Working Man Blues

American Routes' Nick Spitzer talks with Studs Terkel about work, Working, and why nobody properly celebrates Labor Day anymore.


Few names are as synonymous with Labor Day -- and with labor itself -- as that of author and broadcaster Louis "Studs" Terkel. Born in New York in 1912, Terkel attended the University of Chicago and graduated from its Law School in the heart of the Depression. He was drawn into theater and radio during the era of the Works Progress Administration Writers Project. Later, his interviews with everyday people caught the eye of a publisher, and his subsequent books on the Depression, World War II, Chicago, race relations and working made him an acknowledged master of the craft of oral history. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Good War, and this month in Chicago, actor David Schwimmer staged the new production Race, based on Terkel's work.

Approaching the gate at Terkel's two-story brick home in the north lakeside area of Chicago, one of the first things you notice is an old sign with a picture and the words "Bad Dog." In contrast, Studs meets the visitor with a big knowing grin and no dog at all. An unlit cigar dangles from his lips as he shows you from dusty room to room of papers, notes, magazines and books, all stacked in corners and spilling across couches, tables and sideboards. Ida Terkel, his wife of more than 60 years, passed away in 1999, and there is the slightly lonely mood of elder bachelorhood. But as the memories of labor battles won and lost, the efforts of a lifetime, and his love of humanity pour out in a breathless stream, the mood is elated from the elfin man in a threadbare red cardigan sweater. It doesn't matter that his hearing aide occasionally squeals, that he cannot ever quite get the cigar lit, or that he paws the air for a name or two just beyond reach. Studs Terkel is talking about his favorite subject: work, his and others'.

Q: What kind of community did you grow up in that gave you your feeling for community and work?

A: I was born in New York City and my father was a tailor. My mother was a seamstress. He became very ill and we moved to Chicago where my mother ran a rooming house, this is 1920-1921. Later on, my father got a little better and he ran a hotel -- a workingman's hotel, in the near north side of Chicago that is now an artsy-crafty area, but then was a trenchant area. I think that hotel, in the lobby, and that restaurant down below, that was like Hopper's Nighthawks. Whenever I see Hopper's Nighthawks, I say, "I've been there, I know that counter man. His name was Slim."

When I was 12 or 13 years old on a Friday night, no school, and the guys and me were in the lobby arguing and debating and playing cribbage or pinochle. I'd go down at one in the morning for apple pie a la mode in that all-night restaurant. But hearing those men talk, a number of them Wobblies, a number of them were Scissor Bills. "Scissor Bill" is a nickname used by Wobblies for those that were toadies, company boys. I heard those arguments and they were exciting to me.

One thing led to another and I became an actor by accident in radio soap operas. Chicago is the home of radio soap operas. Always cast as a gangster -- same role. I've got that gravely voice.

Q: Your work has been chronicling, recording other people's lives and work. That is a peculiar position to be in the social order.

A: My whole life is an accretion of accidents. I wanted a civil service job like all Depression boys and girls. A nine-to-five job. Half a year I worked in Washington D.C., going crazy. I got $1,260 a year. Then I came back to Chicago with this theater group, it was a labor group. We did plays like Waiting for Lefty and anti-war plays, Bury the Dead and Cradle Will Rock. Then this TV show came into being, became hot ... then came the blacklist. After the blacklist I wasn't working.

Then a small station came into being called WFMT, classical music. I liked that and I called them up -- Bernie and Rita Jacobs who ran the station. I said, "I'd like to work." I was known in town. They said, "Oh, we'd love to have you but we're flat broke." I said, "I am, too." I was there for 45 years.

Then the owner of the station said something to me. He spoiled me. He said, "You have an hour every day. It is your hour. You do no commercials. Your hour. You are the artist." I said, "What do you mean, what do I do?" "Anything you want to do." So I'd read short stories of Ring Lardner or Flannery O'Connor or Chekhov. I'd play operas, jazz, folk. Sometimes I did some documentaries. One was on that train to Washington, 1963, for the "I Have a Dream" speech. A lot of Chicagoans took the train there. On that train I made a program called This Train. It had the voices of all sorts of people on it and thoughts about it.

I started interviewing people, known people. Bertrand Russell, Chief Albert John Laluli, who was the predecessor of Nelson Mandela. Then I started interviewing ordinary people of the neighborhood and the community. One day in 1965 I got a call from Andre Schiffrin. He's a key figure in my life. He worked then for Pantheon Books, which was a subsidiary of Random House. Andre in a soft gentle voice said, "I've read some of your interviews in a magazine we carry. How about you doing a book about a small American village, Chicago, during its own revolution, civil rights, cybernetics, all of that." I said, "You are out of your mind." But I did the book Division Street: American. A few months later he said, "How about a book about the Great Depression?" Then I did. So Hard Times came out. More or less that is how it began, it was accidental really.

Q: Your book Working is about unknown workers for the most part. How was it working on Working? How did you do this book?

A: I did it the same way I did the others. This is Working. I thought, How many jobs can I cover? You got to start at the beginning, don't you? Agriculture, farmer, carpenter, Jesus, mason, tower of Babel. You start with that as a prologue and you go into a laborer in a steel plant for a certain kind of guy. He wanted to be remembered for something and he said, "I'm a laborer in a plant and nobody's going to know if I lived or died, so sometimes I just hit that hammer into an ingot of iron and just damage it. That bump, I put that bump in there." He said, "You know what? Everybody knows who Walt Whitman is, they know that. Who the hell knows about Mike Lavell? I'd like to see a building sometime, a skyscraper with a metal sheet running from the top floor to the bottom and the name on that of every iron worker, every elevator operator, of every scrub woman, of every secretary, and I could say I worked on that floor."

Q: That does seem to be the key issue, the fact that so many people work with no recognition for their labor, what they give up in life to work.

A: No recognition and the line was, "A man's gotta have something to point to." Something to point to! One guy worked in an auto plant. He said, "Hey, once in a while I get a feeling when I see that car going down, that Chevrolet, I worked on that one." But what does a spot welder know? A spot welder works with that revolving snake. The assembly line is shooting spots all day long, you see. He doesn't see the end result. Could be an Edsel.

Q: Your work has continued your entire life. You have never stopped.

A: Well no, I guess not. Work and life are related. I'm sure that Pete Seeger sang that in "Free Amerikay," "eight hours we'll have for work, eight hours we'll have for sleep, eight hours we'll have for play in free Amerikay." So the eight-hour day, the Labor Day.

I don't know when Labor Day first originated, sometime late in the 19th century, but I think it really took off after the Haymarket Affair. The Haymarket Affair was a fight for the eight-hour day. Until that, most people worked an average of 12. Fourteen hours a day was considered normal, involving kids and women, too.

Q: Are any particular Labor Days memorable to you?

A: I remember the Labor Day following the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in 1937. The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) was being organized and the steel workers were doing pretty good. In fact, most of the big companies finally came around to recognize the steel workers. But there was one company in Chicago called Little Steel, Little Republics Steel. Tom Girdler was the owner. He would never recognize the union. But it was Memorial Day 1937, they had a picnic, the strikers did, on the grounds of Republic Steel on the south side of Chicago. It was a picnic, fried chicken and potato salad, kids throwing a ball around and guys playing baseball, but the cops were stationed there. Dozens of cops were stationed there at the request of Girdler and Republic Steel. Someone threw a rock, maybe a kid, no one knows, and the cops fired and killed ten people. Shot them in the back. There was a rally here in Chicago, thousands and thousands.

The place known best for Labor Day was Detroit, Cadillac Square. That is when Franklin D. Roosevelt always appeared on Labor Day. A million people showed up -- the autoworkers at Cadillac Square. That was the big event.

Q: Do you think we celebrate Labor Day today adequately?

A: No! God no. Labor Day really has little meaning to Americans, especially to young Americans. Unions have been taking a beating, especially since Ronald Reagan in his first act of office broke the air controllers' strike.

I'm going to tell you a funny anecdote, but it is telling. It is a true story. I may gild the lily a bit, but it is a true story. Right now I live on what you would call a "have" street of houses surrounded by an area of have-nots. I wait for a bus every day. A certain bus. A certain condominium is up near the bus, an upscale condominium. People know me because I talk a great deal, as you can probably know by now. I talk to anybody and they know me. I'm a half-assed celebrity.

This one couple I can't crack. I'm not even existing, so my ego is affected. It is a handsome young couple. I have to describe them -- I hate the word "yuppie" because it is overused, but they are that category. Very handsome and she's very elegant. She is in Bloomingdale clothes or Neiman Marcus and he's got the latest Brooks Brothers or something. He's got the Wall Street Journal under his arm, of course. She had Vanity Fair.

One day I want to crack them. I want to get a word, a hello from them waiting for the bus. I've been with them for about a year and not a word. So I say, "Well, Labor Day is coming up." That is what I said. Well, it was the wrong thing to say. He looks at me and turns away like he's Noel Coward flicking a speck off his sleeve. Nothing. Now my ego is very affected. Now I say, "Labor Day," -- the bus by the way is late in coming -- "we used to march by the thousands down State Street banners raised, solidarity forever and singing songs." He turns to me and says, "We despise unions," and turns away. I thought, "Oh boy, no bus yet, now I'm the Ancient Mariner," and I fix him with my glittering eye and I say, "Damn, how many hours a day do you work?" He said, "Eight." "How come you don't work 14 hours a day? Your great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents worked 14 hours a day. Four guys got hanged for you in Haymarket 1886 in Chicago fighting for the eight-hour day. For you!"

This time they see this old nut and they look scared. The bus is still late and she trembles a little. I've got them pinned against the mailbox now. He can't get away. No bus. I asked, "How many hours a week do you work?" He said, "F-f-f-f-forty." I'm sure they are scared of this old nut, you know? This time the bus comes and they rush on the bus and I never saw them again. I'm willing to bet they are in the condominium that faces that bus stop and I'll bet from the 25th floor or wherever they are, she's looking out the window every morning and he's saying, "Is that old nut still down there?"

Q: The guy with the cigar and the red sweater vest.

A: Well that is an example of many of the young today.

Q: It does seem Labor has changed so much and yet work really remains a mysterious thing. It is not a commodity. It is someone's time commitment. Sometimes it is in their own desire, other times it is against their will, they need the paycheck. Labor is a mystery.

A: It always has been. We hardly ever use the term "working class." We always say "middle class." Everybody is middle class. When Gore ran against Bush you couldn't tell one from the other at the time with the phrase "tax cuts for the middle class." Anyone from $50,000 a year to $500,000. That is what they call middle class. That aspect some time ago is gone. At the same time something new is happening -- new kinds of labor people who have never joined unions before. The old guys who work with their hands, the steel mill guys and the auto worker guys and the rubber worker guys and the farm equipment worker guys are gone by the nature of two things: movements of multinationals taking over as well as automation itself. It is almost starting from scratch again.

Q: What would you say the future of labor is in this country? As far as our ability to work and understand work and do work?

A: I don't know. You are raising a big question. As we become more and more automated, as a machine takes over more and more, two things are happening, good and bad. The good is of course, machinery as labor saving. I am here right now, I'm not a Luddite although I lean toward it now and then, but I'm right here thanks to the skilled hands of a cardiac surgeon and machinery. I had a quintuple bypass about eight years ago. I had six months to live. So here I am an ungrateful wretch attacking machinery too much, at the same time saved by it.

At the same time, you do know something may be happening. Teachers tell me this, astute teachers, that something is happening to the kids and their language and the way they speak and sound bites and the quickness of machinery that they become, they talk like machines sometimes. I'm worried about a roboticized society. As you look at the future it leads up to the whole matter of biotechnology doesn't it?

Q: Let's talk about music for a minute. You still love music.

A: Of course. I love jazz and the blues -- Big Bill (Broonzy) of course. I met Mahalia Jackson through the spirituals. I heard this one record. This is on the Wax Museum days, 1945.

Q: Your old radio show Wax Museum?

A: Yeah, 1945, imagine how many years ago that is! I'm listening to a record in 1945 -- Apollo Records, 78 rpm. It is called Move On Up a Little Higher. That is Mahalia. I never heard that voice before. That is when I started playing a lot of Mahalia Jackson records.

That is also part of a very humorous anti-blacklist story. CBS is planning a radio show for [Mahalia] on the network. She insists that I be the host. They trembled when they heard that because they saw my name on all of the blacklists. Somewhere during the run of the show a guy comes on stage from New York, an emissary. He says I've got to sign a personal loyalty. I refuse of course. He says I've got to. We are rehearsing you understand, and [Mahalia] is going towards the piano and she says, "Is that what I think it is about?" She knew about me. She'd always say, "Studs, you got such a big mouth you should have been a preacher." She says, "That's what it is about, you've got to sign something?" I told her, "Yeah." She said, "Are you going to sign it?" I said, "Of course not," and she said, "OK, let's rehearse." He said, "Oh, but Miss Jackson, headquarters New York says ..." and she simply said, "If they fire Studs tell them to find another Mahalia." You know what happened? Nothing. He disappeared. The show ran its run.

It proves that saying "no," which no one did during the McCarthy days, saying "no" to the official word, showed them Mahalia knew more about what the country was about -- Tom Paine's country -- than General William Bailey, all the sponsors and networks put together. There is a moral to that.

Q: Studs, do you still have hope for the future?

A: Hope dies last. If I don't have hope I might as well check out now. Guardedly hopeful. Guardedly is the hope of reaching out to those who are on the sidelines. Remember that less than 50 percent voted in the last election. Most who voted were fairly affluent, you see. There it is. I'm hopeful in that sense of the word. All my books have dealt with the fact that there is a basic decency in American people. There is a basic intelligence, a native intelligence. There could be a hell of a new world. The choice is ours.

Q: What will you do on Labor Day? Do you have any plans?

A: Just for watching a ball game I hope! I'll have my cigar and martini.

Nick Spitzer's interview with Studs Terkel can be heard on American Routes' Labor Day show, which will air locally at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31 on 89.9 WWNO FM. For more information, visit the Web site Many of Terkel's original radio broadcasts and interviews can be heard at, a Web site affiliated with the Chicago Historical Society.

  • the Chicago Historical Society

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