Of all the tough jobs that Gabriel Thompson did while he was researching his book on immigrant labor, the toughest was not the most physically demanding. Picking lettuce and cutting up chickens were exhausting and dull, but not nearly as discouraging as the verbal abuse and disrespectful treatment he faced while he hauled plants at a wholesale flower business.
Luckily for him, it didn’t last long: He was fired for smiling too much. His good cheer unnerved his supervisors. Such are the indignities of low-wage work in the United States.
In Working in the Shadows, Thompson, a labor union researcher and freelance journalist, shows us what it’s really like to be an undocumented immigrant worker, employed in jobs that most Americans can’t or won’t do.
To that end, he spent two months each working undercover in the farm fields of Yuma, Arizona, a poultry plant in Russellville, Alabama, and the delivery trade in New York City. In every case, prospective employers were baffled that any non-Latino would want such awful work. He wouldn’t last long, they told him—and indeed, he struggled, even though he’s young, healthy and motivated. Although his sympathies clearly lie with the workers, Thompson recounts his experiences dispassionately, fairly and with considerable wry humor about his own failings. He never did become much of a lettuce picker.
Thompson found wage and safety rule violations, aggressive anti-union campaigns and lackadaisical government oversight. But he also encountered some decent companies and a majority of workers who regard employment in the U.S., however life-shortening and underpaid, as a vast improvement over Latin America.
In every job, he was treated with consideration by fellow workers, Latino immigrants and native-born Americans, in what he calls “a strong ethos of cooperation.” Even American workers at the poultry plant (there were none at the other workplaces) who complained in the abstract about illegal immigrants got along well with Latinos on a personal level. Thompson’s experiences were heartening about human nature, if not about what he sees as employer exploitation.
Thompson believes the solution isn’t any intellectual mystery, just immigration reform and labor organizing. He acknowledges that those goals will be hard to accomplish—but perhaps not nearly as hard as years killing chickens on the overnight shift.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.