Following in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, author Gabriel Thompson decided to commit actual journalism and spend a year working in jobs usually done by impoverished immigrants. The result was Working in the Shadows, which follows him through three brief careers in different parts of the country.
Thompson started off doing farm work in Yuma, Arizona, very close to the Mexican border. When he first applied for the job, he found a pattern that would repeat throughout the book: the personnel department immediately tried to redirect the white, bilingual Thompson into office work or forklift driving. He had to push to get the job he wanted, cutting lettuce alongside immigrants in the fields. After reading his description of the work, I’ll never look at cheap iceberg lettuce the same way.
The company was a legit outfit, in that workers were paid above minimum wage, worker safety was taken seriously, union membership was an option, and employees were legal “guest workers” who crossed the border daily from Mexico. There have been horror stories about guest worker programs in other parts of the country (wage theft, unsafe conditions, substandard housing, sexual harassment, etc). Thompson concluded that the proximity to Mexico was an advantage for the Yuma workers: if abuses had occurred, they could return to Mexico easily and word would spread quickly among the labor pool.
But with that all said, the work was extraordinarily grueling – seriously, it was exhausting just to read about it. Eight or ten or twelve hours in the sun, bending over (and over and over), with swollen hands and a back in nonstop pain. The workers got $8.37 an hour; industry average is $10 to $12 an hour, but the guest workers were at the lower end. Some had previously worked in other places that paid piece rate instead of hourly; they found that they made slightly more money but the pace was intolerable.
Thompson next found work at a chicken processing plant in Arkansas. Here again he tried to get into the department that he thought would contain mostly immigrants (deboning), and was instead assigned to various other departments. One assignment involved pulling chicken breasts from icy water and tearing them in half by hand; another consisted of lifting and dumping 80-pound tubs of chicken parts. He worked the graveyard shift, and many of his co-workers were doing second jobs and getting an inhumanly small amount of sleep. One co-worker was fired for repeatedly nodding off for 30 seconds at a time (while still standing up).
Workers were paid $8.05 to $9.70 an hour, with the exception of those in the Live Hang Department (which was exactly what it sounds like). Those workers make a princely $10.75 an hour. Health insurance was available to those who could come up with the premium. One co-worker scraped up the $60/month for insurance, only to find his $2000 claim denied because his back problem was deemed a pre-existing condition.
The repetitive nature of the work was hard on both the body and mind. The employee orientation recommended varying one’s activities and taking “micro breaks,” but neither was actually possible with chicken parts rolling down the line like an unfunny “I Love Lucy” episode.
The company took great pride in billing itself as Christian, to the point of having a supervisor tell workers, “I hope you all go to church.” The company was also aggressively anti-union, and part of the workers’ “training” included anti-union videos. There had been a union drive in 2006, which the workers voted down (partly, it seems, because of fears that immigration would come after them if they unionized). One co-worker observed that the morning after the vote, the bosses brought in donuts for everyone. Give up your right to bargain, get one whole donut. That pretty much said it all about the company’s attitude.
Some of the sheer pettiness by the company was mind-blowing. The plant had to be kept cold to keep the meat fresh, and one of Thompson’s assignments involved taking chicken parts out of icy water. When he requested a second pair of gloves so he could double up on his freezing hands, he was bluntly told no. He later learned that until recently, if a glove or apron tore, the workers had to pay to replace them (this was the only thing the company had changed after the union drive). The nadir of pettiness, though, had to be the supervisor whose entire function seemed to be wandering by and yelling “Andale!” (“Hurry up!”) every so often.
The poultry industry has a bad safety record. The factory where Thompson worked wasn’t the worst, but they shamelessly manipulated the system. Heavy lifting and repetitive stress inevitably led to injuries. Thompson described his co-workers as looking prematurely aged, with damaged backs and hands, so that people he first took to be elderly turned out to be in their forties. Everyone seemed to have an example (themselves or a relative) of someone who was arm-twisted into coming back to work immediately after surgery so that the company could claim “no injuries resulting in lost days.” One particularly awful 2004 case involved a woman who fell and broke her ankle; she was given ibuprofen and sent home. When she got into her car, she looked down and saw bones sticking out.
The factory was somewhat segregated; it was unofficially understood that the immigrants worked in certain departments and Americans in others. The separation was made deeper by language barrier: some of the immigrants spoke Spanish, and others used Guatemalan dialects. It was generally assumed among the workers that a large portion of the immigrants were undocumented or using false papers, but no one seemed particularly bothered by that. From Thompson’s admitted unscientific observations, the rest of the community didn’t notice the Hispanic population’s existence at all. But Thompson also describes a Conservative Citizens’ Council meeting that he attended in a nearby town, just because it took place right before he started the job. The “immigrants are coming to steal your job and spread leprosy” rhetoric was over-the-top scary, and one of the speakers was a state senator.
Thompson wound up getting fired after the company got wind that he was a journalist. The HR people who did the actual firing insisted that they could have worked something out if he’d told them in the first place, which was so obviously false that Thompson didn’t even argue the point. Once they saw he wasn’t fighting it, they told him they’d googled his articles and got into a lively discussion of how much they enjoyed his writing. Thompson describes the surreal feeling of having this conversation, trying to remember all of it to transcribe later, and being continuously distracted by the same thought: This means I don’t have to dump 80-pound tubs of chicken tonight.
Thompson’s next gig was doing deliveries for a plant shop in NYC. Here, in a small mom-and-pop operation, was where he found the most labor violations: 11-hour days with no breaks for well below minimum wage. (A co-worker typically worked 60-hour weeks for $5 an hour with no overtime pay; minimum wage in NY was $7.15.) The work was physical but less draining than the farm and factory work. What made it harder was the stream of constant verbal harassment from his employers. After two days, he was told that he wasn’t working out because he was too much of a “happy chicken.” The bosses had a clear idea of what a proper employee should look like, and if he wasn’t visibly miserable and subservient, they weren’t satisfied.
Thompson stayed in NYC and found a job doing bike deliveries for a restaurant. There had recently been a major lawsuit where a group of delivery workers got a large judgment after being paid less than $2 an hour, among other violations. Thompson was paid the legal sub-minimum wage (New York has a lower minimum wage for tipped workers), but his co-workers routinely found the restaurant had shaved hours off their checks. It wasn’t terribly clear why they had the workers punch a clock.
Thompson got the chance to talk to delivery people and other back-of-the-house workers from other restaurants. All of them were paid less than the $4.60 an hour that he was getting. As for the tips that were supposed to even that out, 10 percent was considered generous.
In all of the jobs that Thompson tried, worker solidarity crossed lines of race, language and nationality. When he couldn’t keep up with the pace in the lettuce field or factory, other workers stepped in to help him catch up. When he was denied extra gloves at the factory, a co-worker slipped him a pair. Dealing with unreasonable demands from management seemed to be the surest way of getting people to bond.
Where there was a hierarchy, it had to do with class and position in the company hierarchy. The factory supervisor who kept yelling “Andale!” probably wasn’t getting paid much more than the line workers, yet worker/management divide was clear. Similarly, a server at the restaurant seemed positively offended on one occasion when the “delivery boys” made more in tips than he did – even though they were out biking in nasty weather (on a bike nicknamed “the catapult”) while he was warm and dry.
The problems Thompson encountered are not limited to immigrants, undocumented or otherwise. The worst violations of wage and labor laws were directed at undocumented workers, since they were the least likely to be in a position to fight back. But the powerlessness was only a matter of degree. Documented or not, workers had to deal with low wages and awful working conditions when they did not have the power to demand better.
Thompson emphatically endorses Barbara Ehrenreich’s view that poverty in this country should not be viewed as something “sad but sustainable,” but rather as a national emergency. The solutions he discusses aren’t new, but they are urgent: raising the minimum wage, supporting union organizing, and vigorously enforcing labor and safety laws. The point about enforcement cannot be stressed enough. He mentions one restaurant that posted a notice about the minimum wage, as they are required to do – and then didn’t pay it. Employers will start following fair labor laws and safety requirements when it becomes more costly to disregard them.
The book was written before the current wave of assaults on unions. This book is a vivid illustration of why they’re needed, and the real people doing real work that too often goes unseen.