The Grey Chronicles



I finally found time during the lull in my work assignments to read last night the commemorative issue of Time Magazine dated 17 November 2008. This was the issue which featured President-elect Barack Obama on its cover, aside from chronicling the story from Obama’s initial appearance in Time since October 2006.

Although read page-by-page the main feature of that issue, what strike my attention was a short article written by Alex Kotlowitz under Milestones regarding the death of Studs Terkel last 31 October. Studs Terkel is the author of Working, which I read sometime in 2004 when I got hold of a paperback copy published by Avon. This post is a tribute to Studs and his book ‘Working’ which I loved reading and re-read it last night.

Studs Terkel was born Louis Terkel in New York City in 1912, and was reared in Chicago. A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, he worked for the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, and acted in numerous radio soap operas. Aside from Working, he is the author of two other bestselling books: Division Street: America and Hard Times. Kotlowitz remarked that Working makes one ponder ”what holds us together and what pushes us apart”. Furthermore, Kotlowitz ended the article with ”[Terkel’s] books brought out the best in America”

Needless to say, Terkel’s ‘Working’ also drawn attention to an extraordinary mosaic of American work and life. The eloquent book was based on Terkel’s interviews into American life on the job. For three years Terkel travelled the country talking with people to find out how they feel about their jobs, their lives, and themselves. ‘Working’ proved that Terkel is really a consummate listener, not just someone interviewing someone for a book, but he carried on a conversation.

In the book, one section was devoted to Steve Dubi: Steelworker, who worked as an inspector at the South Works of U.S. Steel for forty years from 1929. After the Crash [Depression], Dubi was rehired in June ’33 and by the time Terkel interviewed him, he was ready for retirement. Terkel prefaced this story with a note that during the visit, Dubi’s weariness was evident. Hereunder are some of excerpts from the book:

“It’s knockin’ off men, makin’ cut-backs here and there to save money. they’ve knocked off an awful lot of jobs. With the foreign imports of steel they’re losin’ money. That’s what they say. I suppose in order to make a profit they have to cut somewhere. ”

Annotations: This observation was true then [1972] as it is now. With red economics, steel mills are making cost reduction their national anthem, especially so in these trying economic times.

“If they’re in a slack time, they go down to one shift. You can’t make any long-range plan. . . We may go down to four days a week. Been like this all these years.”

Annotations: Still rings true: Downshifting’s downside is that long-range plans are difficult to make!

“I got nothin’ to show for it. I live in a home the bank has a mortgage on. I own a car the finance people have the title to. I don’t know where they got the idea that we make so much . . But it’s the big bosses who are makin’ all the big money and the little guys are makin’ the little money. You hear these politicians give themselves a thousand-dollar raise, and they scream when the steelworker asks for fifty cents an hour raise.”

Annotations: Most of NSC’s ex-employees availed of Steel Town homes, but they are still paying mortages to this day. Some spent 20 years or so of their lives there, but they still have nothing to show for it. Even the promise of a new beginning was nipped to a bud when the NSC Liquidator opted to give the separation pay of the retrenched employees by about 16 installments each one equivalent only to one’s monthly pay before the ‘cessation of operations’ in 1999? Meanwhile, while politicians [including GMA] got a raise, the daily minimum wage cannot even buy food for a family of four.

“Hard workin’ never killed a man, they say. I say workin’ in the steel mill is not like workin’ in an air-conditioned office, where politicians and bankers sit on their fannies. Where you have to eat all that dust and smoke, you can’t work hard and live a long life.”

Annotations: Some even say that support groups do all the hard work? Why do steelworkers die young, anyway? Sometimes, these support groups make life even more difficult for people in the production lines! Maybe, we should change the name from support groups to an apt and descriptive adjective: DISABLERS group!


Time Magazine Vol. 172 No. 20 (2008). USA: 17 November 2008. back to text

Kotlowitz, Alex (2008). Milestones: Studs Terkel USA: Time, November 17, 2008. p. 12. back to text

Terkel, Studs (1972). Working USA: Avon Books, 1972. pp. 713-721. back to text

Terkel, Studs (1966). Division Street: America USA: Pantheon Books, December 1966. 416pp. back to text

Terkel, Studs (1972). Hard Times USA: Pantheon Books, April 1970. 480 pp. back to text


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