Workers On Working

Dec. 21, 2004
Terkel's tape recorder preserves observations of CEOs and line workers.

For oral historian Studs Terkel the tape recorder is a tool as essential as a cell phone or Palm Pilot is to today's in-touch executive. A tape recorder, a bit of technology he doesn't completely disdain, has been critical to the production of Terkel's 12 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War (1997, The New Press, reprint edition) and his most recent, My American Century (1997, The New Press). Most importantly, a tape recorder has been his intimate connection to other people, to their lives and their feelings. Among the amazing variety of people Terkel has gotten to know during four decades -- and he has done about 9,000 interviews -- are two CEOs, Wallace Rasmussen and Jack Culberg, and a couple of blue-collar workers, Mike Lefevre and Phil Stallings. Culled from their comments in My American Century, here's what they told Terkel and his tape recorder about business between 1972 and 1995 -- and what Terkel still wants other people to know about work and workers. Former Beatrice Foods CEO
Wallace Rasmussen:
"It can appear to be ruthless at the time you do it. When somebody is not producing in a corporation, or even in a family, and he doesn't recognize he's holding up the works, someone has to make that decision for him. If you're going to be successful, you can't let any person stand in the way. The company is 100,000 people and 50,000 shareholders. We have a moral responsibility to at least 150,000 individuals. Multiply [150,000] by three and a half, which is the population of the average family, and you've got a half million people. We have a responsibility to those who trust us." Former conglomerate CEO
Jack Culberg:
"As for the corporate jungle, it's even worse today. The circle of power is becoming smaller and smaller with fewer and fewer dominant people in control. IBM can lay off 50,000, or General Motors. They're not talking about blue-collar workers necessarily. They're taking about middle management who aspire to be CEOs. . . . I envy the young their rage but not their future. I think they're in for some rough times. You see it in their daily lives. A small percentage of young executives will hit the top and make far more money than we did. But there will be far less opportunities for the majority. The great middle class is going to be less and less. There will be extreme wealth and extreme poverty." Steelworker Mike Lefevre: "You can't take pride any more. . . . It's hard to take pride in a bridge you're never gonna cross, in a door you're never gonna open. You're mass producing things and you never see the end result of it. I worked for a trucker one time. And I got this tiny satisfaction when I loaded a truck. At least I could see the truck depart loaded. In a steel mill, forget it. You don't see where nothing goes. . . . Automation? Depends how it's applied. It frightens me if it puts me out on the street. It doesn't frighten me if it shortens my workweek. . . . Machines can either liberate man or enslave him, because they're pretty neutral. It's man who has the bias to put the thing one place or another." Autoworker Phil Stallings: "Proud of my work? How can I feel pride in a job where I call a foreman's attention to a mistake, a bad piece of equipment, and he'll ignore it? Pretty soon you get the idea they don't care. You keep doing this and finally you're titled a troublemaker. So you just go about your work. You have to have pride. So you throw it off on something else. And that's my stamp collection. I'd break both my legs to get into social work. I see all over so many kids really gettin' a raw deal. I think I'd go into juvenile. I tell the kids on the line, 'Man, go out there and get that college.' Because it's too late for me now."

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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