News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 20, 2011

MARK BENNETT: 'The Way We Worked' exhibit explains how work became a cornerstone of Americana

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

MARSHALL, Ill. — Young steelworkers, like Robert Bruno’s dad, often took dates to the railroad yards, watching train cars rumble past in blue-collar Youngstown, Ohio.

They studied the freight. Specifically, the steelworkers looked for code numbers on I-beams identifying the plant where they were produced.

Sound romantic? In an all-American way, it was.

“They would point out, ‘I made that,’” Bruno explained. “They were seeing a part of them morphed into that piece of steel.”

In America, our cultural identity has long been linked to our vocation. The state of that bond, and its history, permeates a fascinating exhibit which opens today at the Marshall Public Library. “The Way We Worked” explains how work became a cornerstone of Americana during the past 150 years and traces changes in the workforce and workplace environments. The National Archives created the traveling exhibit, which is part of the Museum on Main Street project, a collaboration by the Smithsonian Institution and the Illinois Humanities Council.

The multi-media displays depict scenes from 1930s coal mines, women toiling in World War II-era factories, and iron workers perched on skeletal skyscrapers hundreds of feet above ground. Last week, a team of library employees and volunteers transported crates filled with “The Way We Worked” materials from their previous location at Carbondale and assembled it all at the Marshall library on Archer Avenue. Members of the library crew have their own work stories, just like the people shown in the exhibit’s historic photographs.

The exertion. The time. The need. The pressure. It all connects us more universally than any other experience.

“I think there’s a very powerful common thread,” said Bruno, a professor of labor history at the University of Illinois-Chicago who will speak at the Smithsonian exhibit’s kickoff today at the Marshall library. “Religion can divide us, race and gender, this issue or that, but work is the common language.”

The folks involved in the year-long effort to bring the exhibit to Marshall exemplify the intersection of Americans’ diverse paths through work.

Gordon Clark, chairman of the exhibit’s installation committee, retired when a Clark County telecommunications firm phased out his job after 9/11. Born in Maine, the 72-year-old went from the Air Force to work in an aviation instrument manufacturing business in Dallas, Texas, that “went bust.” A Dallas co-worker found a job in Marshall, invited Clark to join that company, and Clark spent 24 years in that role. There were joys. Clark recalled testing speed instruments with a Ford Mustang zooming down a Dallas-Fort Worth freeway. In both jobs, he felt “real secure,” until they disappeared.

Edie Breneman works as a part-time clerk at the library. She worked as office manager of a Marshall auto parts store, which she and her husband owned for a quarter-century until selling it last year. The 60-year-old Vigo County native got her elementary education degree from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1973, worked as a teacher for two years, and then shifted to a trio of part-time jobs while raising their kids. Later, the Brenemans opened the NAPA store. The employees’ uniforms illustrated the mingling of job and self. “On one side is where they work, and on the other is their name,” Breneman explained. “That’s how I visualized them.”

Just like those steelworkers watching the rail cars, Americans often base first impressions on work.

“That’s always the second question you ask everybody — ‘What’s your name? What do you do?’” said Nancy Claypool, now in her 13th year as director of the Marshall library.

In the past few years, millions of people nationwide have felt their niche in society shaken loose by two forces.

Opportunistic politicians on the far right have cast labor — particularly organized labor — as a negative ingredient in the national economy, said Bruno, author of three books on work issues. Newly elected, conservative legislatures in some states, including Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, passed laws restricting collective bargaining rights of teachers and public employees early in 2011. Voters in Ohio retaliated against the extremism this fall, and voters in Wisconsin and Indiana could do the same next year. “It’s a serious overreach,” Bruno said of the lawmakers’ power grab.

Secondly, the fierce recession and the excruciatingly slow recovery “is creating opportunity to demonize and criticize” various sectors of workers, Bruno said. Labor offers a convenient scapegoat for the recession, which in reality spawned from deregulation of the financial industry, he added. Instead of visionary remedies for the financial industry’s mismanagement and illegalities, elected officials with a bias toward corporations shifted the blame to public service employees such as teachers, police officers and firefighters. The resulting anti-labor laws were sold as budget-cutting necessities.

“They have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility. They have nothing to do with solving a budget crisis,” Bruno said last week by telephone from Chicago.

Today at the Marshall library, Bruno will discuss the atmosphere faced by American workers. His topic will be “From the Workplace to the Ballot Box: Organized Labor and the American Political Process.”

This month’s voting in Ohio represents the high regard Americans hold for work — regardless of whether it’s performed in the public or private sector, or by union or nonunion employees. By a 61-percent majority, voters in the Buckeye state repealed a law backed by Gov. John Kasich that would have restricted collective bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers. Such a landslide rejection showed most Ohioans, even many who aren’t fans of unions, saw the law as an unacceptable breach of the workplace, Bruno said.

The oneness of work and personal identity has already been jarred by the recession. In Clark County, 10.8 percent of the labor force is unemployed — the ninth highest rate in Illinois. Across the state line in Indiana, Vigo County’s jobless rate stands at 9.5 percent. The rewards for work have been affected, too. The per-capita income in Terre Haute is $17,123 — far below the state level of $24,044 and the U.S. mark of $27,041.

The social, political and economic climate, in which working-class people become targets of blame, is a change from the country’s history. A photograph in “The Way We Worked” shows a music teacher leading a children’s choral group in 1935. In the lower right-hand corner is a quotation from author John Steinbeck: “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

Steinbeck’s outlook should be our first thought when someone tells us, “I’m a teacher.” That’s when America is at its best.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or