They are an anomaly, to most: men (they’re usually men) driving beat-up pickup trucks with beds extended upwards by particle board to better facilitate the heaping of junk, slowly cruising alleyways and curbs with eyes flitting about, scanning for anything made out of metal.
They stop in one place, either toss discarded items in the back or decide they’re nothing of value, then start cruising again. They are scrappers, so named because they make their living collecting scrap metal and selling it.
A new documentary, Scrappers, by filmmakers Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak, and Courtney Prokopas and scored by Frank Rosaly, follows the lives of two such scrappers—junkeros, in Spanglish — in Chicago: Oscar, a serious-looking, middle-aged undocumented Honduran immigrant, and Otis, a 73 year-old far-from-retired African-American man.
Their trade has seen a minor uptick in fame these days (see the reality television show by the same name on Spike TV.) But the documentary Scrappers goes beyond the novelty of the profession to tackle tough questions of race, work, public and private housing, and immigration. The film is a moving portrait of the precariousness of life and work at the bottom of the American economy in one of the country’s wealthiest cities.
Scrappers is thoroughly Chicagoan, with almost every scene reflecting the city’s unique physical geography of long alleys, harsh seasons and vast inequality. But Oscar’s and Otis’s are stories for a whole country mired in the Great Recession.
The two men perform backbreaking work for hours that begin long before nine and end long after five. Both tick off a long list of jobs they have held during their lives, but cruising alleys for steel and aluminum scraps to toss in the back of their trucks is the best the two men can do. “No hay trabajo,” Oscar says matter-of-factly early in the film — “there isn’t any work.”
The film begins following the men in 2007, when the money they can fetch for a truck full of metal is usually enough to pay the rent, depending on their luck in the alleys. But when the economy tanks in 2008, the price of metals tanks with it. After the crash, Otis sits back in his couch appearing stunned, as if he had just been hit upside the head with a steel scrap from the back of his truck. “The money done went down like this: from $230 to $60 a ton.” He repeats himself: “From $230 to $60 a ton,” blinking as if he is trying to snap out of a daze. Oscar receives his check from an entire week’s worth of work and holds it up to the camera: $32.
The filmmakers interview Michael, the owner of a local scrap yard. After explaining that prices have fallen so low that the small scrappers like Oscar and Otis no longer find it economically feasible to scrap, he says, “He [the scrapper] is gone. He doesn’t exist anymore.” He quickly corrects himself, saying, “Well, he exists in a real sense, but he doesn’t exist in the economic sense.”
It’s a telling slip, revealing how the average scrapper with a pickup truck, working 50 hours a week hauling multiple tons of metals, is now seen. Through no fault of the scrapper, the bottom dropped out of the market; now, his existence is no longer of use.
These difficulties provide tragically moving scenes throughout the film. In the wake of the crash, as scrappers scramble to find new work that can pay the bills, Luisa and Oscar sit on their couch, reflecting on their lives in the U.S.. They left Honduras with high expectations for life here, only to find themselves uncertain about their ability to feed and house themselves.
“If I knew what things would be like up here, I wouldn’t have come,” says Oscar with a blank stare as their son stares at a television commercial for a grocery store. “You wouldn’t have met me, my love!” Luisa exclaims. Looking away, lost in thoughts of his home country, he repeats tiredly but without hesitation, “I wouldn’t have come here.”
Despite her and Otis’ sometimes dire circumstances, Loretta somehow remains optimistic throughout. “Treat people good and good things will always happen to you,” she lectures to her eight-year-old son.
But the lives of the scrappers and their loved ones prove her altruism wrong. Otis, Loretta, Oscar, and Luisa all put their heads down and work: at scrapping, at finding decent housing, at raising a family. But an economic crisis they played no part in creating decimates their already meager income, though the amount of work they put in is the same. A global free market system thoroughly obsessed with profits forces Oscar and Luisa to make the dangerous trek thousands of miles north with no documents, living in fear of deportation for simple infractions like a parking ticket; a public-housing system with no regard for the safety or comfort of residents — not the physically demanding work of scrapping — almost kills Otis when he slips on water from a leaky roof shortly before the family is forced to move in the wake of a bedbug infestation.
Then, a foreclosure likely precipitated by predatory lending practices displaces them again.
Still, there Loretta stands, fixing dinner for her husband and child in the kitchen of her new apartment — the third of the film’s duration. “God is good,” she proclaims with certainty, without resentment for the life God has given her. “I have no doubt that God will take care of us.”
At its core, Scrappers is a story of workers working — without health insurance, without safety regulations, without unions, without a minimum wage or overtime, without a guaranteed ability to make ends meet from month to month. In that sense, it is a story of the new economy, where the increasingly small population of the wealthy are nowhere to be found in day-to-day life — the only indication they exist is the large pile of garbage they left out back, and the growing number of those less fortunate are left to pick through it to see if any of the scraps can be converted to food on the table.
Micah Uetricht is the deputy editor of Jacobin magazine and host of its podcast The Vast Majority. He is a contributing editor and former associate editor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso 2014), coauthor of Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso 2020), and is currently at work on a book on New Leftists who “industrialized.” He previously worked as a labor organizer. Follow him on Twitter at @micahuetricht.