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."

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