When Barbara Ehrenreich spent a year undercover working in minimum-wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, she was trying to make a political point about class, labor, and fair wages. Gabriel Thompson didn’t have a political agenda underpinning his year in crappy jobs. He just wanted to see if he could do it.
Specifically, Thompson wants to see if a young educated white guy from Brooklyn can hack it in jobs normally filled by immigrants. His first stop is Yuma, Arizona, where he convinces a skeptical foreman to give him a job picking lettuce.
He barely makes it through the day. Between the heat, the sweat, the hard labor, and the physical pain that comes from bending, twisting, and hoisting lettuces for hours on end, Thompson only just manages to get through his shift without collapsing. And yet, to the astonishment of the other lettuce-pickers, he drags himself back to work the next day, and the next, and the next, through the whole three months.
Remarkably, despite the chronic pain and severe working conditions, Thompson remains cheerful during his agricultural stint. (This same cheerfulness gets him fired from a flower shop later in the year, when he remains positive despite earning less than minimum wage and getting no lunch breaks; the shop owners prefer employees who are properly downtrodden). He remains sanguine in the face of blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racism while tearing apart chicken breasts in an Alabama poultry plant. He stoically accepts the condescending barbs of the New Yorkers to whom he delivers food by bike.
Thompson mostly focuses on describing his work and his fellow laborers, though you can’t help noticing the heavy themes underpinning the surface story. Thompson is a reporter, not a pedantic, but it’s impossible to ignore the issues of class, race, nationality, and immigration. His book will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in physically-demanding, low-paying jobs, and it will open the eyes of anyone who hasn’t.
Check the WRL catalog for Working in the Shadows