Monday, August 2, 2010
Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson
By 4:00 P.M. the store is closed and the workers have gathered inside, drinking Coronas and trying to figure out what to do on this Friday afternoon. After an eleven -hour day without a break I'm exhausted and ready to head home, but I'm waiting in the doorway to the office. Helen is sitting in the cramped space with another woman, evidently the bookkeeper. At Helen's desk is a checkbook, in her hand a pen.
“I'm having a problem because we didn't decide how much to pay you.” She sighs, grimaces, and sighs again, as if this is a burden I ungraciously placed on her shoulders. I've been standing in the doorway for at least two minutes, watching her agonize over my payment.
“ A lot of the time you look lost, like you don't know what to do.” She continues to finger the checkbook. Finally she writes out $150 for my 21.5 hours. That's less than $7 an hour; minimum wage in New York is $7.15. “Maybe if it was summertime...”
I start to realize I'm being fired. “I'm all set to come in tomorrow, just tell me what time,” I say, trying to change the direction of the dialogue. “I'm still learning, but I'm getting it.”
“But I can tell you are not made for this work.” Helen looks over at the bookkeeper as if for assurance. “You're like a happy chicken out there. Always smiling.”
What the fuck is a happy chicken? I leave the question unasked. “That's just how I am. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, I'm going to try and enjoy it.” She shakes her head slowly.
“If it was summertime maybe we could use you.”
Now I'm shifting from shock to anger. “How am I supposed to know everything? It might seem like common sense to you and Tony but I've only been here two days. When I stated I didn't even know what a magnolia tree looked like.”
She shakes here head gain. “It's not just the magnolia trees. If you don't know something you should ask Tony.”
Hysterical. What world is this woman living in? I quickly learned that asking Tony a question – any question -was useless. He ignored my questions; only once did he actually answer. Yesterday afternoon he told me to sweep trash into a bag. I did, and then made the mistake of asking where he wanted the trash placed. “What should you do with the trash? He asked. “You should all up UPS and have them pick it up. Come on, mister [Tony called everyone 'mister'] – common sense!”
“You must know that Tony doesn't answer questions,” I tell Helen. I consider reciting a list of the responses Tony has given me- beginning with the UPS anecdote – but can already sense the futility of arguing with her.
“You just don't fit in here.” I stand up, wanting to curse her out. Instead I walk away, tell the other workers I've been fired – they are all equally incredulous- and bike home. I call Tony the next day and plead to be rehired, but he doesn't budge.
OVER THE WEEKEND I process the two-day experience. After surviving in lettuce fields and a poultry plant, I certainly didn't expect to be fired from a flower shop of all places. It was difficult to explain the firing to friends. Why, they wondered, would this store - in violation of so many labor laws – even hire me? And once they decided to hire me, and saw that I was a diligent employee, why let me go so soon? It would have been one thing had I loafed or talked back. But I worked hard in the shop. I held my tongue when yelled at; I learned to remain silent and to keep my eyes down when Tony or Helen went off. I didn't even complain about not having a lunch break, or asked for gloves to protect my hands. When I was given a task I did it, as quickly as possible. On my second day another new worker showed up, from Ecuador. I helped him out as much as I could, but he was having a much more difficult time than I in keeping up. This man, I later learned, kept the job.
The issue, I came to believe, wasn't about “work ethics” or “following instructions” or any other concrete criticism a boss might make. It was about power and submission. Tony and Helen, the rulers of their little fiefdom, had a very particular notion of how a worker ought to comport themselves. They should hang their heads, look miserable, and extract very little enjoyment out of the experience. In my case, they were mostly successful: I hated being at the shop. But I still did my best keep up a friendly banter with coworkers and maintain an incongruous smile on my face through out much of the day. It was a means to mentally distance myself from the place, to assert some small measure of levity into an environment that felt like a sweatshop. While I was on the clock they owned me – as they did everyone else – but my “happy chicken” antics evidently made their sense of ownership less secure. What if the other workers started smiling? That could be dangerous.
IN 2007 the Brennan Center for Justice [New York University Law School], a progressive think tank, published a report on the unregulated economy in New York City. Although the underground economy is vast, they wrote, it is “a world of work that lies outside the experience and imagination of many Americans”:
It is a world where jobs pay less than minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all; where employers do not pay overtime for 60-hour weeks, and deny meal breaks that are required by law; where vital health and safety regulations are routinely ignored, even after injuries occur; and where workers are subject to blatant discrimination, and retaliated against for speaking up or trying to organize.
I found low wages and grueling conditions in the lettuce fields of Yuma Arizona, and the chicken processing plant in Russellville, Alabama, and judging the work by degree of difficulty alone, the flower shop job in New York City was an “easier” job. I wasn't stooped over in the sun or lifting and dumping tons of chicken breasts. But there was something qualitatively different about my short-lived stint in the flower district. They didn't pay overtime or grant lunch breaks – and paid me less than the minimum wage- but these are not the abuses I will remember. What leaves a lasting impression is the incessant string of accusatory comments, the assumption that we, as workers, merited zero respect. In sum, I will remember being in an environment where workers were treated like chattel – a more difficult phenomena to quantify with statistics than wages, but a key component of the work experience for many undocumented [ and documented ] immigrants. Just as certain occupations are physically unsafe, certain workplaces are psychologically unhealthy ( often, of course, they are both). On some level, then, I ought to be grateful to Tony and Helen for granting me access to a world hidden to most Americans – of only for a brief period. But gratitude isn't the first word that springs to mind......
FOR A YEAR of hard labor, I have a surprising number of positive memories. I remember my lettuce crew singing songs and sharing food and stretching their limbs as the sun rose. I think of my co-workers on the poultry line shouting jokes over the din and covering for one another when taking forbidden bathroom breaks. In the kitchen, I recall the pride we took in preparing and making deliveries quickly, and the nonstop, lighthearted insult that were tossed around with such frequency that I considered them background music.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery was how willing many of my coworkers helped me when my energy flagged, or offered words of encouragement when they saw that my morale was low. I found that a strong ethos of cooperation among workers was more the rule than the exception, even when engaged in the most arduous or mind-numbing activities. I never heard anyone utter those magical words, worker solidarity – but I saw it displayed countless times – and more often than not, I was the beneficiary. It's time now 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 safe.