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Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do Hardcover – January 26, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
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From Booklist

In a yearlong investigation, journalist Thompson lived among and worked side by side with undocumented workers in the hardest, lowest-paying jobs offered by the U.S. economy. He went west to pick lettuce, south to work in a chicken-processing factory, and back home to New York to work in a restaurant kitchen. Along the way, he shared the low wages, backbreaking work, ill treatment, and camaraderie of people who work in the shadows. In Arizona, he recalls desperately trying to make the five-day rule: if you can survive the first five days as a farmworker, you will be fine, meaning you will get used to swollen hands and all-over aches and pains for $8 an hour. In Alabama, he finds the local white supremacists have updated their targets to Hispanic workers and documented workers beginning to challenge exploitive labor practices. In New York, he chronicles workers with so few prospects that they work multiple jobs with no benefits. This is great immersion journalism that debunks myths about immigrants taking American jobs and living off American largesse. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Nation Books (January 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1568584083
  • ISBN-13: 978-1568584089
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,032,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gabriel Thompson has contributed to New York, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, In These Times and others. He is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and a collective Sidney Hillman Award. His writings are collected at The author of Working in the Shadows, There's No José Here, and Calling All Radicals, he lives in Oakland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Guillermo Cruz on February 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover
First off full disclosure: I am a Mexican born 1986 Amnesty U.S. citizen.

Growing up in Los Angeles and the interest that was put on our education I could have easily fallen into one of these jobs. From the time I was 15 (I lied about my age) and went to work for a temp agency along side other Mexicans that were here illegal or legal and uneducated. They would send us to the worst jobs, for instance a dog food company that had all the same characteristics of the chicken plant the author described. The one difference was I threw up after each shift because the smell was so nauseating. It was actually this job that made me choose education over sweat.

Happy Chicken (this made me laugh) I applaud you for putting your money where your mouth is. Instead of just saying "Illegals" like the majority of America, you brought light that it is not just illegals that are being taken advantage of. It's every person citizen or non citizen that walks through the doors of these companies that care only about their shareholders. Please don't assume that I am anti Capitalism because I love profit as much as the next guy but not at the expense of workers, especially docking them for having to take their kids to the doctor or no sick days.

Read the book get a first hand insight to what really happens at these kinds of jobs.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Gentile on May 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This starts off as a very good book, and slowly loses its intensity. The first part of the book - the lettuce fields - was excellent. I would have liked to have learned more about the mechanisms of picking lettuce. But it was a good description despite that it focused a little too heavily on the physical pain one endures while picking. The book seemed to lose some focus during the story of the chicken plant. It was still good, but I got the impression that the author was less interested in the chicken plant than the lettuce fields. The flower shop and restaurant stories seemed to be hurried and underdeveloped. It would have been better to expand and improve the chicken plant story and to dump the remainder of the book. And the conclusion did not seem at all related to the book. The conclusion added almost nothing to the book.

Despite was sounds like a negative criticism of the book, I did like it, and I will recommend it to friends and family.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In Working in the Shadows, Gabriel Thompson goes undercover to find out what conditions are really like for those at the lowest levels of the American workforce. It's not easy, for several reasons. One is that, as a gringo, he doesn't look like most of the other workers cutting lettuce in the fields. It's hard to be undercover when you don't exactly blend in. Aside from that, the work is hard, physically harder than anything Thompson has done before, and he's no slouch.

It's hard to improve on Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, but Thompson adds another dimension by investigating migrant labor, whereas the jobs Ehrenreich took were "above the table" jobs: waiting tables, clerking at Wal-Mart, being a rent-a-maid. Thompson worked in the fields, in a chicken processing plant, and behind the scenes at a restaurant.

As odd as it was for an Anglo to show up for a job in the fields, no one bothered him much about why he was there. They assumed he couldn't get a job legitimately, perhaps because he was a criminal or an alcoholic. Mainly, the other workers minded their own business and didn't ask him questions. They did offer to share their food with him though, when they saw he brought only a few power bars with him for a long day's work.

Thompson intended to take notes surreptitiously through the day and after work, but found that he was just too tired and sore after work. He couldn't imagine how the others kept at it for months, let alone years, and managed to raise families and have any kind of life at all. But they did.

The book starts with Thompson working in the lettuce fields in Yuma, then he moves on to a chicken processing plant in small town Alabama.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Becky Coffield on April 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Working in the Shadows, by Gabriel Thompson, is a riveting read. The author's fascinating account of working for a year "doing the jobs (most) Americans won't do," is both dismaying and educational. Just reading his account of the three positions he worked can leave one feeling exhausted and demoralized.

Being an Arizonan, I found the time Thompson spent in the lettuce fields the most interesting. Lettuce harvesting, it turns out, is back-breaking, grueling work which Anglos don't seem to be particularly well suited for. No one is, in fact, yet Mexican workers often spend years laboring in the fields, resulting in short life spans. Of all the employers Thompson worked for, however, Dole seemed to be the most "up and up" ethically, although they could have slowed that darn lettuce machine down. Workers were united, however, in friendship and showed compassion for each other, often donating money for someone's funeral expenses, etc.

By far the worst job Thompson had, in my opinion anyway, was working in the chicken slaughter factory. This particular job employed generally equal numbers of blacks, whites, and immigrants - many from Guatemala. The working conditions were horrific with little opportunity to ever advance in pay. The monotonously repetitive jobs often resulted in permanent disabilities from overuse of hands, wrists, joints, etc., and an overall oppressive work environment defeated most employees. Thompson was fired from this job when his employer discovered he was a journalist.

Finally, working as a delivery person in the restaurant industry in New York was the last of the poorly paid, underappreciated, difficult jobs that the author took on. Anyone, however, who has worked in the restaurant industry at all knows the difficulties of these jobs.
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