Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do

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"What is it like to do the back-breaking work of immigrants? To find out, Gabriel Thompson spent a year working alongside Latino immigrants who initially thought he was either crazy or an undercover immigration agent. He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona, and worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama. He dodged taxis - not always successfully - as a bicycle delivery "boy" for an upscale Manhattan restaurant, and was fired from a flower shop by a boss who, he quickly realized, was nuts." As one co-worker explained, "These jobs make you old quick." Back spasms occasionally kept Thompson in bed, where he suffered recurring nightmares involving iceberg lettuce and chicken carcasses. Combining personal narrative with investigative reporting, Thompson shines a bright light on the underside of the American economy, exposing harsh working conditions, union busting and lax government enforcement - while telling the stories of workers, undocumented immigrants and desperate U.S. citizens alike, forced to live with chronic back pain in the pursuit of a few dollars an hour.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Thompson (There’s No José Here) details working alongside undocumented workers in this stirring look at the bottom rung of America’s economic ladder. Thompson’s project feels initially like a gimmick; that this middle-class white American can go undercover in the lettuce fields of Arizona or the poultry plants of Alabama seems more stunt (or rehash of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) than sound journalism. But the warmth with which he describes his co-workers and the heartbreaking descriptions of the demanding, degrading, and low-paying jobs quickly pull the reader in. Gimmick or no, the author pushes his body and his patience to the limits, all the while deferring attention to the true heroes: his co-workers, whose dignity, perseverance, physical endurance, and manual skill are no less admirable for being born of sheer necessity. What emerges are not tales of downtrodden migrants but of clever hands and clever minds forced into repetitive and dangerous labor without legal protections. Thompson excels at putting a human face on individuals and situations alternately ignored and vilified. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Journalist Thompson (Calling All Radicals) writes much in accord with the image of him presented by the photographs that begin several of his chapters here. Garbed and accoutered for each of the jobs he undertook to research this volume—from picking lettuce in Yuma, AZ, to riding his bike as a flower shop and restaurant delivery man in New York City—he appears to be an affable young man, game to take on whatever comes next. His goal is to expose the harsh working conditions to which Latinos (and, he acknowledges, other poor Americans) are currently subjected, including "grinding, deadening work; the workplace diet of sodas and candy bars; the sleep deprivation; the frequent health emergencies; [and] the complete lack of savings." VERDICT However well intended, The Jungle this isn't. It's a mostly anecdotal and impressionistic account that will, however, be of interest to social scientists and public policymakers. Readers may come away hoping that "AgJobs," a bill currently being considered by Congress that seeks to relieve chronic farm labor shortages while protecting rights and opportunities for immigrant workers, is passed soon. [See also Dick Reavis's Catching Out, reviewed above.—Ed.]—Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
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 attemptedwith 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. Agent: Michael Bourret/Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568584089
  • Publisher: Nation Books
  • Publication date: 12/29/2009
  • Pages: 298
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Gabriel Thompson writes for New York magazine, The Nation, the Brooklyn Rail, and In These Times. The author of There’s No José Here, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Salad Days (January-March) Yuma, Arizona 1

Pt. 2 Speaking Quiche in the Heart of Dixie (June-August): Russellville, Alabama 97

Pt. 3 Flowers and Food (October-December): New York, New York 217

Conclusion 287

Notes 293

Acknowledgments 297

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 12, 2011

    Great buy

    Get this book. It helps you see things from a different point of view

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2012

    Excellent journalism

    I highly recommend this book it is an excellent true journey of what it is like today. This was an amazing eye-opener.

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  • Posted May 8, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A great resource for people interested in understanding immigration and the draw of jobs

    There's more than enough misinformation about immigrants and jobs. Thompson tells some compelling stories about what it's like to actually do the very labor intensive or repetitive task jobs (most) Americans don't want to do in some of the most basic industries in our country.

    I actually learned some new things, such as there's a Federal law regarding wages for agricultural workers that makes it very difficult for undocumented workers to have a negative effect on wages. For example, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) in Arizona is $2.46 --higher-- than the Arizona minimum wage.

    It's a fast read, too. I finished it in about six hours.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2010

    Love It!

    This book gave a brand new perspective on the challenges people face in their quest of the American Dream.

    Most immigrants are not terrorists, but mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons looking to provide for their families; looking for a chance to find happiness, no different than our Founding Fathers and Ancestors.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2010

    Putting Youself in Someone elses shoes

    Excellent book to show you what it is like to do these jobs. Best story is the lettuce picking in Yuma with the stories in NYC probably the weakest

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