The Violence of Work: New Book Brings Work Out of the Shadows

Reviewed: Working In The Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs Americans Won’t Do, By Gabriel Thompson, Nation Books, December 2009

It’s 6:00 PM and you’ve just arrived home from work.  Stomach growling and body exhausted, you dial your favorite restaurant and order a chicken Caesar salad, delivery; at the door, you exchange pleasantries with the deliverer and pay.  The only thought you might give to those who made your meal possible is one of annoyance-the chicken is overdone, or the cook forgot the croutons.

But what about the farm worker who cut and picked the lettuce your overcooked meat now lies on, despite his aching back and throbbing hands?  Or the night shift chicken plant laborer who battled fatigue from her daytime job to tear your chicken breast (and 7,000 others) apart by hand in a single shift? Or the bicycle deliverer just at your doorstep, whose near-miss of a speeding car on the way over almost cost him his life but will only net him $4 an hour?

These thoughts are rare in America, but they’re all journalist Gabriel Thompson can think about these days.  In Working in the Shadows (Nation Books), Thompson channels the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic Nickel & Dimed, going undercover in three low-wage, high-pain, under-the-radar jobs to shed light on industries populated by immigrants and the working poor.  Beginning in the lettuce fields of Arizona, moving to a chicken processing plant in Alabama, and ending in a flower shop and delivering food by bicycle in New York City, he brings to light the toil behind staples of American life.

While working in New York City, Thompson quotes Studs Terkel, saying, “To write about work is to write about violence-violence to the body and to violence to the spirit.”  That violence saturates Thompson’s narrative.  In Arizona, before beginning lettuce cutting, a co-worker tells him, “You never know if your body can take it or not until you try.” The statement foreshadows what is to come: Thompson’s jobs push his body to its limit on a daily basis.  He enters a workforce where abuse of laborers’ bodies is the norm; where fellow chicken plant workers need hand surgeries after a year on the job, and the average farm worker doesn’t live past 49. In the lettuce fields, he is puzzled when a slightly grouchy packager vomits in the morning and does not return to work the next day; he discovers she was toiling through eight months of a pregnancy. The violence done to these workers’ bodies is disturbing.

Thompson’s work in the Alabama chicken plant embodies such violence, and is the book’s best section.  Few think of slaughtering animals and packaging their carcasses as glamorous, but his account gives a taste of how incredibly punishing such work is.  At orientation, Thompson is advised to take ibuprofen every four hours.  (Painkillers are sold along with candy and soda in the plant’s vending machines.)  He dumps tub after tub of frozen chicken breasts into a bin-over 2,000 pounds per hour-while icy bloody water cascades down his shredded protective gear onto his shoes.  His co-workers de-boning chicken make 18,000 cuts per shift.  He spends his weekends recovering from the walloping received during the week.  Simply completing his two months at the plant is itself an achievement: for Thompson and his co-workers, work is something to survive.

Processing chickens is physically brutal, but some of Working in the Shadows‘ most striking sections involve the second half of Terkel’s statement-violence to the spirit.  After explaining to a friend at the chicken plant that his father loves his job, the author writes, “Kyle got a dreamlike look, as if I was describing something exotic… ‘Huh.  I always wondered what that would be like, you know, to enjoy what you do.  Never did like what I was doing.  Don’t know nobody else who does, neither.'”  The off-hand statement is jarring: in Kyle’s world of working-poor whites like him, the idea of finding pleasure in his life’s main activity is completely foreign.

But Thompson’s picture of work and workers in the shadows is not about pity for poor, defenseless laborers at the mercy of heartless employers.  His immigrant and citizen co-workers come across unsentimentally as resilient, tenacious human beings whose often-miserable work has not eradicated their spirits.  In Russellville, Alabama, he meets Dagoberto, a Guatemalan immigrant and former chicken plant worker.  Inspired by a May Day 2006 immigrant rights demonstration he attends in a town 100 miles away, he organizes a march in his sleepy rural town the next day, and 500 mostly Latino immigrants parade defiantly through downtown-a previously unseen public display of immigrants’ presence that forever changes Russellville.  Despite being repeatedly pummeled at work and ignored in society, the workers Thompson encounters are irrepressible.

In a country where debates on immigration and social welfare programs rarely include intimate details of the lives and work of immigrants and the working poor, and media depictions shift between ignoring or patronizing them, Gabriel Thompson issues a challenge-and a long overdue corrective.  His book brings these lives out of the shadows and into plain view.

Micah Williams has written for In These Times, Dissident Voice, the Indypendent, Z Magazine, and  He lives in Chicago.