To write about work is to write about is to write about violence-violence to the body and violence to the spirit. -Studs Terkel
A few months ago I spotted a review, in think in my local newspaper, of Gabriel Thompson’s recent book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do. The idea of an undercover journalist spending a year doing the kind of work we normally associate with immigrants such as harvesting lettuce and working in a poultry-processing plant intrigued me. After reading the favorable review I quickly made mental note to someday read Thompson’s book. And then, just like I always do, I promptly forgot about it. But fortunately last week I happened to find the book sitting on the “new books” shelf at my public library. Despite having a massive cache of library books already in my possession I thought I would take a chance on Thompson’s book. After burning through it in only a few days I’m quite happy I did. Working in the Shadows is a superb book.
Thompson, author of There’s No Jose Here and contributor to such publications as The Nation and The New York Times, follows in the footsteps of such “immersion journalists” like Barbara Ehrenreich and Ted Conover. As the debate over immigration dominates our news items, op-ed pieces and political talking points, Thompson opts to investigate the lives of immigrants by living much like they do, that is working side by side with them in jobs he expects few, if any, Americans would want to do. After a year, his suspicions are confirmed. These are terrible jobs, worthy only for those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
His first job harvesting lettuce, while probably the most physically demanding of the jobs he did, strangely, might have been the most humane. His supervisors, overall had few faults and were surprisingly just, while his Hispanic co-workers were incredibly friendly and supportive. Despite the low rate of pay in relation to the back-breaking labor, he was never shorted on pay or cheated out of hours worked. Ironically, to his knowledge he only met one true “illegal”, the rest being legal residents or Mexican citizens legally authorized to work in the US – many of those commuting from South of the Border, thereby reaping the benefits of being paid American wages while living in low-cost Mexico.
His next job, working in a poultry-processing plant in Russellville, Alabama, was certainly no picnic. After good-paying factory jobs fled the area in the 1990’s desperate locals were only happy to grant sweetheart deals and tax breaks to agribusiness firm Pilgrim’s Pride if they would build a massive plant in their little town. The good townspeople of Russellville, got their plant, but at a huge price. The jobs, while plentiful, are mind-suckingly monotonous and as a result of the heavy lifting and repetitive motion, incredibly injurious to the human body. Pay is low, benefits a joke and plant supervisors mean-spirited and vindictive, with the absolute worst jobs reserved for immigrants, in this case workers mostly from Mexico and Guatemala. With Wallmart being the only other large employer around, prospects in Russellville are a bit on the grim side.
The book concludes with Thompson returning to his native New York City. His first job back in NYC, at a florist shop, while not physically demanding, based on the amount of emotional abuse subjected to by the shop’s two sadistic owners, was a hell all unto its own. While rubbing shoulders with immigrants from Ecuador, eventually he’s fired simply because Thompson refused to allow the store’s borderline-psychotic owners to browbeat him into submission. Later he finds employment as a bicycle delivery man at a fairly upscale Mexican restaurant. In light of his three previous positions, he finds it’s not a terrible job. However, based on the low pay, hectic pace, more than occasional lack of tips and perhaps above all, the hazards of delivering cartons of food by bike throughout the insane asylum known as New York City, it’s nothing anyone should ever aspire to do for the rest of their lives.
I thoroughly enjoyed Working in the Shadows. It was well-written, engaging and brought a fresh air of civility to the immigration debate. It should be required reading for any pundit or politician who decides to make immigration part of his/her political agenda. While some critics take a dim view of these works of immersion journalism, calling them “stunt journalism”, based on Thompson’s honesty, sincerity and perhaps above all sheer perseverance, for these reasons, and others, I highly recommend this book.