Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Gabriel Thompson: Working In The Shadows

If you're reading this blog, you probably need to read Gabriel Thompson' book, "Working in the Shadows," because you've probably never done any of the (as he calls it) "jobs (most) Americans won't do." I don't know whether to call this book investigative reporting, a memoir, an ethnography, muckracking or what, but similar to Barbara Ehrenreich's earlier "Nickled and Dimed," Thompson set himself the task of working for a year at jobs that paid minimum wage, or less. Unlike Ehrenreich, he didn't try to live off the money he earned (though it's not quite clear where the rest of the money came from). So Thompson cuts (the real term for picking) lettuce in Yuma, Arizona; does miscellaneous jobs at a chicken processing plant in Alabama and works as a bike delivery guy for a posh restaurant in New York City. He never makes more than $7 dollars an hour if I remember correctly, and when he's biking around New York, he earns $4.60, plus tips. This is legal, but crappy. For a couple days, in New York, he worked for free at a flower shop thing, as the owners told him they'd pay him after a week after they "see what they think," at a rate to be discussed. When he gets fired, he has made less than $7 an hour, which is less than minimum wage.

The "most" Americans that Thompson refers to in the title are white Americans, and middle class Americans. Thompson learns that he is only the second white person to cut lettuce for his company, and before he is even hired, he is offered two promotions, based not on experience, but presumably because of his skin color. No one gets it why he would want to do "that kind" of job (Thompson doesn't reveal that he is writing a book). And employers are willing to bump him to better, easier, higher paying jobs because of how he looks. Speaking English is, of course, a plus, but some of the more skilled jobs involve working with a crew of entirely Spanish speaking workers, so the fact that he speaks Spanish, not English, is much more important. Further, they are skilled positions, and he has no skills, so he is not being offered the job on merit. At the chicken plant, Thompson works with African Americans, Latinos (primarily from Guatemala), and white people, who are all destitute and scraping by usually on two jobs. The workplace is segregated racially, though, and the town has collapsed since the much better factory, Lee Jeans, has closed. Only the Guatemalans seem to see the poultry plant as a move in the right direction, and if you know anything about the plight of the indigenous people in Guatemala, although sad, you can see why this might be the case. In New York City, Thompson delivers food, which renders him completely invisible. Unlike waiters and servers and runners and hosts, and even, to some extent, cooks, the people "in the back" of the restaurant, and the delivery people just don't exist to most of us who eat out. The fact that Thompson cycles around New York City in the dark on a craptastic bike wearing his uniform of chic and impractical black is irrelevent to the people he serves. They want their food and they want it now. Even the restaurant treats him as invisible: the day Thompson quits is the day that he does the work of about 5 employees and makes $10 in tips, with no recognition from the bosses.

So what's the big deal, besides being a great piece of writing? Well, one, it puts the lie to the conservative argument that immigrants are taking "our" jobs. It is possible that there are immigrants doing work in the poultry plant and fields like this that US-born citizens could be doing. Workers, however, hated the work. They described it as "work that a trained monkey could do," and Thompson writes "parents who had stepped foot inside the plant certainly didn't hope their children would one day join them." Talking heads who argue about these jobs being "stolen" probably don't know what they're talking about. This isn't even touching the lettuce fields, where Thompson was literally the only "American," though almost all of the people working in his crew were working legally. The company did their best to keep him from the fields. After all, he was an America. Even more, immigrants pay taxes as they work, wether to a real or "borrowed" social security, on the things they purchase, and on their homes, etc. The work they do in this country is a plus, no matter what jobs they're doing.

Further, none of these jobs are unionized, and the safety and economic protections that are supposed to protect workers in America, regardless of race, class, immigration status, blah blah blah, are, if present, are there in name only. Loopholes are exploited, and if there's wiggle room, it's a-wiggling. One of the points that Thompson ends with is how the Bush administration cracked down on some factories in 2006 who were hiring undocumented immigrants. The companies didn't suffer, the immigrants did: they were ddeported, or in some cases, arrested and jailed. In one case, $5.2 million dollars was spent to catch 389 workers in Postville, Iowa, which worked out to about $13,000 a person. "Hard-line anti-immigrant forces cheered the developments" because they had been complaining about the damage that these workers were causing to the environment. Unclear if they understood the damage that these raids did to the environment, or the fact that more immigrants will fill their jobs.

Thompson makes the larger point, though, that if immigrant labor is expendable, and if safety and ecomonic protections are afterthoughts for immigrants, labor in general becomes expendable. The threat becomes this: Well, if you won't do this work, there's someone (read: immigrants) out there who will do it cheaper. Thompson proposes some solutions (and finally, FINALLY for all these books I read, acknowledged that they will be difficult!) with the end goal being valuing the labor, and the dignity of the laborers. He suggests $15 as a base wage for any of the jobs that he did, in the places he lives, and acknowledges that living wages will vary from place to place. There is no reason that minimum wage should not be a living wage. To acheive this will involve "protecting the rights of workers to unionize, raising the minimum wage, and more vigorously enforcing labor and safety laws." He gives some ideas of how to organize places like restaurants that have not been targets of organizers in the past, but clearly need representation. He suggests (which I find genius and plausible) that the food justice movements and humane/organic movements start incorporating the human factor into their thinking, and "rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food." Finally, he stresses the need for immigration reform. Raids are not the answer, obviously, and Thompson also points out problems with bracero-type programs earlier in thte book. Thompson does not pose any large-scale solutions for the immigration question, and I don't have one, either, as Mexico and the United States are so clearly tied together in an unequal relationship.

I guess I'm back to depressing books. This one was worth it.