Working in the Shadows

A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do


By Gabriel Thompson

Formats and Prices




$13.99 CAD



  1. ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $15.99 $18.50 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 12, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

What is it like to do the back-breaking work of immigrants? To find out, Gabriel Thompson spent a year working alongside Latino immigrants, who initially thought he was either crazy or an undercover immigration agent. He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona, and worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama. He dodged taxis — not always successfully — as a bicycle delivery “boy” for an upscale Manhattan restaurant, and was fired from a flower shop by a boss who, he quickly realized, was nuts.

As one coworker explained, “These jobs make you old quick.” Back spasms occasionally keep Thompson in bed, where he suffers recurring nightmares involving iceberg lettuce and chicken carcasses. Combining personal narrative with investigative reporting, Thompson shines a bright light on the underside of the American economy, exposing harsh working conditions, union busting, and lax government enforcement — while telling the stories of workers, undocumented immigrants, and desperate US citizens alike, forced to live with chronic pain in the pursuit of 8 an hour.


"The lettuce and poultry work has a gonzo edge to it—the sort of undertaking Gabriel's namesake, Hunter S. Thompson, might have ventured into in his younger days or hallucinated in his later period. It's an underbelly excursion that invites comparisons with Barbara Ehrenreich, with Joe Bageant, author of the 2007 book Deer Hunting with Jesus, or with early 20th-century muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair."
American Prospect
"[A] compelling case for reform."—Bloomberg News
"[Working in the Shadows] is packed with interesting information—Guatemalans are the new Mexicans in the immigrant pecking order; many workers in North Carolina who pick tobacco suffer from green tobacco sickness, an illness contracted as nicotine enters the skin—and [Thompson] can be funny. Sharp, too, and determined."
Chicago Sun-Times
"Thompson doesn't preach; he presents the facts and explains clearly what doing these menial jobs entails. His precise descriptions of the work, the machines, and the body movements the workers make to complete the task are masterly. Not only does [Thompson] make the reader understand but also tacitly 'feel' what the workers experience as they perform the work. . . . It is not often that you can enjoy a well-written book and, at the same time, learn about the reality of the job market and our dependency on immigrant labor."
San Antonio Express-News
"[Working in the Shadows] reads like a journal or an intelligent, empathetic conversation, and effortlessly weaves together various themes and accomplishes multiple goals."—In These Times
"In the course of picking lettuce in the fields of Yuma, Arizona, and hauling chicken parts around a processing facility in Russellville, Alabama (among other occupations), Thompson explores this segment of American labor like a latter-day E. P. Thompson, relating their lives and working conditions with a minimum of editorial intrusion."
"[Working in the Shadows] strikes a loud beat for the nobility of work, whether it is done by an American citizen or someone else. One cannot read this work without considering the countless people working hard to support themselves by seeing that we have iceberg wedges and chicken nuggets at home." —Biloxi Sun Herald
"Working in the Shadows makes clear that it's far easier to debate immigration and social welfare over a dinner of chicken salad than it is to consider the lives of the individuals who made that dinner possible."
Conference Board Review
"[A] fine work of immersion journalism. . . . As the debate over how to solve our immigration problem ramps up perhaps this year or the next, look for Working in the Shadows to be cited by political types on both sides as proof positive that the United States needs comprehensive immigration reform."—Roll Call
"This is great immersion journalism that debunks myths about immigrants taking American jobs and living off American largesse."
"Thompson excels at putting a human face on individuals and situations alternately ignored and vilified."—Publishers Weekly
"This is a big-hearted American book, audacious and bold. Gabriel Thompson goes the distance, and should help silence the nativist nabobs and peddlers of racial propaganda who clog the immigration discourse today. In the spirit of Upton Sinclair, it's an ode to the working human—whether that worker comes from Iowa or Michoacan."
—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil's Highway
"In the shadows of the US economy—places where underpaid, often undocumented workers toil in hellish conditions—Gabriel Thompson does more than just observe and document. Showing deep solidarity as well as a commitment to exposing the injustices endured by low-paid laborers in America, Thompson spent a year working alongside this largely immigrant and rural workforce—cutting lettuce, dumping tubs of chicken parts, and huffing through the streets of Manhattan to deliver food. In writing this remarkable book, Thompson brings attention to the resilience of the workers who are the backbone of this country's economy, appreciates the great contributions of undocumented workers to making our lives better by holding up the economy and the backlash they so often face. For anyone who has fought for dignity in the workplace, Working in the Shadows is a triumph—and a call to arms."
—Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers

There's No José Here
Calling All Radicals

For Daniella, who was with me every step of the way

For privacy reasons, the names of workers and supervisors have been changed, and in the case of one worker I altered identifying characteristics. To deal with the challenge of reporting while undercover, I took detailed notes upon arriving home after each shift. During shifts, I used the breaks to disappear whenever possible to jot down scenes or bits of dialogue in a small notebook. I should clarify: Those were the good days. Often, the notebook remained stuffed in my pocket throughout the entire shift. On those days, during breaks, I rested.

I wake up staring into the bluest blue I've ever seen. I must have fallen into a deep sleep during the short break because I need several seconds to realize that I'm looking at the sky, that the pillow beneath my head is a large clump of dirt, and that Manuel is standing over me and smiling. I pull myself to a sitting position. To my left, in the distance, a Border Patrol helicopter is hovering. To my right is Mexico, separated by only a few fields of lettuce.
"Buenos días."
"How much time left?"
Manuel checks his watch. "Four minutes."
I stand up gingerly. It's only my third day in the fields, but already my thirty-year-old body is failing me. I feel like someone has dropped a log on my back. And then piled that log onto a truck with many other logs, and driven that truck over my thighs. I reach down and grab two 32-ounce bottles of Gatorade, both empty. This is nothing new: Yesterday I finished four bottles. A few people on the crew have already suggested that I see a doctor about my sweating problem.
"Let's go," I say to Manuel, trying to sound energetic. I fall in line behind him, stumbling across rows of lettuce and thinking about the five-day rule. The five-day rule, according to Manuel, is simple: Survive the first five days and you'll be fine. He's been a farmworker for almost two decades, so he should know. I'm on day three of five—the goal is within sight. Of course, another way to look at my situation is that I'm on day three of what I promised myself would be a two-month job. Or that this is only the first in a series of jobs that I hope to survive over the course of the year. But that kind of thinking doesn't benefit anyone. Day three of five.
"I've been thinking," Manuel calls over his shoulder. "When you showed up, I could tell right away that you had money." On the first day I was wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt I've had since high school, but I know what he means. I'm white, the only white person on the crew and the only white person in the fields. "So I thought maybe you were a supervisor. But you don't know what you're doing with the lettuce." He laughs. "Candelario thinks you're with immigration." He makes a dismissive gesture with his right hand and turns around, waiting for me to catch up. "But why would you be working in the fields and not stopping people at the border?"
We've nearly reached the lettuce machine, where two dozen crewmembers are putting on gloves and sharpening knives. A radio is blasting a Spanish love song and a few men and women are laughing at something; it sounds like a party.
We're late, but Manuel remains stopped in his tracks. "You're an American. But you're not a supervisor and you're not with immigration. So what are you doing?"
I shrug my shoulders. "I don't know, I just—"
"Manuel! Gabriel! Let's go!" The foreman is impatient and the question is quickly forgotten. "¡Vámonos!" We hustle our butts to the machine, grab our knives from a box of chlorinated water, and set up in neighboring rows, just as the machine starts moving slowly down another endless field.
"WHAT ARE YOU doing here?" Over the course of the year I would hear Manuel's question dozens of times. I'd ask it myself when things weren't going well—which was often. But because I was undercover, I couldn't explain that I was writing a book. Instead I made up a variety of responses: I was traveling and needed money to continue my journey; I enjoyed learning new skills; or, later in the year, with the economy collapsing, I needed whatever work I could find. At other times, in the middle of a shift so draining that I didn't have the energy to make something up, I would simply say, "I don't know." At those moments the answer felt honest enough.
I do know what gave me the idea for this book. In the fall of 2007 the New Υork Times published an article entitled "Crackdown Upends Slaughterhouse's Workforce." Written by labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse, the piece documented the difficulty that Smithfield Foods was having in securing a stable workforce at its massive hog slaughterhouse in North Carolina after a series of raids by immigration agents. Although the crackdown resulted in the arrest of only twenty-one undocumented immigrants, more than 1,100 Latino workers subsequently quit, leaving the 5,200-employee plant severely short staffed. Some of the workers were no doubt working without proper papers, while others simply wanted to avoid a situation in which government agents could come barging into their trailers in the middle of the night.
In response to the exodus of immigrants, Smithfield stepped up efforts to recruit U.S. citizens. Based on wages alone, this shouldn't have been overly difficult: Most of the local jobs paid minimum wage and positions at the plant averaged $12 an hour. Still, as Greenhouse reported, "The turnover rate for new workers—many find the work grueling and the smell awful—is twice what it was when Hispanics dominated the workforce . . . At the end of the shifts, many workers complain that their muscles are sore and their minds are numb."1
As a teenager, I relished George Orwell's accounts of going into dangerous coal mines in The Road to Wigan Pier and washing dishes in Down and Out in Paris and London, and was likewise moved by Barbara Ehrenreich's adventures scrubbing floors and waiting tables in Nickel and Dimed. I've always been drawn to chronicles of immersion journalism; they have a unique ability to explore fascinating and sometimes brutal worlds that are usually kept out of sight. I thought it would be exciting to try this type of reporting myself, and immediately upon finishing the Times article, a project formed in my head. I would enter the low-wage immigrant workforce for a year and write about it.
In many ways, this project was a natural outgrowth of my previous work. I had reported on immigrants for the past three years—mostly Latino because I speak Spanish—and I have always been interested in documenting what life looks like through the eyes of my subjects, transforming them from statistics to real people. The notion of going undercover to work alongside immigrants in the factories and fields—assuming I could actually get hired—held an immense appeal. In 2008, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that there were 8.3 million undocumented workers in the United States, making up 5.4 percent of the workforce. The role that these low-wage workers play in our economy is, of course, a matter of much debate. But whether one believes they are a threat or a boon to the economy, the fact remains that very few of us nonimmigrants know what it's like to do the jobs they do. I wanted to find out.
I ULTIMATELY DECIDED to seek employment in three industries that depend heavily on Latino immigrants: agriculture, poultry processing, and back-of-the-house restaurant work (this refers to the people who work in the kitchen and do not interact with customers). While I could just as easily have elected to slaughter cows, work in construction, do landscaping, or clean offices, I chose farmwork, chicken factories, and restaurants mostly out of sheer curiosity; they were industries I wanted to know more about. (I've been a vegetarian since grade school, so my curiosity was tinged with apprehension when it came to poultry.) Having decided on the three jobs, it quickly became clear that my year of work would also be a year of travel. The poultry industry is concentrated in the American South, and there are few fields in need of harvesting near my apartment in Brooklyn. I planned to go west for farmwork, south in search of a chicken plant, and return home to New York to find a restaurant job. Heading to the southern states where the Latino population is growing fastest would also grant me the opportunity to report on how the region is adapting to its newest arrivals.
The neat little itinerary that I drew up in my apartment left a critical question unanswered: How in God's name would I get hired? It seemed likely that I would face skeptical looks from hiring managers, perhaps even be laughed out of an office or two. I figured that the increase in immigration enforcement might make it easier to find work—and that the sorts of jobs I was looking for would have openings due to high turnover. But ultimately, from the moment I left Brooklyn, I was operating on little more than blind faith.
I SET SEVERAL parameters for the year. When discussing my project, I learned that a fair number of Americans had some experience with farmwork. Many were similar to my father's time spent hoeing beet fields in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. As a youth he had planned to spend a summer in the fields; after just a few days—perhaps a week—he had had enough. So I set myself a goal: No matter how unpleasant, I would stay with each job for two months.
The second guideline was that while I was away from New York, I would live among the immigrants that I worked alongside. This would be the most cost-effective arrangement and would allow me to get to know my coworkers better.
STRICTLY SPEAKING, THERE is no such a thing as an "immigrant" job. There are many industries that rely heavily on Latino immigrants, but many of these also employ at least a handful of U.S.-born citizens (though not in the lettuce fields, as I discovered). Often, when workplaces offer a variety of jobs—restaurants are a good example—immigrants tend to be assigned the most strenuous, dangerous, and worst-paid positions (e.g., washing dishes and delivering food). So a book about the world of immigrant work is also one about the very poor Americans who labor with them. As I would discover, these Americans had much in common with undocumented immigrants—for one thing, they are ignored equally in the stump speeches of politicians—and despite the lack of a shared language, the drudgery of the workplace can contribute to a sense of solidarity.
SOME FINAL WORDS on what this book is and is not. It is not my attempt to get by on the wages an immigrant earns or to "walk in their shoes." Wages figure into this story, but unlike Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed, it is not an experiment to see if I can survive financially. My challenge is to keep showing up for the next shift.
Nor will I be walking in anyone's shoes but my own. In Alabama, for instance, I worked the graveyard shift at a poultry plant, often next to a man named Jesús. Many nights we spent eight hours doing identical work, tearing thousands of frigid chicken breasts in half and tossing them onto a conveyor belt. Although we both suffered frozen hands, our identities did not blend together. I was still a middle-class American citizen who spoke English and graduated from college. Jesús had fled a civil war in Guatemala at the age of fifteen and spent the majority of his life picking tomatoes in Florida and processing chickens in Alabama. I eventually left the plant behind and fill my days with reading and writing; tonight, Jesús will probably spend another eight hours tearing up chicken parts. This book was an exhausting learning experience for me; for my coworkers, it is life.
The learning began in early 2008, when I traveled to my first stop, the state of Arizona. I packed several empty notebooks, a laptop, a bottle of painkillers, and a collection of books about immigrants and labor. By the time I left, I'd read them all, but my real education was just about to begin.

Part One
January–March, Υuma, Arizona
Wedged into the corner of southwestern Arizona, the city of Yuma sits at a crossroads. Mexico is twenty miles to the south, California a stone's throw to the west, the cities of Phoenix and Tucson about a three-hour drive to the east. Yuma is a place to eat and perhaps spend an evening en route to somewhere more interesting, or at least less oppressively hot. One of the sunniest places on earth, the city receives less than four inches of rainfall a year and temperatures in July frequently exceed 107 degrees. A soldier back from Iraq—Yuma is home to a Marine Corps air base—observed that it wasn't so hard to adjust to the Arabian Desert after surviving a Yuma summer.
I relocate to Yuma on a balmy January day during the first week of 2008. Each winter Yuma's warmth attracts 90,000 retirees from Canada and the northern states, doubling the city's population and filling the local malls, restaurants, and movie theaters. Nearing Yuma I pass a number of RV campgrounds—really just expansive slabs of black asphalt with water and electricity hookups—packed with some of the largest land vehicles I've ever seen. I pull over and take photos of what seems a distinctly American scene: the desert wilderness paved over, with folks sitting on lawn chairs under the shade created by their gas guzzlers, angled so that they can watch the cars zoom past on the highway.
By the time I enter the city limits, green fields of lettuce stretch from either side of the highway to the horizon, irrigated with water from the nearby Colorado River. Buses are parked among the fields, and I can see groups of farmworkers in the distance to my right. A California native, I've seen this scene many times while driving up and down the West Coast, a glimpse of a workforce that seems to belong to another universe entirely. This time I pull over to the shoulder and park. It's hard to see much detail—the workers are too far away—but I watch the figures for a few minutes, letting the idea sink in that in a few days, with some luck, I'll join them.
WHY BEGIN IN Yuma? It's mostly a question of timing: While doing research I learned that Yuma has been the "winter lettuce capital" of America since the early 1980s, when companies moved to the area from California's Imperial Valley. Today, there are about one hundred growers—individual contractors who are responsible for the crop until two weeks before harvest, overseeing aspects like irrigation and pest and weed management. These growers can be in charge of anywhere from 500 to 5,000 acres, and sign contracts with companies like Dole, Fresh Express, and Tamimura & Antle, who supply the laborers to harvest and pack the crop. At the height of the winter growing season, Yuma farmworkers are harvesting an astounding 12 million heads of lettuce a day.
Along with a ready supply of water from the Colorado River, Yuma's climate is a key reason the winter lettuce industry is centered in the area. When the weather turns cold in Salinas, California— the heart of the nation's lettuce industry from the spring to the fall—temperatures in Yuma are still in the seventies and eighties. Each winter, Yuma produces virtually all of the iceberg lettuce and 90 percent of the leafy green vegetables consumed in the United States and Canada. Yuma lettuce is slapped between the buns of Big Macs, topped with anchovies in Caesar salads at posh Italian restaurants, and packed into ready-mixed bags that line grocery aisles from Monterey to Montreal. Still, the area's contribution goes unrecognized: it's a billion-dollar-a-year industry that most people outside of Arizona don't even know exists. "Companies think that customers associate quality lettuce with Salinas and California, so that is what you'll see on the labels," explains Kurt Nolte, an agriculture specialist at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Yuma.
The second reason I chose Yuma is that the industry needs people like me. I've come across several articles documenting a shortage of farmworkers. They cite an aging workforce (the median age of Yuma farmworkers is forty-five); immigration crackdowns; and long delays at the border implemented after 9/11, all of which discourage many workers who have green cards and live in Mexico from commuting to the fields. American-born workers can help fill the shortage, and wages have been rising somewhat in response to the demand for laborers. But Doug Mellon, a grower interviewed by the Arizona Republic, scoffed at the notion that U.S. citizens would ever flock to the fields. "I don't care if you paid $40 [an hour], they'd do it about three hours and say, 'That's not for me.'"1
Senator John McCain, speaking to a group of union members in Washington, D.C., made the same controversial point. "I'll offer anybody here $50 an hour if you'll go pick lettuce in Yuma this season, and pick for the whole season," he said. Amid jeers, he didn't back down, telling the audience, "You can't do it, my friends." Although I don't plan on staying the entire season, if I manage to land a job I certainly hope I last longer than three hours.
AFTER MILES OF lettuce fields, the terrain turns more generic: Like any number of fast-growing cities, Yuma seems well on its way to becoming one long commercial strip. I pass several huge shopping centers and a Burger King, whose sign makes the odd boast that it has the largest indoor play area in the state. Checking into a nondescript motel, I tell the manager that I'm looking for work in the fields. She pulls out a photocopied map of the town and marks an intersection. "Mostly Mexicans in the fields, you know. But here's the Dole building—maybe you should go there. Sometimes people from Dole stay here, seem nice enough to me."
For weeks I've been digesting everything I could find on farmworkers, from documentaries and novels to investigative exposés and government reports, but I haven't given much thought to the particular company I want to work for. Dole sounds like as good a place to start as any: It's large and well known. I unload some of my possessions and head over.
Dole Fresh Vegetables, part of the company that is the largest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables in the world, is located several miles from the motel, across the street from the Marine Corps air station and down the block from a windowless Adult XXX superstore, both of which are surrounded by fences topped with concertina wire. It's an ugly area, but the narrow road leading into Dole's headquarters is grassy and lined with palm trees, like the entrance to a small college. A large sign sits next to a beige one-story building, which reads Headquarters Office—Agriculture and Harvest.
Inside, a young Latina woman is seated behind a desk. "May I help you?"
"Yes, could you tell me where I should go to apply for a job picking lettuce?"
She directs me back outside and around the corner to human resources. That she doesn't seem the least surprised by the request bolsters my confidence. I follow her directions, pushing open a door to find myself in a small office where a man is holding a telephone conversation in Spanish. When he hangs up, I repeat my request, and he switches to English.
"The fields? You want to work outside in the fields?" He smiles, like I've cracked a joke. A long moment of silence follows. "You know, maybe it would be better if you worked inside, in the plant. You could make more money and it wouldn't be so hard. That might be a better fit."
"No, I think I want to try working outside."
"Have you ever worked in the fields before?" I shake my head.
"Well, I can tell you one thing: It's not easy out there. Every year a few people come in who look like you. They last only two days, sometimes only a few hours. They get out there and realize it's not for them."
"Yeah, I know it's hard. But I'm looking for a job that I can start right away. I don't want to have to wait weeks for an interview—I just want to get started."
"You want to get started," he repeats. I fill the silence with vigorous nods. "You want to work in the fields."
"I want to work in the fields," I insist. "Are there any openings?"
He chuckles. "We can put you in the fields right away. That's not a problem." He tells me to stop by tomorrow—Friday—and fill out an application.


On Sale
Jul 12, 2011
Page Count
336 pages
Bold Type Books

Gabriel Thompson

About the Author

Gabriel Thompson writes for New York magazine, the Nation, the Brooklyn Rail, and In These Times. The author of There’s No Joséere, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Learn more about this author