The unknown underside of affluence

By Gabriel Thompson
Published by Nation Books, $24.95

What does it mean to work in the unknown America where millions toil under the shadow of prosperity? Journalist Gabriel Thompson found out during a year of working alongside the invisible poor -- American citizens and immigrants who endure backbreaking work, low wages and nonexistent benefits. He worked for a few months each in the lettuce fields of Arizona, in a poultry processing plant in Alabama, and in the kitchen of a large New York City restaurant, all jobs that are typically done by either immigrants or America’s rural poor.

His book casts light on the work done by a hidden workforce, filling in the details of a backstory, one in which we all play a role but usually at the very end as a participant in a transaction that is stripped of context. When Thompson sees a head of iceberg lettuce in a supermarket, he “remembers sweat and dirt and throbbing backs.” When he watches a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial full of smiling customers, “I think of missing teeth, carpal tunnel syndrome and sleep deprivation.” In an upscale restaurant his thoughts turn to the busy, stressful kitchen and he leaves big tips.

The work they do can be unbelievably punishing -- “I’ve never faced a greater physical challenge than surviving my eight weeks in the lettuce fields.” They face frequent abuse from management.

After a day trying to keep up with the lettuce harvesters outside Yuma, Ariz., he collapses into bed exhausted every night, nursing sore feet and aching arms, all for $8.25 an hour. “Cutting lettuce,” he writes, “confirmed in my mind that much of what we call ‘low-skilled labor’ is in fact quite difficult.”

At the poultry plant, he learns that many of the jobs are designed so that a person off the street, with brief instruction, can do them correctly the very first time. “I’m sure this is considered a ‘breakthrough’ by the managerial class, but all it does is leave me bored within 15 minutes.”

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Working at a Pilgrim’s Pride processing plant in Russellville, Ala., he’s introduced to America’s current primary means of rural economic development -- meat plants that process the chicken strips and pork or beef parts that supply the fast-food industry.

“For people who have never worked at a fast-paced, low-skilled factory job, it is difficult to communicate through words the weight of the endeavor. The usual adjectives -- monotonous or boring or endless -- point in the general direction but are much too mild.”

The author tells Kyle, one of his coworkers in the chicken plant who bounces back and forth between his town’s two dead-end jobs (the other is at Wal-Mart), about his father’s nonprofit organization working to improve youth sports.

“ ‘You know, that sounds interesting,’ Kyle said. ‘Does he like it?’ ‘He loves it,’ I replied. Kyle got a dreamlike look, as if I was describing something exotic, like the contours of the planet Mars. ‘Huh, I always wondered what that would be like, you know, to enjoy what you do. Never did like what I was doing. Don’t know anybody else who does neither.’ ”

Much of the work at the plant is on the midnight shift. Most workers have kids and can’t afford day care so they end up quite sleep-deprived during the course of the week. Add this to the monotony, and the result is work that is exceedingly harmful.

It takes less than a month for his body to start breaking down under the strain of feeding America’s appetite for cheap chicken. The grinding, deadening work; the workplace diet of sodas and candy bars; the sleep deprivation; the frequent health emergencies; the complete lack of savings or benefits -- all add up. “Forget about poverty as something sad but sustainable; instead poverty must be recognized as ‘acute distress’ and ‘a state of emergency.’ ”

Thompson points out that the commonly heard statement that immigrants are taking jobs meant for Americans is a myth.

“In Russellville, the main source of jobs is the poultry plant. But no American laboring within the four walls of the plant felt that his or her job was in danger of being ‘stolen.’ The jobs at the plant come easy: I was hired within a week. It is surviving the difficult, dangerous work that is hard. People lose their jobs at the plant because they quit, not because an immigrant takes their position.”

One morning in Yuma he is approached by a middle-aged woman from one of the lettuce crews who asks him what he is really doing working there. “Learning to cut lettuce,” he told her. “ ‘Es bueno,’ she said. ‘But after you’re done, the next thing you must do is tell your friends what it’s like to do this work. More Americans should know.’ ”

Not all his memories of working a year in this secret economy that relies on worker exploitation, oppression and scare tactics were bad. He remembers the lettuce crews singing songs, sharing food, and stretching limbs as the sun rose; his coworkers on the poultry line shouting jokes over the din and covering for one another when taking forbidden bathroom breaks; the nonstop, lighthearted insults that were tossed around in the restaurant kitchen. “I never heard anyone utter those magic words, worker solidarity, but I saw it displayed countless times. … It’s now time for all of us, the beneficiaries of so much invisible labor, to demonstrate our own solidarity by taking steps to make the lives of low-wage workers -- undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike -- more stable and more safe.”

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

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