporations to grow in the first place) to do something about it.

Trying to tax imports and make it costly for folks to innovate overseas and bring that into our country doesn’t help American workers as much as people think it does. Most economists agree that things like trade barriers, import taxes and other policies that make it harder for trade to happen in general make it harder for everyone, not just corporations.

If you really want to help American workers then you need to change how the industry operates. But relying on the government to make it better is how unions lost their radical edge, it’s how many many oppressive corporations were able to get a solid footing so that they could exploit and outsource labor at their leisure to begin with.

Let’s not blame or punish people in other countries who have little to do with that. Not to mention the poor folks who are more likely to buy and rely on lower cost imports as opposed to the ones “proudly made in the US” that cry some sort of patriotism tax in the form of a price increase.

Protectionism, as it’s called, is nothing but a racist and classist policy.

Alice Washington (Order Filler, Shoe Factory)

Washington has about twice the amount of room that Spiegel had…but remember that this isn’t saying much. It’s still a nice compliment to get more of the on-the-ground picture from someone who is working on the factory floor. And specifically from someone who has to worry less about Big Picture stuff and more about their family.

I am walking all day long. Usually we work two hours overtime, which is until six o’clock. We work five hours on Saturday. All day long I’m on my feet. I’ve thought about it seriously and I’m gonna sit down and try to figure out just exactly how many miles I do walk within a week.

To me, it’s about fifty miles a day. (Laughs). (p. 268)

Sometimes I’m glad I don’t have to walk too much, except when I’m walking to work. Most of my walking happens when I’m walking to work itself, which is around a 30 minute walk. I usually cut it down to 25 minutes at a fast pace. But of course I still have to walk around the store itself and have to walk over to a different department.

This is especially the case when there’s no one at another department. Then I either have to call someone there, or, if I’m feeling generous and have no customers myself, I can go there myself. But this often leaves the front of the store exposed and so I have to take that customer at the front or decide I can’t handle it and call someone else.

Still, unless I’m on the floor this is usually the bulk of my walking. Sometimes I have to walk to the bathroom or the break room or I have to go around the store and do trash but these don’t happen very often. And in any case, as it should be clear by now, a lot of my walking pales in comparison to Washington.

And her conditions are worse as well:

Right now I’m having a lot of trouble with my feet. Cement is bad on your feet anyway. The whole building is cement floor. I wear crepe-soled shoes. You can’t wear anything too flat. You have to have something slightly elevated to keep your heel up off the floor. You have a lot of young girls coming in and they say, “Don’t you ever complain about your feet? My feet are killing me.”

We have complained, yes.

The management would say, “Get yourself the right-type shoe.” (pp. 268-9)

About as much compassion as you might expect from management. I’ve never complained about my feet or much else to management, mostly because I understand it’s my responsibility to have better shoes and arch support. But that said, you would think when a job demands this much the job may be inclined to give you a stipend or something for shoes.

Washington has thought about sit-down jobs but prefers the walking, she says the sitting hurts her back. My own job has recently aided a chair to the front and that has helped. But honestly, I have no idea if that was something management decided to do and it’s Official or if a worker did it once and management doesn’t care enough to dispute it.

Something Washington said struck me as odd,

If you constantly work and don’t pass off the time, messin’ around, the time goes by. (p. 270)

I’ve found the reverse. Most of the time when my shift is made up of goofing around with co-workers I find the time goes by faster because I not only have something to occupy my mind but I want it to. To be fair, it is possible to lose myself in a long line and suddenly it’s 4:30 or whatever and that’s a bit of a surprise, so there’s definitely truth here.

And there’s even more truth with sentiments like this, oh how little time has changed…

For all that walking, I should be making at least five dollars an hour. I’m able to save very little, and I do mean very little. You have to pay rent, lights, and telephone bill. You have to clothe your children, you have to feed them. It’s very hard. If you get a nickel or two, something comes up and you have to spend it.

(p. 270)

Lastly, Washington discusses her interest in getting out of the job. She even feels disgusted with herself at points but feels she needs to keep going because of her age and obligations to her family. Still, she expresses a deep interest in opening a nursery and working with little kids. Especially to help other women who she works with and their children.

Wouldn’t it be nice if capitalism gave it the sort of choices CEOs like to say it does?

John Fuller (Mail Carrier)

Fuller opens with a tremendous line,

I’m doing a job that’s my life ambition. (p. 271)

It’s a tremendous line because most of people Terkel interviews are explicitly uninterested in their job at best and a strong minority of them (at least) hate their jobs. Fuller likes that the job is respect, that he’s getting a little more money every year, how the job is appraised fairly (everyone loves getting mail according to Fuller) and so on.

Fuller also talks about how the job works great for women who get more money than they tend to get otherwise.

Even though Fuller says it was his life’s ambition, there’s also something to be said for feeling let down by what your ambition was when you were younger. When I was a kid I thought maybe I could be a fireman or a hockey player or something. Now both of those jobs seem ridiculous to me for many reasons and I would never want them.

But Fuller isn’t like that:

The various people I meet in the building, we’re constantly chatting, world affairs and everything. You don’t have a chance to go off daydreaming. My day ends about two o’clock. During the day I might feel sluggish but at quitting time you always feel happy. (p. 272)

The “you” here is a bit specious. Remember when we were discussing newspaper boys and how one of them was always happy with his job and just presumed other kids were too? That’s what I feel like Fuller and many other folks like him do as well. Perhaps surprising to Fuller is the idea that not everyone had a mailman as their life’s ambition.

In fact, many folks aren’t working their life’s ambition. I’m working at a crummy retail job instead of a comic book artist or a philosophy professor or even someone who takes care of dogs for a living. Any of those jobs would be wonderful.

But instead, I work retail (for my main job anyways) as I have for the past 8 years.

What about problems with Fuller’s job?

Well, naturally it’s…

Most things a carrier would contend with is dogs.

You think [they] won’t bite, but as soon as you open the door the dog charges out past the patron and [they] cli[p] you. This is a very hectic experience for the mailman. On a lot of residential streets, you have dogs packs roaming, and a lot of times you don’t know whether the dog is friendly or not. You try to make friends with [them] in order that you won’t be attacked. (p., 273)

And that’s about it, really. To be fair though, worrying about getting attacked is generally not a thing that one has to worry about. Maybe customers will get upset and threaten you for this reason or another (an experience I had yesterday…or maybe not, the man was vague and confusing) but generally they have the good sense to not attack you.

On the other hand dogs do not have such things topping them. And really, if there’s any class of folks I give leeway on disliking dogs and being more of a cat person or something else, it’s folks who carry the mail and have to deal with dogs. I feel like though, given the use of mailboxes and slots for mail that carriers don’t have to deal with it as much.

I could be wrong though.

Fuller is generally happy though and when he looks at retirement in the future (he’s 48 at the time of the interview) he said he’s more likely to find a supplemental job then quit working mail carrier altogether.

Conrad Swibel (Gas Meter Reader)

I don’t know if anyone remembers this guy but we’ve actually heard of Swibel before, or at least, I had. I can’t remember if he’s mentioned in the introduction at all, but if he is it’s as the gas meter reader who’s a bit of a pervert. The writer doesn’t say it like that, of course, but that’s basically what he is.

However, that’s towards the end of the interview, so let’s start where it begins (or thereabouts):

You usually go to the back door. I’ll ring the doorbell, then I’ll knock. I knock too loud, she’ll get on me. If I just ring the doorbell and don’t knock, they’ll say, “Why didn’t you knock?” You get it all the time. If I knock, I get it. If I don’t know, I’ll get it. (p. 274)

I’m just glad I’ve never had to do a job when you knock on someone’s door. It sounds like any job has that as its main requirement is going to be in some trouble. As Swibel himself points out, most people are suspicious and they also prefer to be left alone. Who wants someone showing up and disrupting their day to day routines?

And of course, if you’re a person of color Swibel notes that the cops are called on you almost every day. And people of color also tend to get followed much more. Swibel imitates what they might think after the customer is confronting them and say, “Wow, I read it, leave me alone.” which is likely a perfect summation and something he may have felt himself.

As with Fuller, when you do something that involves not only going to the back of people’s homes and telling them first (usually, but we’ll get to that later) and even going into their basement, dogs can be a problem. Swibel talks about a time that a German Shepard took a few bites before he could get away.

The more interesting part is here:

Usually they’ll say, “Don’t hit the dog.” If it’s bad enough, I usually hit [them] in the head with the flashlight, to knock [them] away. … When nobody’s looking…? You kick [them] down the stairs usually. (Laughs.) Usually the dog will follow you down the stairs or back up. That’ll give you a good chance, ’cause the dog’ll try to pass you. So you would kick him down the stairs (Laughs.)

… Many people will report you if you abuse a dog but what about me? (p. 276)

Okay, um, first of all, What The Fuck?

Just because dogs can get away with attacked doesn’t mean you can. First off, dogs have a lot less cognitive control over their impulses. You are a fucking human being and should maybe think about acting like one. This guy could be dead for all I know and I’m sure will never read it but fuck this anyways. This is animal abuse and should be reported.

Then again fuck the police so maybe someone upstairs should have told him. This guy is also super entitled and thinks he should get a gold medal (a nice letter to his boss) every time he “wastes” (his words) 5-10 minutes on someone who is crippled and talks to them and gets them some coffee or something. Clearly he cares about them…

And if that’s not all bad enough, the coup d’etat of it:

The big subject of conversation with us i dogs and women. “You shoulda seen this one in a bathing suit, real cute. ” If you have a nice cute chicken…” (p. 278)

You know, the fact that this guy hates dogs (to the point of justifying abuse) and juxtaposes that with women tells me way too much about this guy. And chickens? Men used to call women chickens? What the fuck. Like, I know folks still call women chicks (though not so much these days) but I had no idea they were calling them chickens as well.

Despite being married and having a kid, Fuller says about having sex with a customer, “One of these days it will” (p. 278)

Which, if that doesn’t sum up his commitment to things, I’m not sure what does.

There’s more, but you know what?

I’d rather not.

Brett Hauser (Supermarket Box Boy)

Hauser is perhaps the opposite of Fuller in a lot of ways. He isn’t working when interviewed having left his job for many reasons. The major reason being that a lot of his co-workers were putting down customers and his bosses had a penchant for putting him down and feeling like he had to “be terribly subservient to people” (p. 279).

I gotta say this is one of the biggest problems with retail. The level of friendliness I have to feign for folks and the amount of care I have to pretend to indulge in is ludicrous. I often have to be as polite as possible even if customers are making me feel insulted, disorientated or anything else. I had someone speaking very fast yesterday who I couldn’t understand.

He was moving around very fast as well and I felt very disorientated. He asked if we had backpacks and I responded I didn’t think so and not until kids go back to school. Apparently my tone wasn’t to his liking (I had already been accused of overcharging someone and possibly got threatened)  and he asked to speak to my manager.

Instead of trying to clarify what happened or ask about it, I had to apologize and try to convince him to not have me call my manager. Ultimately my manager didn’t care or didn’t believe him but the fact that I couldn’t do anything felt so humiliating and disempowering.

But enough about me:

It’s one of a chain of supermarkets. They’re huge complexes with bakeries in them and canned music over those loud-speakers—Muzak. So people would relax while they stopped. (p. 279)

I’ll take this over top 40 pop songs any day.

But on the other hand I’m sure this can get repetitive and dull in its own way.

Everything looks fresh and nice. You’re not aware that in the back room it stinks and there’s crates all over the place and the walls are messed up. There’s graffiti and people are swearing and yelling each other. You walk through the door, the music starts playing, and everything is pretty.

You talk in hushed tones and are very respectful. (p. 279)

The mask of respectability politics in any industry is quite the hindrance towards anyone being able to act like a human being. When you have the socially acceptable presentation on point people expect the employees to be just as presentable (read: boring and near inhuman) whether that goal is reachable or not.

Hauser was suspicious of the polices:

It gets to a point when you have to do physical violence to a person to avoid being tipped. It was not consistent with the store’s philosophy of being cordial. Accepting tips was a cordial thing and made the customer feel good. I just couldn’t understand the incongruity. (p. 280)

Imagine that, there’s some incongruity between corporate policies! Seriously though, corporations was us to be as robotic to people as possible, except when it involves making some extra money. God forbid folks who are struggling with their jobs and the amount of money they make try to get a little extra something here and there.

Past this point Hauser talks about the struggles of working under his bosses, co-workers who put him down and turned every transaction into a monumental waste of everyone’s time. That last part in particular struck me as amazing but on the other hand there have been times where I artificially extended the transaction and felt bad afterwards.

Usually though that’s because I want to figure out if a sale is actually happening or not.

In any case, there’s not too much of the interview to go and I’ve lost steam as is.

See y’all next time!

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