Women at Work

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LONGFORM REPRINTS

This excerpt originally appeared in Ramparts and is reprinted here by permission of the author’s estate.


For the last several years, Studs Terkel has been going around the country—his own Chicago, Brooklyn, mid-Western farms, the coal mining areas of Appalachia—recording what people have to say about their work. From about one hundred of these interviews, we have selected four.


Maggie Holmes, Domestic

“What bugs me now, since I’m on welfare, is people saying they give you the money for nothin’. When I think back what we had to come through, up from the South, comin’ here. The hard work we had to do. It really gets me, when I hear people … It do somethin’ to me. I think violence.

I think what we had to work for. I used to work for $1.50 a week. This is five days a week, sometimes six. If you live in the servant quarter, your time is never off, because if they decide to have a party at night, you gotta come out. My grandmother, I remember when she used to work, we’d get milk and a pound of butter, I mean this was pay. I’m thinkin’ about what my poor parents worked for, gettin’ nothing. What do the white think about when they think? Do they ever think about what they would do?

(She had worked as a domestic hotel chambermaid, and as “kitchen help in cafes” for the past 25 years, up North and down South. She lives with her four children.)

Now this bug me; the first thing she gonna do is pull out this damn rubber thing-just fittin’ for your knees. Knee pads-like you’re workin’ in the fields, like people pickin’ cotton. No mop or nothin’. That’s why you find so many black women got rheumatism in their legs, knees. When you gets on that cold floor, I don’t care how warm the house is, you can feel the cold on the floor, the water and stuff. I never see nobody on their knees until I come North. In the South, they had mops. Most times, if they had real heavy work, they always had a man to come in. Washin’ windows, that’s a man’s job. They don’t think nothin’ about askin’ you to do that here. They don’t have no feeling that that’s what bothers you. I think to myself; My God, if I had somebody come and do my floors, clean up for me, I’d appreciate it. They don’t say nothin’ about it. Act like you haven’t even done anything. They has no feelin’s.

I worked for one old hen on Lake Shore Drive. You remember they had there? Remember when you couldn’t get there? When I gets to work she says; “Call the office.” She complained to the lady where I got the job, said I was late to work. SoI called. So I said, in the phone (Shouts), “What do you want with me? I got home four black, beautiful kids. Before I go to anybody’s job in the morning I see that my kids are at school. I gonna see that they have warm clothes on and they fed.” I’m lookin’ right at the woman I’m workin’ for. (Laughs.) When I got through the phone I tell this employer, “That goes for you too. The only thing I live for is my kids. There’s nothin’, you and nobody else.” The expression on her face: What is this? (Laughs.) She thouglit I was gonna be like (mimics “Aunt Jemima”: “Yes ma’am, I’ll try to get here a little early.”) But it wasn’t like that. (Laughs.) …

She had everything in there snow white. And that means work, believe me. In the dining room she had a blue set, she had sky-blue chairs. They had a bedroom with pink and blue. I look and say, “I know what this means.” It means sho’ ‘nough knees. I said, “I’m gonna try and makeI ask her where the mop is. She says she don’t have no mop. I said, “Don’t tell me you mop the floor on your knees. I know you don’t.” They usually hide these mops in the clothes closet. I go out behind all these clothes and get the mop out. (Laughs.) They don’t get on their knees, but they don’t think nothin’ about askin’ a black woman. She says, “All you—you girls …” She stop. I say, “All you niggers, is that what you want to say?” She give me this stupid look. I say, “I’m glad you tellin’ me that there’s more like me.” (Laughs.) I told her, “You better give me my money and let me go, ‘cause I’m gettin’ angry.” So I made her give me my carfare and what I had worked that day. …

(They ever call you by your last name?)

Oh God, they wouldn’t do that. (Laughs.).…

“(A commonly observed phenomenon: during the early evening hour, trains, crowded predominantly by young white men carrying attaché cases, pass trains headed in the opposite direction, crowded predominantly by middle-aged black women carrying brown paper bags. Neither group, it appears, glances at the other.

“We spend most of the time ridin’. You get caught gain’ out from the suburbs at nighttime, man, you ‘re really sittin’ there for hours. There’s nothin’ movin’. You got a certain hour to meet trains. You get a transfer, you have to get that train. It’s a shuffle to get in and out of the job. If you miss that train at five o ‘clock, what time you gonna get out that end? Sometime you don’t get home till eight o ‘clock …”)

You don’t feel like washin’ your own window when you come from out there, scrubbin’. If you work in one of them houses eight hours, you gotta come home do the same thing over … you don’t feel like … (sighs softly) … tired. You gotta come home, take care of your kids, you gotta cook, you gotta wash. Most of the time, you gotta wash for the kids for somethin’ to wear to school. You gotta clean up, ‘cause you didn’t have time in the morning. You gotta wash and iron and whatever you do, nights. You be so tired, until you don’t feel like even doin’ nothin’.

You get up at six, you fix breakfast for the kids, you get them ready to go on to school. Leave home about eight. Most of the time I make biscuits for my kids, cornbread you gotta make. I don’t mean the canned kind. This I don’t call cookin’, when you go in that refrigerator and get some beans and drop ‘em in a pot. And TV dinners, they go stick ‘em in the stove and she say she cooked. This is not cookin’. …

When I work, only thing I be worryin’ about is my kids. I just don’t like to leave ‘em too long. Wlien they get out of school, you wonder if they out on the street. The only thing I worry is if they had a place to play in easy. I always call two, three times. When she don’t like you to call, I’m in a hurry to get out of there. (Laughs.) My mind is gettin’ home, what are you gonna find to cook before the stores close. …

They want you to get in a uniform. You take me and my mother, she work in what she wear. She tells you, “If that place so dirty where I can’t wear my dress, I won’t do the job.” You can’t go to work dressed like they do, ‘cause they think you’re not working—like you should get dirty, at least. They don’t say what kind of uniform, just say uniform. This is in case anybody come in, the black be workin’. They don’t want you walkin’ around dressed up, lookin’ like them. They asks you sometimes, “Don’t you have somethin’ else to put on?” I say, “No, ‘cause I’m not gettin’ on my knees. …”

I had them put money down and pretend they can’t find it and have me look for it. I worked for one, she had dropped ten dollars on the floor, and I was sweepin’ and I’m glad I seen it, because if I had put that sweeper on it, she coulda said I got it. I had to push the couch back and the ten dollars was there. Oh, I had ‘em, when you go to dust, they put something . . . to test you. …

You know what I wanted to do all my life? I wanted to play piano. And I’d want to write songs and things, that’s what I really wanted to do. If I could just get myself enough to buy a piano … And I’d like to write about my life, if I could sit long enough.”

Sharon Atkins, Receptionist

A receptionist at a large business establishment in the Midwest. She is 24. Her husband is a student. “I was out of college, an English lit. major. I looked around for copywriting jobs. The people they wanted had majored in journalism. Okay, the first myth that blew up in my face is that a college education will get you a job.”

“I changed my opinion of receptionists because now I’m one. It wasn’t the dumb broad at the front desk who took telephone messages. She had to be something else because I thought I was something else. I was fine until there was a press party. We were having a fairly intelligent conversation. Then they asked me what I did. When I told them, they turned around to find other people with name tags. I wasn’t worth bothering with. I wasn’t being rejected because of what I had said or the way I talked, but simply because of my function. After that, I tried to make up other names for what I did communications control, servomechanism. (Laughs)

You come in at nine, you open the door, you look at the piece of machinery, you plug in the headpiece. That’s how my day begins. You tremble when you hear the first ring. After that, it’s sort of downhill—unless there’s somebody on the phone who is either kind or nasty. The rest of the people are just non, they don’t exist. They’re just voices. You answer calls, you connect them to others, and that’s it.

I don’t have much contact with people. You can’t see them. You don’t know if they’re laughing, if they’re being satirical or being kind. So your conversations become very abrupt. I notice that in talking to people. My conversations would be very short and clipped, in short sentences, the way I talk to people all day on the telephone.

I never answer the phone at home. It carries over. The way I talk to people on the phone has changed. Even when my mother calls, I don’t talk to her very long. I want to see people to talk to them. But now, when I see them, I talk to them like I was talking on the telephone. It isn’t a conscious process. I don’t know what’s happened. When I’m talking to someone at work, the telephone rings, and the conversation is interrupted. So I never bother finishing sentences or finishing thoughts. I always have this feeling of interruption.

You can think about this thing and all of a sudden the telephone rings and you’ve got to jump right back. There isn’t a ten-minute break in the whole day that’s quiet. I once worked at a punch press, when I was in high school. A part-time job. You sat there and watched it for four, five hours. You could make up stories about people and finish them. But you can’t do that when you’ve got only a few minutes. You can’t pick it up after the telephone call. You can’t think, you can’t even finish a letter. So you do quickie things, like read a chapter in a short story. It has to be short-term stuff.

I notice people have asked me to slow down when I’m talking. What I do all day is to say what I have to say as quickly as possible and switch the call to whoever it’s going to. If I’m talking to a friend, I have to make it quick before I get interrupted. …

I do some drawings—Mondrian, sort of. Peaceful colors of red and blue. Very ordered life. I’d like to think of rainbows and mountains. I never draw humans. Things of nature, never people. I always dream I’m alone and things are quiet. I call it the land of no-phone. …

(Do you have to lie sometimes?)

Oh sure, you have to lie for other people. That’s another thing: having to make up stories for them if they don’t want to talk to someone on the telephone. At first I’d feel embarrassed and I’d feel they knew I was lying. There was a sense of emptiness. There’d be a silence, and I’d feel guilty. At first I tried to think of a euphemism for “He’s not here.” It really bothered me. Then I got tired of doing it, so I just say, “He’s not here.” You’re not looking at the person, you’re talking to him over the instrument. (Laughs.) So after a while it doesn’t really matter. The first time it was live. The person was there. I’m sure I blushed. He probably knew I was lying. And I think he understood I was just the instrument, not the source.

Until recently I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs. I don’t like filling out forms and taking typing tests. I remember on applications I’d put down, “I’d like to deal with the public.” (Laughs.) Well, I don’t want to deal with the public any more. …

I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t think I’d mind going back and learning something, taking a piece of furniture and refinishing it. The type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function.

Grace Celements, Factory Worker

She is a sparrow of a woman in her mid-forties. She has 18 grandchildren. “I got my family the easy way. I married my family.” She has worked in factories for the past 25 years: “A punch press operator, oven unloader, sunder, did riveting, stapling, light assembly …” She has been with one company for 21 years, ARMCO Corporation.

“We have to punch in before seven. We’re at our tank approximately one to two minutes before seven to take over from the girl who’s leaving. The tanks run 24 hours a day.”

“The tank I work at is six-foot deep, eight-foot square. In it is pulp, made of ground wood, ground glass, fiberglass, a mixture of chemicals and water. It comes up through a copper screen felter as a form, shaped like the luggage you buy in the store.

In 40 seconds you have to take the wet felt out of the felter, put the blanket on a rubber sheeting to draw out the excess moisture, wait two, three seconds, take the blanket off, pick the wet felt up, balance it on your shoulder—there is no way of holding it without it tearing all to pieces, it is wet and will collapse—reach over, get the hose, spray the inside of this copper screen to keep it from plugging, turn around, walk to the hot dry die behind you, take the hot piece off with your opposite hand, set it on the floor—this wet thing is still balanced on my shoulder—put the wet piece on the dry die, push this button that lets the dry press down, inspect the piece we just took off, the hot piece, stack it, and count it—when you get a stack of ten, you push it over and start another stack of ten then go back and put our blanket on the wet piece coming up from the tank … and start all over. Forty seconds. We also have to weigh every third piece in that time. It has to be within so many grams. We are constantly standing and moving. If you talk during working, you get a reprimand, because it is easy to make a reject if you’re talking.

A 30-inch luggage weighs up to 14 pounds wet. The hot piece weighs between three to four pounds. The big luggage you’ll maybe process only 400. On the smaller luggage, you’ll run maybe 800, sometimes 850 a day. All day long is the same thing over and over. That’s about ten steps every 40 seconds about 800 times a day.

We work eight straight hours, with two ten-minute break and one 20-minute break for lunch. If you want to use the washroom, you have to do that in that time. By the time you leave your tank, you go to the washroom, freshen up a bit, go into the recreation room, it makes it very difficult to finish a small lunch and be back in the tank in 20 minutes. So you don’t really have too much time for conversation. Many of our women take a half a sandwich or some of them don’t even take anything. I’m a big eater. I carry a lunch box, fruit, a half a sandwich, a little cup of cottage cheese or salad. I find it very difficult to complete my lunch in the length of time.

You cannot at any time leave the tank. The pieces in the die will burn while you’re gone. If you’re real, real, real sick and in urgent need, you do shut it off. You turn on the trouble light and wait for the tool man to come and take your place. But they’ll take you to a nurse and check it out. …

I guess my scars are pretty well healed by now, because I’ve been off on medical leave for two, three months. Ordinarily I usually have two, three burn spots. It’s real hot, and if it touches you for a second, it’ll burn your arm. Most of the girls carry scars all the time. …

I have arthritis in the joints of some of my fingers. Your hands handling hot pieces perspire and you end up with rheumatism or arthritis in your fingers. Naturally in your shoulder, balancing that wet piece. You’ve got the heat, you’ve got the moisture because there’s steam coming out. You have the possibility of being burnt with steam when the hot die hits that wet felt. You’re just engulfed in a cloud of steam every 40 seconds.

It’s very noisy. If the tool man comes to talk to you, the noise is great enough you have to almost shout to make yourself heard. There’s the hissing of the steam, there’s the compressed air, a lot of pressure—it’s gotta lift that 15 pounds and break it loose from that copper screen. I’ve lost a certain percentage of my hearing already. I can’t hear the phone in the yard. The family can. …

(Laughs.) I daydream while I’m working. Your mind gets so it automatically picks out the flaws. I plan my paper and what I’m going to have for supper and what we’re gonna do for the weekend. My husband and I have a 16-foot boat. We spend a lot of weekends and evenings on the river. And I try to figure out how I’m gonna feed 20, 25 people for dinner on Saturday. And how to solve a grievance. …

I was one of the organizers here (laughs) when the union came in. I was as anti-union in the beginning as I am union now. Coming from a small farming community in Wisconsin, I didn’t know what a union was all about. I didn’t understand the labor movement at all. In school you’re shown the bad side of it. …

My whole attitude on the job has changed since the union came in. Now I would like to be a union counselor or work for the OEO. I work with humans as grievance committee chairman. They come to you angry, they come to you hurt, they come to you puzzled. You have to make life easier for them. …

I hope I don’t work many more years. I’m tired. I’d like to stay home and keep house. We’re in hopes my husband would get himself a small hamburger place and a place near the lake where I can have a little garden and raise my flowers that I love to raise.

Lilith Reynods, Povery Worker

“It’s hard for me to describe what I’m doing right now. It may sound like gobbledygook. It’s hard to understand all the initials. It’s like alphabet soup. We just went through a reorganization, which is typical of government. Reorganization comes at a rapid rate these days. My job has changed not only in name but in status.

(She has worked nine years for the Federal government, “I work for the OEO. I was assistant to the regional director. I was what’s called the regional council liaison person. There’s something called the Inter-Agency Regional Council, which is made up of five agencies: OEO, HEW, Welfare, Labor, Transportation, and Housing. This group meets once a month.

“Agencies don’t really want to coordinate their efforts. They want to operate their programs their way and the hell with the others. OEO has been unique in that we’ve funded directly to communities without going through other government structures.)

There’s a theory I have. An employee’s advancement depends on what his supervisor thinks of him, not on what the people working for him think. The regional director’s job depends on his friendship in Washington. So the best thing for him to do is not challenge the system, not make waves. His future depends on being nice to the people who are making the decisions to make the cuts that are hurting his employees. So he’s silent. But the people down here, the field representatives, who know what’s going on, make waves. So the director tries to get rid of the most troublesome.

At our office there’s less and less talk about poor people. It’s mainly about how we should do things. I don’t know if this was always so. It’s just more obvious now. Local politicians have more and more say in the programs. In Chicago, Mayor Daley runs it. In other cities, it depends on the power structure. We talk more of local institutions these days, not of poor people. …

The employees should help make policy, since they’re closest to what’s going on. It’s probably the same as in auto plants. A lot of times workers can make better decisions about production than managers. The managers aren’t down there often enough to know what’s going on.

Through the union people have been bringing up ideas, and management is forced more and more to listen. They hadn’t taken us very seriously up to now. But we just got a national contract which calls for union-management committees. I think our union has challenged management a lot more than most government unions. That’s largely because of the kind of people OEO has attracted. They believe in being advocates of the poor. They believe in organizing people to challenge the system. It’s a natural carry-over to organize a union which also challenges the system. …

That’s another typical thing in government. When management wants to get rid of you, they don’t fire you. What they do is take your work away. That’s what happened to me. He didn’t even tell me what my new job would be. They sent somebody down to go through my personnel file “My God, what can we do with her?” They had a problem because I’m a high-grade employee. I’m grade 44. The regional director’s a 17. One of the deputy directors told me, “You’re going to be economic development specialist.” (Laughs.)

I’m very discouraged about my job right now. I have nothing to do. For the last four or five weeks I haven’t been doing any official work, because they really don’t expect anything. They just want me to be quiet. What they’ve said is it’s a 60-day detail. I’m to come up with some kind of paper on economic development. It won’t be very hard because there’s little that can be done. At the end of 60 days I’ll present the paper. But because of the reorganization that’s come up I’ll probably never be asked about the paper.

It’s extremely frustrating. But, ironically, I’ve felt more productive in the last few weeks doing what I’ve wanted to do than I have in the last year doing what I was officially supposed to be doing. Officially I’m loafing. I’ve been working on organizing women and on union activities. It’s been great. …

Since I’ve been doing what I want to do, my day goes much faster. When I was assistant to the regional director, an awful lot of my time was taken up with endless meetings. I spent easily 20 or more hours a week in meetings. Very, very nonproductive. Though now I’m doing what I want to do, I know it’s not gonna last.

I have to hide the stuff I’m doing. If anybody walks into the office, you have to quick shove the stuff out of the way. It’s fairly well known now that I’m not doing any official work, because this huge controversy has been going on between the union and the director. People are either on one side or the other. Most people who come in to see me are on the union side. I’m not hiding the fact that I’m not doing any official work.

I hide the stuff because I feel a little guilty. This is probably my Protestant upbringing. I’ve been work oriented all my life. I can’t go on drawing a paycheck doing what I want to do—that’s my conditioning. My dad worked in a factory. I was taught work is something you have to do. You do that to get money. It’s not your life, but you must do it. Now I believe—I’m getting around to it (laughs)—you should get paid for doing what you want to do. I know it’s happening to me. But I still have this conditioning: it’s too good to be true.

I’ve had discussions with friends of mine to the Right and to the Left of me. The people to the Left say you shouldn’t take any part in a corrupt system. To give them your time and take money from them is a no-no. People to the Right say you have no right to take the taxpayer’s money for doing nothing. You’re not doing official work, therefore you shouldn’t be paid for it.

I feel much less guilty about this than I would have a year ago. I have less and less confidence that management people should be telling me what to do. They know less than I do. I trust my own judgment more. I believe that what I’m doing is important.

What would be my recommendation? I read Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which is about a Utopian society. Getting paid for breathing is what it amounts to. I believe we’d be a lot better off if people got paid for what they wanted to do. You would certainly get a bigger contribution from the individual. I think it would make for exciting change. It’d be great.

The reasons people get paid now are wrong. I think the reward system should be different. I think we should have a basic security—a decent place to live, decent food, decent clothing, and all that. So people in a work situation wouldn’t be so frightened. People are intimidated and the system works to emphasize that. They get what they want out of people by threatening them economically. It makes people apple polishers and ass kissers. I used to hear people say, “Work needs to be redefined.” I thought they were crazy. Now I know they’re not.


Reprinted by permission of Donadio & Olson, Inc.

Copyright 1974 by Studs Terkel