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For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight — the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers — has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More “Working at 40” stories can be found here.
In the 1970s, Chicago resident Enid du Bois told Terkel that her job as a telephone solicitor in a downtown skyscraper felt “different from being in a factory.” Still, despite the glamour of working on North Michigan Avenue, du Bois grew more steadily miserable: She worked on commission, and often had to come in on Saturdays in order to land enough orders. Plus, she says, the morale around the office was plummeting; she describes crying in the bathroom as the work got harder with no compensation to match it.
Forty years later, Erica D. found herself employed at a data-entry firm in a skyscraper off of Michigan Avenue. Though she, by contrast, tells In These Times that it was like working in a factory, like du Bois, she was struck by how demoralized she felt despite the glitz of the locale. During that time, she also worked as a labor organizer for various farmworker rights campaigns.
My role was data-entry: I put ads online for major corporate clients. We weren’t even making the ads for clients’ websites, though; we were basically taking the ads and images the companies had already created and putting it all in one place: our own website.
I mean, you think about the most tedious work ever: You’re reading the ad, the price, and you’re reading the fine print. Then you’re putting the title and the information into different fields in this little box on the computer.
Listings per hour, or “LPHs,” were the big thing. Essentially, we were trying to copy and paste as fast as possible. I honestly don’t know why it couldn’t have been more mechanized. When I got there, the expectations for the LPHs were lower, but as I was leaving they were getting higher and higher. We would get a warning when we weren’t meeting our LPH numbers. Eventually, they put these big TVs up in the work area, supposedly to display our numbers. They wanted to have a public shaming element and put some competition into it. But nobody cared.
People weren’t really fired for any reason, but they were also given more and more responsibility as they were there longer. I kind of found that with myself. I had been there for a whole year, and the longer you’ve been there, the harder your clients will be. They were trying to save the easiest work for the new employees.
Did that correspond with a raise in pay?
No. That was the issue: I was becoming more specialized in my job, but I wasn’t getting any raises or benefits and I was still a part-time employee. That was the biggest headache of it.
I really thought they needed to start giving us more raises, because they really needed people who knew the material and who could take on the harder clients. So it was always interesting to me that they needed this transient workforce, but then they needed us to be really dependable and skilled. They needed us to have worked there long enough to understand how to work the system and apply these higher standards quickly and accurately.
I got paid $10 an hour — obviously above minimum wage. Sometimes they would approve overtime, but they would keep it under 40 hours. During the holidays we could work 45 hours and get paid time-and-a-half. But that didn’t happen that often. Some people could make it work, or they had other jobs on top of it. I think this job only makes sense if it’s supplemental income, if you’re going in for a Saturday or something.
How many people did you know who used it as their primary source of income?
Oh, I would say most of them were. Most of them were in school. There were a lot of actors there. There were a lot of English teachers there. And by English teachers, I mean professors. They worked at colleges, not public schools.
That was the unique thing about this job: Everyone was young. It seemed like everyone was in their 20s, even those in upper management.
My personal self kind of declined while I was there. I gained a lot of weight. I stopped taking care of myself as well. I didn’t shower as much as I should have. (She laughs.) You know, because I was just sitting in front of a computer all day. When you’re just sitting there, you don’t care what you look like. I would get up to go to the bathroom and that’s the only time someone would see me. I was around people, but it was also very easy to be invisible at the same time.
They had some stricter policies, too. Anytime we were away from our desk, we had to use that as part of our break. Supposedly, you had to clock-in and clock-out to go to the bathroom. But I personally never did that because it’s pretty unreasonable. You should be able to go pee.
The part-time and full-time employees were treated very differently. The full-time staff obviously got benefits. They got parties. There was one time when we were working overtime in the data-entry section and the full-time employees were having their Christmas party in the room next to us. They had all of this beer and food brought in. They even took the Christmas tree from our area and brought it into their room. They got really loud and kind of disruptive. It was just insane to me that they were having this big holiday party in the same space while we were working. And that they took our Christmas tree!
I think it was on Tuesdays, too, that management brought in food for the full-time employees. This what was so funny about it: They always ordered too much food. The full-time employees would get fed, and after all of them had eaten, the higher-ups would announce to the part-time employees that there was food. And it was just a stampede. There was never enough, so you just got what you could get. There was just so much stress applied to it. Everyone wanted it — we were all pretty poor, and it was like, “Oh, free food, we of course want this.” But it was so dehumanizing, too.
There were some people who were really good at the job. I wouldn’t say that I was very good at it, though. It was exhausting, tedious and it didn’t necessarily “come together.” I need to understand how my work is being applied in the real world. The Internet is already very difficult to wrap your head around, and then I realized my work wasn’t necessary. I don’t care if people see the ads, because they don’t need them.
It just felt completely irrelevant. It was really aggravating to be doing something that didn’t feel like it had any good for society as a whole. You know, there’s a lot of work and human energy going into making that site happen. And I can’t say that it needs to exist in any way.
I was getting so frustrated by the whole thing. I really couldn’t do it anymore. I was really depressed, having breakdowns, crying at work. But I feel like that’s also a place of privilege. I’m educated; I went to college. I got in my head about the work I was doing, and I was applying labor standards to it. And I felt so demoralized by it, but from a certain expectation that I should be doing something else. I just wanted to get out of it.
Is work like this the best use of human energy? I don’t think it is. I think we could build society in a more equitable way, where people are exchanging in their community in ways that benefit everyone, even themselves.
Did you try and organize a union with the other employees?
As an organizer, I was like, “C’mon, we don’t even have to exist like this.” I talked to people about issues, but we never got to that point. I think people just don’t really believe in that way of getting things done because they are so non-invested in the work as it is — they’re not interested in seeing it as something they should invest even more time into. And I would say that’s probably why I never really worked hard for it (laughs).
Honestly, I can’t remember all of it. Once I got out of it I tried to forget it. I feel like I kind of wasted my time. I never tell people about that experience ‚because I feel like it makes me less attractive as a job candidate, or even as a person in the world. Because it’s kind of that thing you did … it’s like working at a factory in a Chicago Loop office.
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