Working for Change

Studs Terkel's Working was my introduction to the philosophy and poetry of labor. My love of oral history was born around Grandma Halma's dining table in Pierce, Nebraska. I wish I'd had a tape reel in the Craig 212 recording more of those family stories. Studs Terkel did record his conversations with ordinary people about life's labors. At NPR.org you can listen to actual cassette recordings of some Terkel interviews for the book.

Studs died in Chicago this week at the age of ninety-six. Danger Baby now lives in Chicago, that brash city of Terkel and Carl Sandburg. I may have to get him a copy of Working for Christmas.

Terkel's book made me realize the meaning of my life would be largely defined by my philosophical relationship with my work. That realization came in the 1975 "Work Project" in Centennial College. UNL's Centennial College was a living-learning community for self-motivated students to choose and design their own individual and group study projects.

Much that I allegedly learned in regular college classes is long lost from my brain. Not so these quotes from Working:

"Jobs are not big enough for people."

"Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit."

Having work that uses our abilities is a blessing. Having a job that respects our efforts is a gift. These words from the Chicago Tribune, 11/1/08:

...Working, a book that welded him [Terkel] to the lives of common people by telling their stories. Even though it was not his first book, it defined his style, his compassion and his talent, all at the same time. No one ever used a tape recorder and a few questions to better effect.

America's next administration must make its educated citizen workforce a priority. The needed "Change" rocking this election campaign should focus on a new frugalitly while realigning employee compensation to ensure that ordinary citizens can provide for the nutrition, health care, and education of their children. Adam Cohen said it far better than I could in his New York Times op-ed on the thirtieth anniversary (5/31/04) of Terkel's Working. His piece ends:

When America begins to pay attention to its unhappy work force — and eventually, it must — "Working" will still provide important insights, with its path-breaking exploration of what Mr. Terkel described as "the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people."

© 2008 Nancy L. Ruder

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