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Activist Crisscrosses U.S. Doing 'Jobs Most Americans Won't Do'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in our weekly Moms conversation, we talk about the sensitive issue of adopting children from Haiti in the aftermath of that devastating earthquake. That is later.

But first, back here in the U.S., we want to talk about jobs. In President Obama's proposed budget for next year, some $100 billion are slated for job creation to reduce the 10 percent unemployment rate. But those figures got us thinking about the jobs that are always available - like harvesting produce and processing chicken parts. Those are not the jobs most people take for a summer.

On the other hand, there's a long tradition of writers going and living for a time completely different lives than their own so they can write about it, like John Griffith. He darkened his skin and traveled through the segregated South to write "Black Like Me." And more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich described life as a waitress, cleaning lady and nursing home aide in "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."

Following in that tradition, Gabriel Thompson is a journalist and labor activist who spent a year working a handful of jobs that he says most Americans will not do. And he's written a book about it called "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do." And he's with us now in our New York bureau. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. GABRIEL THOMPSON (Author, "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do"): It's great to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Among other jobs, you picked lettuce, and it turns out picked is not quite the right term. And I'm sure you'll tell us more about that. You processed chicken parts on the graveyard shift, worked at a flower shop, made deliveries for an upscale restaurant. Now you make it clear what you were not trying to do. You weren't doing a story about the economy, like Ehrenreich. You weren't trying to pass yourself as Latino, although you do speak Spanish. So what were you trying to do?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know what I really wanted to do is explore what it was like to do these types of jobs, that I think most Americans have very little idea. You know, some Americans might have more experience doing retail or working at Wal-Mart or waitressing. But when you look at a lot of the jobs that we depend on, you know, the jobs that feed us - cutting lettuce, meat packing, all this work - we're very disconnected from it.

And so I thought what a great project to just go in and do these jobs, not only to have a great access to be able to write about this, because a chicken plant - you know, there's a reason why chicken plants don't have windows. They're not going to welcome me in as a journalist. So there's an access thing. And also, what a great way to get to know my coworkers - not in a context of asking them formal questions in a sit-down interview, but really getting to know them as we're working together.

MARTIN: You know this kind of project often inspires two conflicting responses, sometimes in the same person. One is, oh, that's cool. And the other is: Why do we need you to tell us about this when there are plenty of people who do this all day long who presumably could speak for themselves? So how do you respond to both of those?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I've got both of those, you know. I mean, part of it, for me, is that's cool. That was my initial reaction when I had this idea, is what a fun sort of adventure - fun and also, you know, nasty and gross and challenging. I mean, also, it's fraught with sort of possibilities of overstepping your - what you're doing, and I try to make this clear upfront.

There's a huge difference between me and the low-wage, mostly undocumented workers I'm working with. And I'm not telling you what it's like to be an undocumented immigrant. I'm trying to give readers an idea of what it's like to do these jobs and introduce them to a whole host of characters that they otherwise wouldn't know about.

MARTIN: Is part of it that the work itself is intrinsically interesting to you? Is part of it that you feel that the physical work is not appreciated for its own value? It's somehow just not respected anymore, as more and more people have gotten away from physical work?

Mr. THOMPSON: It's partly that, and I think it's partly just it's so easy to say, oh, yeah, immigrants do hard work, and then to they go on and demonize them, because it's just sort of this passing comment. Yeah, they do hard work, and it's - there's not much reflection or acknowledgment of the ways in which their hard work benefits all sorts of people that have, you know, had callus-free hands since the day they were born. So part of it is that, and part of it is just that I think some of the most interesting stories and interesting lives are the lives and stories that you're not going to see on TV shows or in a lot of books.

And so I sort of - I've written about immigrants before, and this seemed like a great way to delve into very complicated lives and very complicated workplaces. I went into it thinking, you know, I knew - no job is unskilled, but I went into it not knowing how complicated every workplace is. And I - it's stupid that I was so ignorant, thinking about even when I used to work in an office. Anyone that works in an office can tell you how complicated office dynamics are and all the different characters. So, I think those were some of my motivations.

MARTIN: In fact, that - your opening chapter about your time in the lettuce fields makes clear how what seems simple from the outside - like you're driving on the road and you see people in the fields and you think, oh, yeah. Well, okay. That's what - I get that. When you get up close to it, it's much more complicated. It requires much more skill than one might think from the outside. But I'm wondering if the people you worked with also had that desire to have the beauty of their work to be appreciated.

And you write: I see them, my crew members, knives in hands, wiping sweat off their brows, taking a break as they hover over our plates and bowls to proudly whisper, enjoy. I cut that, you know.

And the reason I say I cut that, you know, is that one of the things that we learn is one does not pick lettuce. You cut it, which is close to the ground, and that's not that easy to do. But did you feel that - a sense from your -from the people you worked with that they would like their work to be more appreciative for its own sake?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I tell their story towards the end of my two months cutting lettuce where a woman, you know, there's frost on the lettuce. So we had to wait. It's early in the morning. We had to wait for the sun to come and defrost the lettuce before we start cutting. And she walks around selling little candies to the workers while we're waiting. And she asked me what I was doing there, and I just gave a very bland answer, that I - learning how to cut lettuce. And she said, you know, that's great, but you should go back and tell all your friends just what it's like to do this work.

People didn't know I was writing a book, but they knew I was a sort of connection to this general - for them, like, you know, the one white guy who speaks English they know, to the broader American world. And they would tell me often, you should go tell your paisanos, your fellow white people what it's like to do this work. So there was a real sense of pride, and it wasn't just the pride that they're tough enough to do the work, because the work - you know, I will go to my grave having one of my proudest physical accomplishments being sort of having two months in the lettuce fields. But it is unbelievably skilled work. If after two months, I was - I would say I was a novice after two months.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Gabriel Thompson about his new book, "Working in the Shadows." It documents his year working in some of the toughest jobs that he says most Americans won't do.

I want to read a quote from you, where you talk about a particularly hard day in the lettuce fields. And we won't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...go into why - some of your own bone-headed maneuvers that led to it being such a hard day. But you said my feet are still wet, my left hand is bloodied and swollen, but the sky above is turning brilliant shades of pink and purple. A cool breeze is blowing at my back, and I've got 12 hours to recuperate. I've survived the hardest day thus far in the fields, the hardest work day of my life, but I have a new bag(ph) to show for it, and driving home admiring the gashes on my hand as it rests on the steering wheel, I feel oddly triumphant. Why triumphant?

Mr. THOMPSON: There is definitely something sort of satisfying - and I think after a while, it would have become less satisfying, but for me it was new - of just being exhausted at the end of a night and having these challenges that were much greater than any challenges I had faced before and sticking - you know, I wasn't a great lettuce cutter, but I didn't give up. And so there is a real sense of accomplishment. And, you know, and what feeds into that as well is a recognition that this work is really important, very challenging work. You know, I went to college. There's no way anything I did in college was close to this difficult.

MARTIN: So what was your worst job?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, lettuce was the physically most difficult. Chicken was mentally sort of the hardest to get through. But I would say the worst job that I couldn't imagine going back to was actually in the flower district at a flower shop...

MARTIN: How come?

Mr. THOMPSON: ...in Manhattan. Well, what I found is that in the other jobs with these big, multinational corporations, the work was punishing, but the managers sort of acted as technocrats. So they just made sure you did it and, you know, they weren't going to yell at you or anything. They were just going to if you didn't keep up, you'd be fired. In the flower shop, I was excited. It was kind of like a mom-and-pop operation in Manhattan's flower district, which is a cool sort of anachronistic area where you have all these wholesale flower dealers and an largely immigrant workforce. And I thought, well, how fun. Now it's going to be, you know, more small-scale.

What I discovered was that the flower shop was run by two owners who, from the very moment you walk in, start yelling at you. And most of the workers are immigrants. You're not given anything. No overtime. I was paid less than the minimum wage, no food breaks and this very psychologically unhealthy work environment. It's a lot of work to be insulted, I learned, and not say anything back - you know, not even like something passive-aggressive. You just sort of nod...

MARTIN: Well, why was it that way? I mean, you're saying the work at the poultry plant was deadening, and in part that was because - what? You couldn't talk as much. Like in the lettuce fields, for example, it was physically tiring, but there was some camaraderie. And what was it at the poultry plant? You're saying it was kind of emotionally or mentally debilitating - why? Because - what? You were indoors all the time? It was so boring, and - what?

Mr. THOMPSON: So, imagine that it's 40 degrees in there. So it's cold. And your job is to stand in one place and do one motion over and over again. And since it's loud, you have earplugs in in the plant. So you can't talk to anyone. So one of my jobs is you're standing in one place, and you're doing this for eight hours a day - or night, because I worked the graveyard shift. And chicken breasts come by, they're whole, and you tear them in half with your hands. I would tear apart, you know, seven, 8,000 chicken breasts.

So what happens, you're standing there not moving, you're freezing. You can't talk to anyone, and all you're doing is looking down your hands and you tear chicken breast after chicken breast. The way I looked at it is, you know, humans have this incredibly evolved brain that likes challenges. And to sit -put humans into that sort of position is just it's an awful job. There's no, no real other way to...

MARTIN: It's just awful, sort of soul deadening in a way that you didn't expect. And not because people are being mean to you. But it's just the work itself is so boring.

Mr. THOMPSON: And it's not, it's not on human scale. I mean, some of those jobs where you're cutting chickens, they could make 18,000 cuts, one person, in a single shift. That's not the kind of work that you can do without having serious problems with your hands and wrists, and I met people with multiple surgeries. You know, you can't make those jobs better without really slowing them down.

MARTIN: So what do you want people to draw from this book? Because there is some advocacy involved here. So I think it's fair to ask exactly what would you like to see?

Mr. THOMPSON: I think one can draw from it two things. One, the immense value that immigrants give to this country in terms of all the benefits and services that we all use, but don't often reflect upon. And two, I think it points to the need for immigration reform. I think it points to the need to move these millions of workers who have done so much for the country, to move them en masse out of the shadow.

MARTIN: Gabriel Thompson, author of "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do." The book is just out. You can listen to him reading an excerpt from the book by going to our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on Programs, and then on TELL ME MORE. Gabriel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, thank you, it has been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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