Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do by Gabriel Thompson

Reading about drudgery isn't as laborious as you'd expect.

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do

Publisher: Nation Books
Length: 320 pages
Author: Gabriel Thompson
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-01

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?


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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