Remembering Studs Terkel

What bitter irony. Studs Terkel, who gave voice to working people throughout his life, passed away yesterday, just days before a potentially historic presidential election. Should Sen. Barack Obama win on Tuesday, his victory would be a sweet vindication for Terkel, whose affinity for America’s workers would be reflected in the policies of an Obama administration.

Terkel, 96, has been renowned for his compilations of oral interviews with famous and mostly not-so-famous Americans. He has talked with thousands of  people about their experiences on the job, serving their country in World War II, their perceptions of race and most recently, the challenges of growing old and facing death. One of his most famous books is Working, in which more than 100 Americans share their hopes, dreams and daily struggles on the job.

In April 2006, Terkel received the Lifetime Achievement award from the workers’ advocacy organization, American Rights at Work. After accepting the award, Terkel said:

What brings workers together can be a belief, a hope of improving the climate and community at work–the spaces where so many of us spend so much of our lives. Respect on the job and a voice at the workplace shouldn’t be something Americans have to work overtime to achieve.

Born Louis Terkel, he grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in an environment filled with workers, union organizers and other progressives who gathered in the lobby of his parents’ Chicago rooming house. Starting his career as an actor, disc jockey and radio and television personality, Terkel ultimately turned to documenting oral interviews in a series of books. In Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Terkel elicited first-hand experiences of workers as varied as bus driver and strip miner, policeman and film critic. Blacklisted in the 1950s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Terkel went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 and a National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Terkel, who has been called a “guerilla journalist” and a man “whose name is synonymous with Labor Day,” sprinkles his conversation with references to the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes and American revolutionary Thomas Paine–yet has the unique ability to engage people in a way that draws forth the hopes, dreams and heartfelt experiences of everyday Americans.

In July 2005, I was honored to interview Terkel, and in his inimitable style, his conversation ranged from erudite quotes from the classics to conversations heard at his local bus stop. In remembering Terkel, there’s no better way than to hear him in his own words. Below is the excerpt from that July 2005 interview. 

“The thing that’s so ironic, is we are stuck with what I call national Alzheimer’s disease. The general American public, through no fault of its own, but through the media–which is laughingly called, absurdly called, obscenely called–liberal media, which is a joke, of course. But the point is that because of that, day after day after day, putting down of labor organizations, or not mentioning them led to the children not knowing a thing about it.

How did the eight-hour day come into being? It began in Chicago and four guys got hanged for it–the Haymarket affair in 1886. What were they fighting for? The eight-hour day.

There’s no knowledge what the labor movement did for the lives of people. Social Security came out of the New Deal, and the minimum wage idea, and the idea of national health, these all came out of [labor]. And that’s all being dismantled by what we have now. And so part of it is not knowing the past. No past, therefore there is no present and no future.

What was the first thing Ronald Reagan did as president of the United States? In 1981, he broke the air controller’s strike. You know what they were striking about? It wasn’t about pay. It was about R and R, rest and recreation. So the issue was passenger safety, right? And Ronald Reagan said, ‘No,’ and four out of five Americans applauded.

You start wondering, ‘Wait a minute. Are we a necrophiliac people?’ And you start thinking some more. ‘We’re the only industrialized country that still has the death penalty, right? We’re the only industrialized country that does not have national health insurance.’ So one is death, and the other is life. And so you start thinking, ‘My God, have we become so perverse?

If so, then all my books are junk? Because my books depended on the sense of decency of ordinary Americans and their native intelligence and it’s under assault today as never before.

[Americans' sense of decency and native intelligence are] there, but the information has been siphoned through–we know what it’s siphoned through: Fox News, Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. And thus we have a certain kind of news filter to it. Right? It becomes entertainment, it becomes banality, it becomes nothing. And there’s no past. The big thing is to revivify in one way or another the past and to show how we came to be.

So that’s part of the problem facing labor, to reacquaint these people with what happened. The new members are fresh and they have grievances and we’ve got to hit that and reach as many as possible–caregivers and…maids and get all the people who never thought of organizing, organized. And that’s what the oral histories I write are all about, I hope–to recapture our history. And I think we can do it–provided we…stick together.

Whatever split there is has to be healed–immediately. Because we agree on the big thing. Basically, it has to be under one big tent. I like the phrase ‘under one tent.’ And so, that’s pretty much the ticket.”

This is a cross-post from the AFL-CIO Now blog.

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