WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 2 – In Charge)

You could do worse?

When I was in school I was told that I had an issue with authority. I was disruptive in classes, would constantly daydream or drift off from my studies and I reacted poorly to people telling me what to do. When I was a child who had ADHD and didn’t understand autism as much, it was difficult to deal with people commanding me to break my own routines.

These are processes that I had come to understand and love through trial and error over the course of the few years or so I’d been alive. All of the sudden, the teachers were telling me, no this is wrong and you must break this routine and follow our routine instead! There was no arguing either.

I was to be put in “special education” for most of my years in school, not getting out of special ed until early high school. By then I had a rough handle on my ADHD and had figured out more and more about being autistic. It wasn’t perfect and there were still behavioral problems, but it was clear they were not so severe that I needed a special course for them.

So by sophomore year I was fully integrated into normal classes and (surprise surprise) did well. That was also the year I figured out I was a libertarian and decided to reject authority more explicitly. And as the years went on, I rejected authority more and more.

Now, at 27, I’m an anarchist, an atheist, an individualist, I practice polyamory and I mostly work by myself at the dog boarding place or with minimal co-workers. I always feel uneasy around my managers or people of power for the same reason I did as a kid: Trying to get them to establish their routine over my own when I know it works isn’t fun for me.

But I’m an adult now and I can deal with that shit a little easier. After all, now I need to pay for my rent, I want to buy video games, I want to be able to take out my partner once in a while for a nice meal. These are all important things to me, so I need money for them, so I need to listen.

That said?

Fuck those in charge.

Ward Quaal (TV/Radio Executive)

There’s an interesting mix of those “in charge” for the first half of this chapter and I can’t deny there were a few moments I said to myself, “Well, for a boss, they don’t seem so bad.” I had a few of those moments with Ward Quaal, a man who came from poverty to become a big time executive. In fact, both Ward and the next manager do, which I thinks help them be marginally better people to work under then other bosses.

But despite that achievement, Quaal prefers if people call him Ward and so I’ll do just that. Ward is a pretty informal guy and you can tell he at least has some hesitance about his position of power. But that doesn’t mean he won’t use it when he feels it is necessary, or wherever.

For example, check out this choice quote:

Although I don’t go to the office on Saturday or Sunday, I do have mail brought out to my home for the weekend. When I do this on holidays, like Christmas, New Year’s and Thanksgiving, I have to sneak a little bit, so the family doesn’t know what I’m doing.

p. 391

Later on in this chapter another boss says that promotions are nice because it means more money and less work. But I’m not so sure that’s true, most people I know (at least in retail) got additional work for a minimal raise.

And even when the raise wasn’t that high or the workload wasn’t drastically increased, they tended to act proportional to each other. So it was never a huge deal for you or the system that ostensibly must support you. It was just a way to tack on informal expectations on you from both co-workers (or people “under” you), the people above you and especially customers.

That also seems to be the case for Ward.

He views the business he runs as a “…twenty-four-hour-a-day business” (ibid) that needs constant care. It doesn’t matter if it’s early in the morning on a weekday or on the weekend or even on the holidays. Work always has a back entrance to his mind and always has a space in his heart. Especially because Ward says that he “loves” (ibid) his “seven-day-a-week job” (ibid).

My philosophy on people who say they love their jobs has been repeated a bunch so shortly, I’ll just say I believe Ward on this. That doesn’t however make it a good idea to work as he does, or for others to do the same. It also strikes me that the people at the top of the pyramid often have a much deeper pocket to pull from so they can appreciate things more.

That said, Ward at least has some basic humanity:

I grew up in a very poor family. Not only did no one come to us for advice, we went to other people for advice. We wondered what we were going to do for the next dollar. We did manage during the depression. But I know others who didn’t extricate themselves from these difficulties.

I won’t forget them. A letter from one of those individuals asking for help is just as important to me as a suggestion from the chairman of the board of the Chase Manhattan Bank. They get the same weight. They get a personal letter from me.

Ibid (emphasis in original)

In any given interview Terkel tends to highlight certain passages and this was one of them. Probably because Terkel feels as though it says a lot about the quality of Ward’s character. To me, and maybe I’m just hard to please, it just speaks to common decency, treating the rich like you would the poor.

However, I think this quote says far more about Ward:

I’ve had to develop a team effort with all people. I prefer being called Ward rather than Mr. Quaal. Ninety percent of the people do call me by my first name. … The last thing I want to be is a stuffed shirt.

I’m trying to run this organization on a family basis. I prefer it to be on the informal side.

p. 392

This sort of thinking about management sometimes seems in vogue to me. the one where you like to think of yourself as nothing but “family” or a “friend” to the workers. It’s a philosophy, however, that obscures and obfuscates more than anything else. In an odd way, it’s similar to the way that Occupy Wall St. tried to handle authority: Completely invisibly.

But authority never works in an invisible way. That’s not to say it can never be subtle or go undetected or that it’s always obvious. But as Ward says, “I try to give all my colleagues total autonomy. But they know there’s one guy in charge.” (p. 393) The conflict between autonomy and authority is not one that can be so easily reconciled as pretending it doesn’t exist.

Of course, trying telling that to Dave Bender.

Dave Bender (Factory Owner)

Dave (as opposed to Mr. Bender, noticing a pattern?) really wants to be your best friend. He’s the kind of manager who wants to work shit out in a given day but then throw back some “whiskey” (quoting straight from the interview, p. 395) and ask you how your family is. I had a few managers like this throughout my 10 years in retail and I won’t deny they are preferable in some ways to the one who is obsessed with the authority.

But it introduces all sorts of other complications. It makes it incredibly hard to say no to a friend even if you hate your job. And often these are sorts of the managers who feel “bad” about making the decisions they “have” to (we’ll get to this in the next interview) so you end up spending more time sympathizing and centering their experiences instead of yours.

One of my favorite memories from working at Walgreens was when a manager and I just sat down, slacked off and drank some hot chocolate with marshmallows during the holiday season. They made it for me and it was such a little thing and a little moment but it made my whole day better and made it easier to read and slack off.

Unfortunately, these sorts of actions are liable to get these people in trouble or else they are the sorts of managers that won’t last. They don’t want to be a manager, really. But they needed the raise or they want more to do at their job (for whatever reason) or something else. And eventually this lack of faith in their own authority makes the position crumble or it becomes this sort of unstable relationship with them when you’re sometimes friends and then sometimes you’re just suddenly not friends and it’s obvious.

But let’s talk about Dave (he’s not here, by the way):

I was a no-good bum, kicked out of high school. I went up to a teacher and I said, “If you don’t pass me, I’ll blow your brains out.” I stole a gun. (Laughs.) I was kicked out. It was my second year. I did some dirty things I can’t talk about. (Laughs.) When I was thirteen years old I took a Model T Ford apart and put it together again in the basement.

I did some crazy things.

p. 394

Um, okay.

So, telling someone you’re going to shoot them if they don’t pass you in school vs. putting a Model T Ford together after you pulled it apart are not even remotely analogous! I was very caught off-guard by this comparison because, I mean, who even thinks these two things are even remotely similar in terms of moral worth? It’s pretty baffling and apparently the same guy who believes that is in charge of a factory. Damn.

That said, despite this bizarre passage, Dave generally comes off as a fairly nice person who just wants to do what he loves and work with other people who also want that same thing. And it’s not like he treats the people in his factory like cogs when it comes down to it:

I was offered all kinds of deals which I turned down—-by big vending companies. It would be beautiful for me. I walk away with a million many times over. so what? What about these poor devils? I’ll fire ’em all?

p. 395

Say what you will about this attitude, that being friends with those you agree are “under” you is naive, at least it’s an ideal Dave really sticks to, even when the money is staring him straight in the face. This is a guy who clearly could sell out his workers anytime he wants and he chooses not to. I’m not saying he’s the best person or the best manager, but at least he has some real commitment to his values and that means something.

It also means something that when Dave orders someone to pick something up from the floor and they tell him to do it, he does it. He actually relates a story where this happened and he told the worker that if they were tired, he would do it for them. Again, it’s a small thing and I’m not saying I want all managers to be Dave and then I’m satisfied, but it’s still a positive.

Then again, as this conversation illustrates…

You’re the boss of these people…

(Hurt) No, I just work here. They say, “Dave , you should give us orders. You shouldn’t be pickin’ up napkins.” Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not the easiest guy in the world. I swear at ’em. I’m a stubborn son of a gun. When I finally get my ideas straight, I’m rough.

I know what I want, give me what I want. But I do have enough sense to know when to leave ’em alone.

p. 396

Similar to Ward from before, Dave eventually reels in this “friend” dynamic and has the workers do whatever he wants them to do, like a boss would. And thus the facade of the friendship (a relationship that must be on equal terms to have any merit) is ended abruptly and so sporadically that I’m unsure if any of the workers have much of a relationship with him besides what they have in the factory. Dave makes it sound rather friendly through and through but he never speaks of outside the factory except theoretically.

Another thing that bothers me about the sort of perspective Dave and Ward come at it from is that it’s not so much they aren’t the boss as much as they don’t want to think about that reality. But ignoring the reality, doesn’t make it go away. You can be queer/gay/non-heterosexual or whatever you please, but you can’t pretend this identity doesn’t exist because ultimately it does.

And not only does it exist but it effects you and the way you relate to other people and their perceptions of you in real ways. But Dave would rather not here an argument like this I bet. Take this back and forth for example:

Don’t you feel you have status in being a boss?

Ooohhh, I hate that word! I tell people, I don’t want to hear another word about who I am or what I am. I enjoy myself eleven hours a day. when I get home I take my shoes off, get comfortable, pinch my wife’s rear ends, kiss her, of course, and ask her what she did today.

p. 397

Okay, well, putting aside the marital dynamics here, it’s clear that managers like Dave simply don’t want to think about their own authority. But that doesn’t make it go away and that doesn’t mean it somehow isn’t perceived by other people in many different ways. It’s a shame Dave has never heard of worker cooperatives, because it sounds like that is what he really wants.

Ernest Bradshaw (Audit Department Head, Bank)

In the movie Drag Me To Hell the main character struggles at the beginning with giving a loan to a woman to keep her home. She’s an elderly woman who has failed to make the last few payments but swears she can make up the money if the bank gives her enough time. The bank worker, looking for a promotion, tells the woman she can’t accept the loan.

As a result…well all hell breaks loose.

Luckily, Bradshaw does not live in such a world and when he tells a co-worker that they’re doing “…below average” (p. 399), he also feels conflicted about it but resolves that “My feelings can’t come into play. what I do is what I have to do. This doesn’t mean I won’t get gray hairs or feel kind of bad.” (ibid) But this was right after realizing that this rating from him could get the woman fired and as she has nobody to support her (similar to Drag Me To Hell, actually), he wonders where she would even find a job.

This ethical and emotional deliberation is very important for Bradshaw but it ultimately doesn’t change the result. So what does it matter? There’s a discussion to be had here about intention vs. impact. You can have the best of knowledge and intentions but if it gets someone fired and thrown out on the street because no one will hire her, what did they really matter?

It’s a tough lesson and I don’t claim that intentions don’t count but they matter less than I think most people realize.

Bradshaw is chillingly aware of how corporations operate however:

That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. The let you know that people are of no consequence. You take the job, you agree to work from eight thirty to five and no ifs, ands, or buts. Feelings are life out. I think some of the supervisors are compassionate, as I think I am. But they take the easy way out.

Everybody takes the easy way out and just put down a person’s average. This takes away all the pressures. I felt it has to be one way: be truthful about a person ’cause it’s gonna come up on ’em sooner or later. I look at people as people, person to person.

But when you’re on a job, you’re supposed to lost all that.

Ibid

Bradshaw goes on to say that he prefers small organizations over big ones where you need appraisals. He says as the corporations get bigger, the people become less and less important and eventually we as human beings don’t count, it’s the dollar sign that count more and more. It’s interesting to note that as we’ve gone from Ward to Bradshaw, we’ve gotten increasingly less confident managers who are struggling with their position of authority.

Ward sees his position as wholly intact but wants it to be an intimate position of power, Dave knows he’s the boss but doesn’t want to be and Bradshaw, ironically the one person who doesn’t use his first name, is just fed up with his position of power and isn’t sure what he is doing is right.

As opposed to the top down obviously authoritarian relationship, Bradshaw’s criticisms of managerialism seem to go much further than Ward or Dave. He strikes closer to the root, noting that corporations and big business itself is a part of the problem, not just being in positions of power.

More than anything I’d take managers like Bradshaw over Dave and Ward. Maybe Dave wants to be my friend and Ward wants me to consider him family, but Bradshaw wants me to be free in a much more fulfilling way than the others do. Dave and Ward see this conflict between authority and freedom/autonomy of the workers as insoluble but Bradshaw knows better than that, he thinks we can (or at least should) all do better than that.

As a result Bradshaw isn’t long for the bank that Terkel interviews him at. He’s already going to school and studying humanities in an effort to see if there’s something else besides business he’d like. He dislikes his job, calls it “boring” (p. 400) and dislikes the “constant supervision of people” (ibid).

One of the last things he tells Terkel is that:

I won’t be there forever at the place. Working in a bank, there’s no thrill in that. I didn’t run home and say, “Ma, I’m working for a bank. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m still searching.

Ibid

Aren’t we all?


If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to my Patreon!

One thought on “WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 2 – In Charge)

  1. Pingback: WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 3 – In Charge, Concluded) - Abolish Work

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *