U. of I. professor examines complexity and contradictions of work

Robert Bruno’s book “What Work Is” draws on how his students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign characterized their jobs and how they affect daily life.

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Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

L. Brian Stauffer/Provided

Who do you think said this: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Karl Marx? Walter Reuther maybe? I’ll tell you in a bit — no fair peeking or Googling — but the answer this Labor Day may surprise you. It is one of many insights and revelations awaiting the reader in Robert Bruno’s forthcoming book, “What Work Is,” to be published in January by the University of Illinois Press.

It will come almost exactly 50 years after the arrival of Studs Terkel’s “Working,” in which the Chicago author, having heard America singing in its pursuit of daily bread, turned on his tape recorder to capture spoken words that had a lyrical effect.

Bruno acknowledges a debt to Terkel but takes a different approach. The author’s own voice and life story carries “What Work Is,” but it is informed by thousands who have taken his labor education courses at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

He asked his students, mostly unionized workers busy with families and full-time jobs, to thoughtfully fill in the blank for “Work is ... ” with a six-word description, give or take. The answers from this group that was neither the elite nor the most marginalized, exuded heartbreak, hope, longing, anger and humor.

It made Bruno consider work as what nurtures and kills, dignifies and crushes. He sprinkles the responses throughout the narrative. He had some favorites:

“Work is why I’m not fishing.”

“Work is the s--- that fertilizes my life” might have been the book title, but the publisher said no.

And there was “Work is trying to make passion profitable.”


The cover of Robert Bruno’s forthcoming book.

University of Illinois Press

Woven throughout is Bruno’s story of growing up in Ohio with a steelworker father and a beautician mother. He writes that as a youth, he had little appreciation for why his father headed off to work at night and how that connected to comfort for him and his siblings. Only later did he comprehend parental sacrifices and the dreams they boxed away in a mental attic.

Bruno told me he didn’t time the book for an anniversary of “Working.” The occasion hadn’t occurred to him until I mentioned it, he said. Writing the book grew from his teaching and research interests.

“I got appointed to the governor’s task force on the future of work, and at the Project for Middle Class Renewal, which is our research center, we’ve been working on concepts of job quality,” he said.

Bruno said his answer to his own assignment, influenced by his years of teaching, would be “work is serving others.”

His book arrives amid high employment but great anxiety over job security. Gig work has proliferated, and employers use contractors so they can get rid of them fast. Referring to when Terkel’s book was published, Bruno said, “There have been four decades more of serious job deterioration. It’s a real question … whether work is a ladder to prosperity, whether it is a tool to improve people’s lives.”

Is that why there’s more agitation in labor, with increased organizing and strikes? Bruno cites the economic recovery from pandemic shutdowns and the competition to increase staffing.

“All of a sudden, workers realize that they’ve got leverage in this marketplace. Now, they’ve been carrying grievances, but they just haven’t been mobilized. So it’s a grievance that’s below the surface,” he said.

His book draws on Aristotle, Rousseau and Kant. It draws on poetry, including Bruno’s own and that of Philip Levine, a Walt Whitman for the night shift. He connects readers to others’ working lives, but especially to their own.

Work manages to be both enduring and ephemeral, and the book had me thinking about how every workplace in my life, whether it’s a grocery store or a newsroom, is now gone or used as something else. It drove home how lucky I am to do professionally what I’ve wanted to do since the first newspaper article I wrote in college. Work is where the fortunate can be blessed.

Bruno doesn’t close with any grand call to action or reform. That’s for policy papers, he told me. But it ends with a surprise that challenges conservative thinkers who revere Adam Smith, apostle of free-market thinking.

“People have got Adam Smith a little backward,” he said, citing especially the sages out of the University of Chicago. Smith decried excess profits and wrote they are always highest in countries “which are going fastest to ruin.”

That quote at the top of this article is from Abraham Lincoln, Republican, in an 1861 address to Congress no less.

The times, they are a-changin’, but progress can be hard to find.

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