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In Their Own Words

Workers Tell Their Stories

By Rebecca Webber | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

When pattern maker Carl Fischer noticed his co-workers at the Chrysler Tech wood shop taking frequent smoke breaks, Fischer chose what he calls “a bit of an unusual way” to protest. “For years, I had wanted to build a violin,” he says. “And I ran across a set of plans. So I started building this violin under my bench.”

When the foreman questioned him, Fischer said, “Look, every time you see me work on that violin, you just figure I’m taking a smoke break.”

For Fischer, building violins became a way to employ his woodworking skills. His trade once involved hands-on construction of patterns, but with the computer technology in use, machines required much less human guidance.

Fischer’s story was recorded by Rick Bailey, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Work in Dearborn, Michigan, as part of “The Workers’ Own Words,” an NEH-supported project that trained eight professors at Henry Ford Community College (HFCC) to collect oral histories. The histories have been transcribed and made available on the web, as well as incorporated into course curriculums.

The seeds for the project were planted when instructors at HFCC observed significant changes -- such as those Fischer wrestled with -- in the working lifestyles of their community.

“His tale in this oral history is one of survival,” Bailey writes in his introduction to Fischer’s story, “as he evolves from a tradesman who moves from job to job, carrying his tools with him, to a modern ‘hi-tech’ practitioner whose primary tool appears to be computer software.”

Like many factory workers, Fischer felt the economic slump of the early eighties. In a ten-year period, he had five different jobs at Caterpillar, moving from one to another during layoffs. “1984, 1985 down in our area was bad. A lot of people lost their homes,” he says. “They just had to walk into the bank and hand them the keys. They couldn’t keep up the payments.”

In 1993, Fischer took a job at the Chrysler Tech Center, taking a pay cut in exchange for the promise of steadier work. It was then that he began making violins at his workbench.

“I don’t play violin. I don’t play any musical instrument. I’m probably tone deaf,” Fischer says. “But I can still read a scale, and I’ve got some good electronic stuff that can help me tune things in.”

Fischer has built three violins and repaired a damaged one. He estimates he has invested a thousand dollars over a two-year period on books about violin making. “I had no idea how much there was to learn in order to do this,” he says. “So I’ve gotten most of the classic books that the violin makers and violin repair people have.”

“The fact that I was a pattern maker made it a whole lot easier to produce the parts, because I had a good feel for the tools that would be needed. I knew the techniques that they were talking about in the books,” Fischer says. “You know, there’s only so many ways that you’re going to hold a gouge and gouge out what piece without running it clean through the piece of wood.”

To find out whether the violins he was building were viable, Fischer took one of them to the owner of a violin shop; the man also happened to be a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “I figured he might saw on it for five minutes, and tell me, yeah it’s a little this way, or a little bit that way. No, he sat there and he fiddled with that thing for close to an hour,” he recounts. “And then his comment to me was, he says, ‘I’d have no problem taking that to a performance.’ Hey, talk about somebody with his feet about that high off the ground.”

American industry -- the automotive industry in particular -- underwent a major shift in the eighties and nineties. “Japanese auto makers were eating our lunch,” says Bailey. “There was a malaise in the region because of the economic slump.”

As carmakers responded to the overseas competition by reorganizing their workplace and upgrading their technology, Bailey and his colleagues recognized an opportunity.

“We said, ‘Look, here we are approaching the end of the twentieth century and manufacturing work has changed with globalization, new technology, and reorganization of the workplace,’” Bailey says. “Because of our student body and because of our local culture, we had an amazing opportunity to produce documented oral histories that told the stories of the changes in the workplace.”

The community college is situated in Dearborn, Michigan, a manufacturing town in the Detroit metropolitan area and home of the Ford Motor Company headquarters. The Southfield Freeway divides the town into approximately equal working-class and white-collar components.

HFCC students, about thirteen thousand strong, attend the college in preparation for a four-year degree or to train in a specific trade such as health care or computers. The average student age is twenty-eight, and approximately two-thirds work while attending school.

Because of the student body’s connections to the working world, HFCC professors had no trouble finding workers willing to share their experiences.

“Often, our subjects find us,” says Bailey. “Our faculty has very close ties to the workplace because one of our primary missions is placing students.” Instructors would suggest workers appropriate for the project. About forty-five interviews have been recorded so far and the project is ongoing.

The professors sought oral histories from workers in manufacturing, technology, service work, temporary work, health care, family businesses, and professions. The team contacted potential subjects to arrange for a two-hour oral history session. They asked each subject a list of questions that included, “What are some of the problems you face in your job?” and “Would you want your child to go into your field?”

“They talked with great passion and animation about work,” says Bailey. “There are few things in life that they know better and they are experts on their work. We give them an opportunity to tell us their stories.”

To obtain a range of perspectives, the professors interviewed workers in a variety of roles. In the health care sector, they spoke with a home visitation nurse, an emergency room physician, a family-practice physician, an oncologist, an orderly, and the chief executive officer of an HMO. Interview subjects are encouraged to speak about their philosophical, practical, and emotional experiences with work. “You hope that they’re going to get personal,” says Bailey. “That explains the order in which the questions are asked.”

For the interviewer, the challenge is to know when not to talk. “When someone is telling their own story, the interviewer often has the desire to tell his or her own personal stories to testify to the truth and power of the narratives unfolding,” says Bailey. “You can undermine the interviewing process when you start talking about yourself. The trick is to do that just a little if it facilitates the interview, otherwise to just keep quiet.”

“Ten minutes after you close the briefcase,” he adds, “You have an intuitive idea as to where the nuggets are.” After transcription, the oral histories are used as raw data in classes and seminars.

“We’re really aware of the fact that we’ve struck gold here, because we have materials that are very interesting to a lot of people,” Bailey says.

This fall, the project coordinators will present their findings at the National Council for Teachers of English in Baltimore, where they will explain uses for oral histories in developmental education, composition, and literature classes.

Project participants have already presented their findings at local and national conferences such as the Community College Humanities Association and the Oral History Association Conference. Doing so has led them to develop new relationships with local institutions that share an interest in working lives.

The Walter Reuther Library of Urban and Labor Affairs at Wayne State University houses the archives of unions such as the United Auto Workers, International Workers of the World, and the United Farm Workers. But much of the material they have is not immediately available to researchers.

“They get frequent requests for modern profiles of work and they are lean on it,” says Michael Daher, co-director of the Center for the Study of Work. “We’ve had emphatic support from them.”

The two institutions have developed a reciprocal relationship, sharing photography exhibits and oral history archives.

“In the Workers’ Own Words” also caught the attention of archivists from Ford Motor Company at the National Labor History Conference. Ford maintains company archives, but, says Daher, “They’ve emphasized corporate oral history and they have minimal experience when it comes to blue-collar workers.”

Ford invited the HFCC instructors to confer with them and develop materials for the company’s centennial in 2003. The project team will collect sixteen oral histories from Ford’s manu-facturing and blue-collar workers. The company is interested in workers’ perceptions of working at Ford.

The HFCC instructors have made an effort to involve their students and to share the knowledge gained from their projects. They hope that by teaching the value of oral histories, students will consider the topic of work a valid subject for academic inquiry.

The instructors also believe that students’ involvement in the project will allow them to think more critically about their own careers. Questions such as “What kind of learning takes place on your job?” “What is the most difficult aspect of your work?” and “Is job satisfaction an issue?” lead students to think beyond their most pressing practical concern -- “Will I get a job?” By dealing with these questions, students confront issues about the nature of a job, workplace environment, and how their careers will define who they are.

According to Daher, the project leaders’ central objective is integrating oral histories into the curriculum. “We don’t want it to be just an academic exercise; we want it to be an exercise in both critical thinking and research.”

Students are encouraged to help format the interviews for the web and add their own critical commentary. Some students have become so involved that they have chosen to pursue oral history projects of their own.

Matt McLain participated in a seminar about work and culture, and decided to collect an oral history from a worker from the meat-packing plant where he had once worked. McLain, under the tutelage of Daher, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and other relevant works. With the readings as background, McLain interviewed Moses Turner, a man who has spent his entire career in the meatpacking industry.

To McLain’s surprise, Turner’s oral history reinforced much of what he had read about the industry.

“The literature seemed to be biased toward the negative, but he confirmed quite a bit of that -- a lot of the labor practices, how workers are treated, a lot of safety conditions. They’ve changed over the years but there is still a high rate of injuries,” says McLain. “I randomly picked someone in the industry and he confirmed so much of what I had read.”

His project caused McLain to reflect upon his own experience at a meat-packing plant, and helped him refine his career goals.

According to Turner’s recollections, says McLain, “You would come in at 6 a.m. and you didn’t know when you would get out. That didn’t strike me as a situation I would want to be in. Also, you didn’t have set health or dental insurance. The owner would reimburse you, but there was nothing contractual about that.”

“The owner was very in touch with the workers; he would come out and talk to everyone,” says McLain. “At the same time, he held so much power over the individual. In selecting a job, I wouldn’t go into a job that was like that.”

Other members of the college faculty asked their students to take oral histories of people who had experience with the Vietnam War or immigration, or to reflect upon their personal experiences with work.

One of Daher’s students read McLain’s oral history with Moses Turner and was inspired to write an essay about his own work. “It was real. It had both positive and negative terms of the job,” says Ryan Hemphill, a twenty-two-year-old student who spent four years in the Navy.

“I decided not to write about the Navy because it would have been really long,” says Hemphill. “I chose a more positive experience -- my first job in a greenhouse. I started working there when I was thirteen years old. It was like a big playground -- there were lots of toys, big trucks, stuff that was intriguing. It wasn’t a stressful environment. It was a really positive environment.”

Another student considering a career in education read the oral history of a teacher as part of her coursework.

“I learned a lot about what to expect and how hard it is to be a teacher, but how rewarding it is anyway,” says Melanie Strachan, a nineteen-year-old sophomore studying elementary education at HFCC.

“We do see the oral histories as not only generating more oral histories,” says Daher, “but also as something that can be used in an interdisciplinary way.”

Daher’s students have written essays about their work and are developing an electronic magazine called Tight Shift. The oral histories are available at http://adm.hfcc.net/~rbailey/csw and will appear on the website as they are summarized and annotated with critical commentary.

About the Author

Rebecca Webber is a writer in North Carolina.

Funding Information

“In the Workers’ Own Words” received $21,542 from NEH. Henry Ford Community College has received $121,782 for projects on the study of work.