WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SIX – Part 3 – Bureaucracy)

Probably not completely accurate but not entirely false either…

In starting this (short) section I wondered how Terks would handle a section on bureaucracy. Would he get all perspectives of those involved? Focus on the lower rung individuals like he generally does? The approach in this chapter is slightly mixed but certainly more geared towards the bottom rung than the higher echelon, as you might expect.

With only three interviews there’s two people who were formerly much higher up but were demoted for one reason or another. The last person isn’t super high up but has assisted those who are. There’s also a lot of welcome and frank talk about racial and gender-based discrimination in the workplace as well as disadvantageous work styles.

I definitely enjoyed this chapter, so let’s get into it!

Steve Carmichael (Government Relations Coordinator)

As you can tell from Carmichael’s title alone, we’re in for a section of very long and convoluted names. Carmichael’s role is project management and specifically he’s trying to help with poverty programs aimed at helping young folks. Whether they’ve dropped out of school or something else he tries to help them get better work.

This is ironic given that Carmichael himself finds little pleasure in his job. He came from a background of being skeptical towards bureaucrats and their effectiveness. Now he finds himself as no longer the plucky upstart he used to consider himself and more of “the fly in the ointment” (p. 341). He’s become the thing he hated when he was younger.

That said, I appreciate his attitude towards his job:

They say I’m unrealistic. One of the fellas that works with me said, “It’s a dream to believe this program will take sixteen-,seventeen-year-old dropouts and make something of their lives.” This may well be true, but if I’m going to believe that I can’t believe my job has any worth. (p. 341)

I think someone could say something about my “job” writing on this site. You could say I’m dreamer, but hey, I’m not the only one. And even if I was, even if it’s completely idealistic to advocate for a world without work, a world without domination or subordination from bosses (or at least as minimized as possible), so what?

It’s awful how we’re taught in society to always be “rational” and “realistic” about our plans. Sure, there’s a lot of pep talks about striving towards your dreams but eventually people will shush your plans for a better world. Eventually people think that your plans are just not going to get along with the “real world”. But what if that’s the point?

What if you’re not trying to make too many concessions or compromises with the world? What if doing that sort of thing is actively harming you and your goals instead of making it somehow more realistic? And what if “realism” isn’t always a thing to be striven towards when it just ends up perpetuating evil?

Enough of me though, here’s more from Carmichael on his work:

My suggestions go through administrative channels. Ninety percent of it is filtered out by my immediate superior. I have been less than successful in terms of getting things I believe need to be done. It took me six months to convince my boss to make one obvious administrative change. It took her two days to deny that she had ever opposed the change. (p. 342)

This reminded me of the way democrats have acted towards LGBTQIA+ folks. Libertarians, not democrats were the first in the 70s to recognize the importance of sexual identity and so forth. And yes, I know it’s hip to make fun of economically illiterate libertarians can be, but credit where credit is due on this point.

But of course now democrats can’t get enough of saying how much they support queer folks and their identities, even if they don’t fully understand them or how to actually best lift their voices up from marginalization. This goes as far back as prominent democrats like Hillary Clinton originally opposing gay marriage (one of the weakest ways the gay community could be helped, honesty) but then turning on it years later and pretending she never felt otherwise.

None of which is to suggest folks can’t change their positions and that this can’t be a legitimate experience. With the #RehireJamesGunn controversy as of late I think many of us are realizing or re-asserting that people can become better and learn from their mistakes, even at an older age. People can change and I don’t want to live in a world that denies it.

Last thing from Carmichael:

The most frustrating thing for me is to know that what I’m doing does not have a positive impact on others. I don’t see this work as meaning anything. I now treat my job disdainfully. (p. 343)

There’s something so common yet still undeniable sad about the young upstart who joints the system to try to change it from within. To go from the young “idealist” and have the ideals squeezed out of you year by year sounds like a horrifying process and that’s probably why it’s not uncommon to see similar themes in movies (see: The Dark Knight).

This story is an old one and it’s part of why I retain my anarchic spirit about activism. Asking for permission for good things (e.g. voting) isn’t going to be effective and as such surely trying to work within the system isn’t going to do us much good either. Having these poverty programs for youth sounds good, but what do they really accomplish?

I think this is one of the central problems with liberals. They take these nice sounding programs that democrats may or may not have sponsored and say see what would we do without democrats? But poor folks had plenty of options through mutual aid before legislatures (democrats included I’m sure) got involved and we are still doing it today.

Lilith Reynolds (Project Coordinator)

Question: What’s the difference between this job and the Carmichael’s?


It’s hard for me to describe what I’m doing right now. It may sound like gobbledygook. It’s hard to understand all the initials. It’s like the alphabet soup. (p. 344)

To be fair, Reynolds wasn’t directly responding to that question but she may as well have. Reynolds shares the problem I suspect many in her line of work have: Administrative confusion (my own phrasing). She hardly knows where she is or what she’s doing much of the time and I don’t think it’s accidental either.

To some extent I think there’s not much that can come from large administrations that service a far too large population given their “natural” monopoly via governmental privileges. Not much besides administrative confusion which allows for people to be unsure how to even describe what they’re doing, let alone give it much of a name.

And keep in mind that Reynolds has worked in government for nine years so it’s not just the idealists like Carmichael that are disheartened from their job. And while Reynolds is likely higher than Carmichael within the organization she works at (Office of Economic Opportunity, OEO) it doesn’t show for much.

I have been very active in the [American Federation of Government Employees union]. We’ve frequently confronts management with problems we insisted they solve. We tried to get them to upgrade the secretaries. They’re being underpaid for the jobs they’re doing. Management fought us. We’ve tried to have a say in policy making. We’ve urged them to fund poor groups directly. Management fought us. (p. 345)

Reynolds wisely comment show employees are the ones who should be making much of the decisions within a given bureaucracy and not the managers. She correctly reasons that the employees are the ones on the ground and the people who likely best know what’s going on in a given situation. Naturally, management wants to hear nothing of that.

Ultimately, management just gets in the way and Reynolds makes that perfectly clear. OEO actually has a pretty important job but it’s too busy squabbling internally to get much of anything done. Reynolds also talks about earlier how management and local politicians don’t even like talking about poverty explicitly just that “something” must be done.

This is classic politics of course. Give lip service to a problem without really talking about it or what you’re going to do about it but in just enough detail that you can rally your supporters around you and your “grand plan”.

Reynolds makes an interesting point:

I think our union has challenged management a lot more than most government unions. That’s largely because of the kind of people OEO has attracted. They believe in being advocates of the poor.

They believe in organizing people to challenges the system. It’s a natural carryover to organize a union which also challenges the system. (p. 345)

What did Reynolds get for all of her activism? A demotion. She mentions how, as the union got more aggressive, there was an issue involving Native folks and there was an internal power struggle on the part of the director to fire the president. But Reynolds and others fought this and brought 33 charges against the director.

Needless to say, Reynolds doesn’t work for the director anymore, at the time of the interview. Instead, she’s been demoted and not allowed to do anything officially. As Reynolds herself says, “That’s another typical thin in government. When management wants to get rid of you, they don’t fire you. What they do is take your work away.” (p. 36)

In spite of all of this, Reynolds maintains a fantastic attitude:

It’s extremely frustrating. But, ironically, I’ve felt more productive in the last few weeks doing what Iv’e wanted to do than I have in the last year doing what I was officially supposed to be doing. Officially I’m loaging. I’ve been working on organizing women and on union activities. It’s been great. (p. 346)

Now that’s my kind of slacker! That’s what I love to see, folks using company time (by the company’s own order no less!) and money and putting both into working against it. And especially as a way to channel her passions into helping marginalized communities better themselves through a union. Awesome awesome stuff!

On the other hand, Reynolds says it can’t last. Whether internally or externally, she was taught through the Protestant work ethic and while it doesn’t eat away at her like it used to a year ago it still bothers her. She feels like she’s not working because she has to but because she wants to and is getting paid for. Is that wrong?

Well, no. In fact she should be getting paid to do the projects she actually wants to do. And she’s trying to see it from that perspective but the lessons we learn as children can be hard to overcome in many cases.


What would be my recommendation? I read Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, which is about a utopian society. Getting paid for breathing is what it amounts to. I believe we’d be a lot better off if people got paid for what they want to do. You would certainly get a bigger contribution from the individual. (p. 347)

Wow, well, what a sour note to leave on, but…

Looking Backwards is a book I read in college. I hated the damn book so much that when we had a group project folks were quick to put me in charge because I was the most impassioned about it. Bellamy’s vision, is to me, a kind of fascist system whereby people are “nationalized” into this community, the medicalization of crime (Foucault has plenty to say here), where the nation is the sole employer and society is the individual.

William Morris, a noted idler himself, wrote News from Nowhere as a direct response to Bellamy and decried it as a form of state socialism while lifting up a more libertarian socialist vision of a freed society. Bellamy’s vision is one in which the power from communities goes out the window and in the hands of the state.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Bellamy (around 10 years?) but just by looking at some of the information on the Wikipedia page I can feel my ire coming back to me. Let’s move on.

Diane Wilson (Process Clerk)

Wilson also works for OEO and hands out grants to folks who have been serviced from field agents, generally those folks are poverty-stricken, as you might imagine. There’s a bit of a process where they need to get the governor’s consent and then there’s a 30 day waiting period followed by sending the grant to Washington and so on.

So as you can see, bureaucracy is really efficient.Wilson begins the interview by lamenting and wishing there was a better system and decries the obvious lack of effectiveness. But that, after working there long enough, she doesn’t get as disturbed as maybe she ought to about how little she accomplishes. You can get used to anything, I guess.

To make matters worse, the process of giving money or getting it can be hard to witness:

A lot of time the grantee comes down to our audit department for aid. They’re not treated as human beings. Sometimes they have to wait, wait, wait—for no reason. The grantee doesn’t know it’s for no reason. He thinks he’s getting somewhere and he really isn’t. (p. 348)

Wilson isn’t sure why this happens but she knows at least part of it has to do with race. And in many circumstances involving people of color whether black, Latin or Native folks, the boss tends to make them wait as long as possible. It’s a double whammy because I’m sure the process already feels humiliating to some. Asking for help is often not easy.

A funny story Wilson relates is how she and her co-workers broke down a hard-ass who used to work at the IRS. He would keep calling for meetings every Friday to discuss how people were taking advantage of break time, how people were often getting there late but arriving early, etc. Eventually he gave up and loosened up too!

A story like this warms my cold dark heart a little. It reminds me of a very strict boss I had the misfortune of working under for a while at my retail job (which I recently gave my two weeks to! more on this another time). Eventually I feel like she slightly loosened up in some ways because she realized trying to keep up with everything was pointless.

But to be clear it didn’t magically make her a better person. She was still an overly strict boss working in a shitty industry and being mean to a few employees and even contributed to a person or two quitting because of her. I don’t blame them.

We had another boss, he would walk around and he wouldn’t want to see you idle at all. Sometimes you’re gonna have a lag in your work, you’re all caught up. This had gotten on his nerves. We got our promotion and we weren’t continually busy. Any time they see black women idle, that irks ’em. I’m talkin’ about black men as well as whites. They want you to work continuously. (p. 350)

The drive to see/work with “success” in a given organization can give many people undue presumed authority over others. And though black men may share a racial factor with black women, they have to still grapple with the sexist standards within society and especially within the 1970s where sexism was in many ways unchallenged like it is today.

And even today with movements like #MeToo there’s still so much for folks who were assigned male at birth (like myself) have to fight against and stop internalizing so we can better support women. In the meantime, women like Wilson (a black woman no less) talks about another experience she had with the aforementioned boss.

One day I’d gotten a call to go to his office and do some typing,. He’s given me all this handwritten script. I don’t know to this day what all that stuff was. I asked him, “Why was I picked for this job?” He said his secretary was out and he needs this done by noon. I said, “I’m no longer a clerk-typist and you yourself said for me to get it out of my head. Are you trying to get me confused? (p. 350)

The passive-aggressive relationship goes on like this and Wilson eventually hands in a typed out piece of work that she described as “awful” due to her intentional typos and poor formatting. She didn’t get it done until twelve thirty and even then it looks terrible. Wilson leaves him a note letting him know he can always ask for her services if he needs it again.

And he never asks her afterwards.

Now that’s a happy ending.

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