[12 March 2010]
Surprisingly, reading about drudgery isn’t as laborious as you’d expect. Spanish-speaking Brooklynite Gabriel Thompson spent a year doing jobs that, as the subtitle states, most Americans simply won’t do. From sweltering days picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona to night shifts in Russelville, Alabama’s chicken processing plants, Thompson chronicles the back-breaking work that ultimately puts food on your table. This is work that comes at a price.
Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won’t Do achieves its strength from its day-to-day, first-person perspective. While “year of” accounts are now ubiquitous, Thompson’s ability to detail the challenges and miseries of low-paid laborers is this book’s greatest insight. In the introduction, the author surprisingly dictates that the book is not an attempt to “walk in their shoes”, rather, his primary challenge will be “to keep showing up for the next shift”.
As the narrative proceeds, and the misery described grows, the reader is left to ponder: could I honestly do that? Contrary to Thompson’s stated intention, and in parallel with the unstated goals of many similar narratives, the reader is left in a state of empathetic awareness.
The author purposefully seeks employment in industries that depend heavily upon Latino immigrants, and simply his presence as a gringo often raises the suspicions of his co-workers. Thompson is not new to this scenario, as the subtitle of his 2006 book reveals: There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants. To minimize the suspicions of his would-be employers and colleagues, Thompson creatively obscures his more recent employment history and reasons for seeking employment: primarily that’s he is just looking for an uncomplicated job which will generate fast cash.
Though Thompson’s co-workers never learn of his documentary intention, and many suspect him to be an undercover immigration official, they are generous and gracious in their support. In the technically-challenging field of lettuce cutting, his colleagues take the time to offer tricks of the trade, and when all else fails, they cut his rows while Thompson’s back is wailing and his hands failing. He earns their respect for simply returning to the field after the first week of work, and at the end of his two month term, the crew has quite a celebratory send-off for the author on his day of departure—even after they’ve cumulatively cut and bagged more than 43,000 heads of lettuce.
During his tenure, Thompson befriends many of his co-workers and interweaves their histories and working arrangements along with his personal accounts of bleeding hands and lettuce-focused dreams. The cumulative effect is blunt: Thompson is barely surviving, physically, but is doing this by choice and only for a short term. His co-workers travel, on average, an additional four hours per day, have few benefits on low wages, and will likely pick lettuce as long as their bodies will allow. Which isn’t terribly long: “these jobs make you old quick”, a co-worker notes.
For a writer who has also authored a book on community organizing called Calling All Radicals (which Howard Zinn called “a marvelous book”) and is a winner of the Studs Terkel Media Award, there is surprisingly little in-text sermonizing and proselytizing regarding worker’s rights. More often, Thompson simply presents the reality of the physical challenges and mental endurance necessary to do these jobs, and ultimately how little pay and prestige results from these long and tortuous hours.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is therefore both echoed and acknowledged by Thompson, while his months working at a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant inevitably recall Fast Food Nation. The plant’s treatment of both its workers and its birds is certainly inhumane, but Working in the Shadows expands that book’s food-focused didacticism by uncovering the physical consequence of processing: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused by repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel or tendonitits. Along the way, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is called to task for their complicit behavior in poor surveillance and reporting of MSDs.
The final chapters, “Flowers and Food”, details Thompson’s return to his home soil of New York where a short-lived job in the flower business seems somewhat tame to compared to the toils of his lower-latitude experiences. His primary challenge is the degrading and abusive work environment he suffers, in addition to the creative accounting that sees him earning well-below minimum wage. After being fired for acting like a “happy chicken” (ultimately not being a subservient enough minion to his nightmarish supervisors), Thompson then finds a degree of camaraderie and financial satisfaction while serving as a deliveryman for an upscale Mexican restaurant.
Ultimately, the reader is left well-aware of the inherent social and political consequences of the low-wage workforce. Thompson saves the big-picture analysis for the conclusion chapter, and predictably calls for immigration reform while acknowledging that “there are no easy solutions.” After almost 300 pages, it is easy to agree that “at the very least, workers who do some of the most difficult jobs should earn a living wage and be protected from hazards on the job.”
The necessity of these minimums is more dire for undocumented immigrants who fear deportation if they speak out against their exploitation. Thompson proposes an “ambitious” introduction of a system that would allow these immigrants a path to legalization, but highlights the efforts it will take to achieve this, including the unearthing of stories that highlight many of the unforeseen benefits that undocumented immigrants offer the the country—a purpose that Working in the Shadows also serves. Thompson’s experiences have created mental associations that most Americans don’t fully appreciate, as he says: “Watching a KFC commercial full of smiling customers, I think of missing teeth and carpal tunnel syndrome and sleep deprivation.”
While the reader also better appreciates the painstaking labor experienced between field and feast, Thompson perhaps missed a chance to further his argument. Though the conclusion acknowledges the financial collapse that took place during his “fieldwork”, the author does not examine or postulate the degree to which the “[Most]” in his subtitle might change: the day I finished this book, The New York Times headline read “Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs”. Indeed, will more Americans be financially driven to do these types of jobs? Or are these jobs worse than no job at all?