Working in the Shadows: Undercover Writer Sheds Light on Immigrant Labor

Kari Lydersen

Gabriel Thompson at work in the lettuce fields of Yuma, Ariz.

They call them the jobs Americans won’t do”: picking lettuce, pulling apart frozen chickens, toiling in a hot kitchen and other grueling, dangerous, mind-numbing or otherwise highly undesirable jobs.

Most people know that for years immigrants — disproportionately Latino —have made up the bulk of these workforces. Since immigration crackdowns and increased border security post 9-11, employers have periodically reported worker shortages especially for farms and slaughterhouses.

After reading a New York Times article about an exodus of slaughterhouse workers following an immigration crackdown, journalist and SEIU researcher Gabriel Thompson decided to spend a year working in the shadows” – shoulder to shoulder with immigrants, doing the jobs most Americans like him notoriously won’t do.”

And he found out why.

Thompson’s experiences are chronicled in Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do, to be released in February 2010 by Nation Books.

Thompson is no stranger to labor and the lives of immigrant workers. (In 2006 he published There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants, also by Nation Books, and he has covered a variety of untold stories on his blog, Where the Silence Is.) But his year on the job was still eye-opening and back-breaking.

Within days of his first job in a Yuma lettuce field, Thompson could barely move his 30-year-old body and he found out he had a sweating problem,” in the words of his co-workers who were always friendly and supportive — if constantly baffled by his presence. Undercover, Thompson made up excuses for why a white man would take these jobs. The fact that he constantly had to answer the question Why are you here?” shows just how institutionalized the segregation of our immigrant workforce is.

Union leaders and policy makers often say or imply that if the jobs now filled by immigrants paid more, Americans would flock back to them, unemployment would be eased and immigrants would not be needed to fill out the workforce.

Thompson’s experience shows that it is not so simple. While in past days Americans” did grueling manual labor jobs on farms and in factories, expectations and life experiences have changed enough that even most unemployed and destitute Americans” are not necessarily willing or able to take the kinds of jobs immigrants are doing, even if the pay is decent.

Thompson notes a farm owner quoted in the Arizona Republic saying that even if lettuce-picking jobs paid $40 an hour, Americans would do it about three hours and say That’s not for me.’”

When the infamous meatpacker Smithfield moved to hire more U.S. citizens, even $12 an hour wages significantly above the regional norm failed to attract and retain workers. Likewise, after the large immigration raid in Postville, Iowa in May 2008, there was high turnover of American workers who came to Iowa for jobs but soon decided it was not for them.

(Of course these are generalizations – there are some white, African-American or other American” workers who spend years or decades working in these jobs.)

Even as a young healthy guy with a supply of painkillers and a mission in mind, it is a struggle for Thompson to make it through the year. And he knows his hard labor sentence will end, whereas his co-workers are likely still doing those jobs today, rarely taking time off even when suffering injuries or, in the case of one lettuce-picking co-worker, eight months pregnant.

Meanwhile, despite his obviously sub-par performance in the industries he delves into, Thompson is often in the bizarre situation of fighting against being promoted simply based on his skin color. Supervisors are baffled that he doesn’t want more responsibility,” and more money, which they assume he is entitled to because of his race.

Thompson cites his admiration for immersion journalists,” including Barbara Ehrenreich and George Orwell. And he makes clear that he was just trying to physically survive the work – a big enough challenge – not also struggling to feed and raise a family on paltry wages like his co-workers would be.

Thompson’s book reads like a journal or an intelligent, empathetic conversation, and effortlessly weaves together various themes and accomplishes multiple goals. Along with showing the difficulties of this work, it also brings the workers and the work they do out of the shadows.” He highlights interesting daily realities and observations of this work — who knew lettuce workers begin the day with group calisthenics, or that frozen chicken breasts look like babies’ behinds, at least after you’ve seen thousands of them flying by each day.

Thompson also reminds us that as hard as these jobs are, immigrant workers maintain their humanity and sense of humor. They are not turned into a grim army of stoic automatons as some well-meaning but shallow media depictions might lead one to believe.

Ultimately the idea that most Americans” won’t do these jobs even if the pay is better leads to the conclusion that these industries as currently structured aren’t sustainable or healthy any many levels – not only for the worker but the consumer, the environment and the economy as a whole.

When it is physically impossible to halve all the frozen chickens flying by, and a supervisor turns a deaf ear to his pleas for help, Thompson learns it is commonplace to let the birds be packaged without being halved as advertised (or so he assumes). And of course countless stories have come to light of E. coli on produce, unhealthy conditions in restaurants and other results of break-neck, mass-scale production, not to mention all the untold stories that would surely make consumers gag.

Thompson concludes by saying that there are no easy solutions, but that organizing and solidarity on many fronts is necessary — the goal being to increase unionization, reform labor and immigration law and generally institutionalize and bolster worker solidarity. All this will eventually lead to a new labor paradigm, Thompson believes. As tough as it was, his year on the job gives him hope.

I never heard anyone utter those magic words, worker solidarity,” he writes, continuing:

But I saw it displayed countless times, and more often than not I was the beneficiary. It’s now time for all of us, the beneficiaries of so much invisible labor, to demonstrate our own solidarity by taking steps to make the lives of low-wage workers – undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike – more stable and more safe.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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