WORKING IN THE SHADOWS by Gabriel Thompson


A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do
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A Brooklyn-based journalist spends a year undercover in America’s low-wage immigrant workforce.

Thompson (Calling All Radicals: How Grassroots Organizers Can Save Our Democracy, 2007, etc.), who has reported on immigrants in the past, decided to find out what it was like to work in their jobs, which tend to be the “most strenuous, dangerous and worst paid.” He embarks on a series of jobs that proved to be consistently boring and often punishing, exhausting and unsafe. In Yuma, Ariz., he joined a 31-person crew that harvests 30,000 heads of lettuce daily for Dole. Stooped over in the heat, wielding an 18-inch knife for $8.37 per hour alongside Mexican guest workers, he returned to his apartment each night dirty and exhausted with badly swollen feet. Fellow workers were astonished to find him at their side: “The white guy can work!” one said. After two months, Thompson moved to Russellville, Ala., where he landed a job in a nonunion Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant that processes a quarter-million chickens per day. Working the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift, he spent every minute on his feet breaking chicken breasts and performing other repetitive duties in the frigid, noisy block-long plant. He fought to stay awake in the tedium and popped painkillers to relieve the throbbing in his hands. His co-workers—evenly divided among whites, blacks and Latinos—often moved back and forth between dead-end jobs at the plant and Wal-Mart. Fired when his cover was blown, the author returned to New York and worked briefly at below minimum wage for a verbally abusive boss in the flower district, then became a delivery man and kitchen worker for an upscale Mexican restaurant. At each workplace, Thompson attempted with varying degrees of success to get to know his immigrant co-workers, but the sketches he offers are not especially revealing. He gives a good sense of what the jobs are like—almost entirely stultifying—but as a writer he fails to hold the interest of readers.

Wearisome confirmation of what (most) Americans already know.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56858-408-9
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Nation Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2009


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