Today's Other America

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do by Gabriel Thompson, Nation Books, 298 pages, $24.95

American Dream Dying: The Changing Economic Lot of the Least Advantaged by Peter D. McClelland and Peter H. Tobin Rowman & Littlefield, 127 pages, $32.95

Weeks into a year-long project working the dirty, exhausting, repetitive jobs disproportionately done by undocumented immigrants, Brooklyn-based writer and activist Gabriel Thompson comes to a realization. "It's simply not possible," he writes in his new book Working in the Shadows, "to do this work for decades and not suffer noticeable body modifications, such as a permanently hunched back, crooked fingers, and hands so swollen that they look as if someone has attached a valve to a finger and pumped vigorously."

In the shadows, Thompson picks up work alongside Mexican laborers in the winter lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona, earning $8.37 per hour to pick, trim, and package thousands of lettuce heads per day. He and the other laborers, bent double for hours at a time, become almost one with the huge machinery that follows them to carry and sort the boxed lettuce heads. The laborers become cogs in the machine, their physical actions repeated dozens of times a minute, as predictable as those of a mechanical part.

Thompson works the overnight shift for two months in a poultry-processing plant in rural Alabama -- staffed not only by immigrants but also by many hundreds of white and African American workers for whom a minimum-wage job tearing apart dead chickens is about the only work in town. And, to round out his project, he returns to New York for an insanely low-paying jack-of-all-trades job in a Chelsea flower shop followed by employment as a minimum-wage bicycle delivery boy for a hip downtown Mexican restaurant.

The book documents a Metropolis world where modern proletarians are brutalized by their workplace conditions. "I'm beginning to appreciate the sheer willpower it takes to complete this type of job day after day," Thompson writes about the chicken plant. "In a single shift I could be asked to tear through more than 7,000 chicken breasts or lift, carry, and dump more than thirty tons of meat."

At times, there's an absurdism to the scenes -- think Lucille Ball trying to keep up with the conveyor belt at the candy factory, or Charlie Chaplin battling with the machinery of a dehumanizing industrialism in Modern Times. Thompson chronicles a supervisor at a chicken--processing plant goading a worker, in pigeon--Spanish, to go ever-faster -- Andale! Andale! -- and clapping her hands like a gleeful child when he finishes with an entire tub of chicken parts. He describes, in painful detail, mixtures of chicken blood, fat, and water sloshing around the insides of his shoes. He details how managers urge their underpaid workers to join a church and find God and later writes with bemusement of these same conservative, Southern workers voting down an attempt to unionize their plant and improve working conditions. And he documents the group aerobic exercises done by lettuce workers before their days begin so that they can chop more lettuce heads for longer hours without keeling over in agony, as well as the advice given to poultry-plant workers to gobble ibuprofen preemptively several times a day to ward off pains associated with high-speed repetitive cutting and tearing movements.

Thompson, a vegetarian, goes out of his way to make visual the mechanical killing process inside the poultry plant. "One way to envision what happens in evisceration (or 'Evis' as it is called at the plant) is to read through the job titles, which range from neck breaker and oil sack cutter to giblet harvester and lung vacuumer," he writes. "Workers stand one next to the other as the birds fly past, each doing their part until, by the end of the line, the result is a disemboweled carcass that moves on to re-hang."

The lettuce and poultry work has a gonzo edge to it -- the sort of undertaking Gabriel's namesake, Hunter S. Thompson, might have ventured into in his younger days or hallucinated in his later period. It's an underbelly excursion that invites comparisons with Barbara Ehrenreich, with Joe Bageant, author of the 2007 book Deer Hunting with Jesus, or with early 20th-century muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair.

In the final part of the book, the writing loses steam somewhat as the stories become less a broad commentary on unendurable-yet-endured working conditions and more a series of anecdotes about New York life. But by then Thompson has largely achieved his purpose: Read this book and you'll realize the sheer absurdity of the claim, leveled by anti-immigrant voices such as Lou Dobbs, that undocumented workers come to the United States mainly to slurp at the public trough.

Thompson talks with, and quotes, many of his colleagues, some of whom are furious at their working conditions, others of whom view their jobs, however implausibly, as stepping stones to better times, all of whom find some way to laugh through the hard times and take joy from the little things in life. For Thompson, it is his colleagues' ability to see the glass half-full rather than perennially half-empty, their ability to experience camaraderie amid the hardship, that ultimately provides an element of salvation to their story.

the great danger in the increasing prevalence of low-wage, dead-end employment, according to Peter McClelland and Peter Tobin, is that impoverished workers and their families will abandon that glass-half-full approach to life and ultimately give up any faith they may have had in the American dream. American Dream Dying is a scholarly investigation, complete with a huge array of charts and graphs, showing the increasingly harsh economic conditions experienced daily by the sorts of workers Thompson met on his journey. McClelland is a Cornell University economist, Tobin a Yale engineering Ph.D. student, and their book isn't easy reading. It's deliberately void of anecdotes and heavy on economic data, seeking to prove a thesis -- the vulnerability of the American dream in the face of brutal economic truths -- through cold reason and logic rather than emotion.

Yet, scratch at the surface of the myriad economic diagrams, and the picture that emerges is far from dry. In essence, McClelland and Tobin's argument runs as follows: For Americans stuck on the bottom fifth or so of rungs on the economic ladder, opportunity is declining, social mobility is on the demise, real wages have either stagnated or fallen over the past 30 years, and economic security has all but vanished as access has dwindled to affordable health care, quality education at reasonable prices for their children, and predictable pensions.

By 2004, the authors note, 27 percent of borrowers in the bottom quintile of the economy were spending more than 40 percent of their income on debt payments. In the wake of the country's financial crisis, that number has likely increased. McClelland and Tobin argue, with an abundance of caution, that data such as these put the very concept of a vibrant American dream in jeopardy. Less scrupulously analytical observers might well go one step further: Such figures, along with the working conditions documented by Gabriel Thompson, point to the creation of new indentured classes in America -- people working to pay debts (to banks, to credit-card and payday-loan companies, to human smugglers, to employment-placement agencies) rather than to advance their family's well-being. For these individuals, the American dream is little more than a cruel joke at this point, a set of unreachable aspirations that serve mainly to pacify rather than empower those with the worst economic lot in life.

As America's economy gradually recovers from the implosion of the past several years, both of these books should make it onto the required reading lists of the country's economic and anti-poverty policy-makers. Together, they provide an updated, and arguably bleaker, version of realities chronicled nearly a half-century ago by Michael Harrington in The Other America.

A recovery that doesn't address the country's growing inequalities by tackling health-care access, raising the minimum wage, and making it easier for workers to unionize risks being a recovery in name only. If the stock market booms, but the jobs that are created are low-wage, insecure, and without benefits -- if the gross domestic product grows but the result is an ever greater concentration of wealth at the top -- America may look more like India or Brazil, say, than the countries of Western Europe or Canada. It risks becoming a country with a vibrant dream for those at the top and a growing, immobile, and ever angrier underclass steeped in Depression realities at the bottom. It risks, in short, becoming Metropolis, a place where the social classes no longer share common experiences or contact or a common sense of culture, of possibility, of country.

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