Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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

Review by Susan Gardner
Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do 
By Gabriel Thompson 
Nation Books: New York 
Hardback, 320 pages, $24.95 
January 2010
Money quote:
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an "immigrant" job. There are many industries that rely heavily on Latino immigrants, but many of these also employ at least a handful of U.S.-born citizens (though not in the lettuce fields, as I discovered). Often, when workplaces offer a variety of jobs--restaurants are a good example--immigrants tend to be assigned the most strenuous, dangerous, and worst-paid positions (e.g., washing dishes and delivering food). So a book about the world of immigrant work is also one about the very poor Americans who labor with them. As I would discover, these Americans had much in common with undocumented immigrants--for one thing, they are ignored equally in the stump speeches of politicians-and despite the lack of a shared language, the drudgery of the workplace can contribute to a sense of solidarity.
Author: The author has worked as a grassroots housing organizer in Brooklyn before turning to writing to focus on immigrants and working class issues. He wrote There's No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants, published in 2006.


Basic premise: Thompson takes several different minimum wage jobs in different regions of the country to report on working conditions and life at the near-poverty level. Expecting to find most of the jobs occupied by immigrants (legal and illegal), imagine his surprise when some of the worst jobs are being held by working-class white Americans. The only job held almost exclusively by immigrants is in Thompson's first stint of working in the lettuce fields of Arizona. Bike food delivery and a day or so at a floral shop (both in Brooklyn) round off his experience. Sandwiched in between is the job from hell: doing time in a miserable poultry processing plant in rural Georgia.
Readability/quality: Excellent prose style, offering a smooth personal narrative and insightful, heartfelt descriptions of lives of his fellow workers who are living on the edge. Since he's often invited into their homes and personal lives, there is a lot more going on here than just workplace issues as he attempts to paint a whole landscape of lives limited and crippled by brutal work and constant, nagging poverty.
Who should read it: Fans of Barbara Ehreneich's Nickel and Dimed should rejoice -- this is an extremely worthy follow-up to her brand of personal investigative narrative. Those interested in immigration, working class issues, employment safety and poverty issues should find the work gripping. Highly recommended.
Bonus quote:
The grinding, deadening work; the workplace diet of sodas and candy bars; the sleep deprivation; the frequent health emergencies; the complete lack of savings: Unsustainable is one of the first words that come to mind when I consider the lives of my English-speaking co-workers. (The immigrants in the plant seem better off--both mentally and physically--probably because they can favorably compare the wages and working conditions to what they have left behind in Guatemala.) To understand the nature of the distress, it helps to have access to the facts of their lives--to know about the car driven into a ditch and the son who wakes up just as a mother is ready to collapse. But the presence of distress is a more public affair: It is written across each face. The first thing an outsider at the plant will notice--t is impossible not to--is that every American worker over forty is missing some front teeth; and the gummy smiles, combined with the thick creases that carve up cheeks and foreheads, make people look decades older. I often felt, on learning someone's age, that I had been transported back to the harsh frontier life of the early 1800s. An overweight, gray-haired man with a bent back and chronic cough, who I imagine must be nearing retirement, turns out to be forty-two. Before I can catch myself, I think: He probably won't be alive in a decade,
There is an irony in the startling observation that those workers who are doing the best in these grueling jobs are actually the lettuce-pickers, who at least work outdoors and whose working conditions (work breaks, safety) seem, at least from Thompson's account, more supervised than those of the other positions. The camaraderie and team spirit that are found there, even though the work is physically tough, are not at all reflected in the other places Thompson works.
The horror of the poultry plant conditions cannot be overemphasized. While some safety violations occur, it's not even those infractions that make the job miserable; following the letter of the law (or even strengthening them) wouldn't make a dent in the noise, the temperature, the fact that you can't slaughter animals without getting the floors slippery with blood. Compounding the hell is the sheer hopelessness and exhaustion of the laborers, which is mirrored in the barrenness of the depleted small Arkansas town in which the plant is located.

The rural South, like Appalachia, in many ways has become America's sacrifice region with the most demeaning jobs, environmentally unsound practices and soul-killing ethos. Thompson's foray brings to light not just the factories where people work, but where they spend their precious down time -- homes, churches, after-work hang-outs -- and his heartbreaking observations make one long for a domestic Marshall Plan that can help this struggling region rise out of its current misery.


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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