Terkel Takes On The New Economy

Dec. 21, 2004
America's champion of workers bluntly criticizes management's tactics.
The 100 best-managed companies? Studs Terkel would find fault with many of the corporations whose achievements are celebrated in this issue of IndustryWeek. In an information-rich and technology-driven business world, Terkel is the contrarian. He says things that executives don't want to hear -- or don't want to believe. Employee involvement, value creation, and even leadership are pretty much empty buzzwords to him -- terms whose principles are made meaningless by management's daily practices. To Terkel, for example, U.S. industry's CEOs are "faceless" executives "remote" from the workers whose jobs they control and whose pay they set. "What is being manufactured? But [most of all] who are they [the CEOs]?"At least in the "cruel old days" of such "robber barons" as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and oil czar John D. Rockefeller "they were individuals you recognized," he asserts. Terkel, now 88 years old, has been a staunch champion of American workers during the decades that he has produced his critically acclaimed oral histories. Indeed, in the new economy of the 21st century Terkel remains a democrat of the old political left of the 20th century. Gruff, scrappy, and sometimes witty, he speaks in language that is provocative, bold, and direct -- like the brawling images of Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago" or the Bronx where Terkel was born -- and not at all what you'd expect from a lawyer whose given name is Louis. Terkel, for example, seems to applaud the spirit, if not all the tactics, of those protesters who recently took to task the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank on the streets of Seattle and Washington. "No one elected [the WTO] guys," grumbles Terkel. "They decide the fate of multimillions [of people] without even going through the ritual of election -- or anything." Not surprisingly, Terkel has no use for euphemisms such as downsizing. "Downsizing means mass firing," he contends. And when two companies merge and 50,000 workers lose their jobs while the CEO gets a $2 million bonus because profits increase "there's something cockeyed in that particular equation," he growls. Terkel is similarly contemptuous of business' increasing use of temporary workers. Hundreds of thousands of these workers in America's offices and factories are being demeaned by their employers who pay them no benefits, extend to them no health care, and offer them "no security whatsoever," he states. "That stuff is very unhealthy, indeed." Similarly, even as companies large and small are empowering their employees and making Six Sigma quality a best practice, Terkel attacks U.S. industry for destroying both the work ethic and worker loyalty. Terkel says to consider the plight of the Moline, Ill., farm-equipment plant employee who was fired for working too slowly. "He was a very careful, old-time workman. He wanted it right," says Terkel. However, he was replaced by a guy who worked quickly and "put out stuff that was junky and flawed," Terkel reports. Never mind, Terkel insists, that this incident occurred about 30 years ago -- and he learned about it when he was writing Working (1974, Avon), one of the 12 books Terkel has turned out so far. The event still riles him -- and he will not let it be reduced to a historical footnote. "They fired the conscientious guy. And they rewarded the guy who works fast and sloppily," he stresses, indignantly. In the most basic terms, Terkel believes that when a careful craftsman is considered a kook and a threat to U.S. economic growth and a careless worker is regarded as an ally of GDP growth, U.S. values are pretty badly screwed up. Terkel's general take on technology is similarly disdaining. He sees workers (and much of the rest of society) as the victims of change and decidedly not agents of progress. He foresees machines and technology leading to a point of greatly diminished human returns. "We are told that in the computerized world people are closer to each other than ever. And I do know it's much, much easier [to get] more information," he acknowledges. "But something has happened to personal connections." For example, Terkel relates, newspaper city rooms are no longer places where reporters talk back and forth, their noisy conversations being interrupted by ringing telephones. "They [are places] of dead silence, [where] young women reporters and young guy reporters stare into -- I believe they are called -- terminals, which is a pretty good [descriptive] word." Asked if there aren't benefits in people around the world being able to connect with one another in nanoseconds, Terkel confesses he's not previously heard the word nanosecond. "You mean bits of a second?" he asks. Assured that's what it means, he starts to draw a parallel to the ubiquitous "sound bites" on radio and television -- and his very personal objection to an hour's substantive conversation being reduced to something that's even less than a nibble. "Nanosecond," he muses. "I'm glad I heard that word. Never heard it before, but now I see. I once was blind, but now I see! Amazing grace! Amazing disgrace, really."

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