Would You Work the Graveyard Shift at a Chicken Slaughterhouse in Alabama?


"Have you ever wondered why poultry plant workers don't hang their plastic smocks outside on a line to dry after a shift spent covered in chicken juice and meat?" Gabriel Thompson asked in a recent e-mail. "The answer: red ants."

Thompson found this out "ten minutes into a new shift [at a chicken slaughterhouse in Alabama] when [he] felt a bite, and then another, and another, and looked down to see red ants swarming around my chest, stomach, arms, and other places, too. Evidently," Thompson pointed out, "red ants are attracted to the stench of dead chickens."

Following in the tradition of journalists thoroughly embedding themselves in their reporting -- think John Howard Griffin, a white man who in the 1960s spent six weeks busing around the South passing as a black man, or Barbara Ehrenreich who spent several months being "nickeled and dimed" as she worked an assortment of service sector jobs around the country -- Gabriel Thompson took to the road last year to work mostly alongside Latino immigrant workers. His forthcoming book, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs Americans Won't Do(Nation Books), tells the story of not only his personal experiences, but the realities of immigrant workers that traded economic deprivation and/or political oppression of their homelands for America's elusive promises.

Thompson did the kind of backbreaking work that most Americans wouldn't think of doing. In a recent e-mail, Thompson wrote that "He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona … worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama, … dodged taxis … 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."

The Brooklyn-based Thompson has contributed to New York magazine, The Nation, The New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and others publications. He is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and is the author of There's No Jose Here and Calling All Radicals.

In this exclusive and extensive interview for AlterNet, Thompson reflects on working on the margins.

Bill Berkowitz: Journalists immersing themselves in a challenging project has a long and proud tradition. Did you draw inspiration from any reporters that came before you? Why did you decide to approach the issue of immigration from this angle?

Gabriel Thompson: Two journalists immediately come to mind as inspiration: George Orwell and Barbara Ehrenreich. Orwell dove into his non-fiction projects head on -- from reporting on the Spanish Civil War as an actual participant in Homage to Catalonia, to going into the coal mines to write The Road to Wigan Pier. More recently, Ehrenreich opened many Americans eyes to the lives of the working poor with her book Nickel and Dimed. But as I learned more about undercover or immersion journalism, I found that there was a huge group of reporters -- going back hundreds of years -- that have been using it as a tactic. As you say, it has a long and proud tradition; I just didn't know how deep and wide that tradition ran until doing research for this book.

I call it a tactic as opposed to a gimmick because I think there's a distinction. To me, immersion journalism isn't about simply a self-glorifying project that turns every experience or subject into a personal one. Instead, I hope that the personal stories help folks identify with the narrative, but that the end result isn't that the reader feels bad for me -- I'm just an interloper here. The real point is to get the sorts of access you otherwise couldn't, and to hopefully create some empathy for the folks whose labor we depend on every day, but who are largely invisible.

I used this approach for two reasons. Practically speaking, going undercover gave me access to places I wouldn't be allowed had I identified myself as a reporter. The last thing a poultry plant wants is for the general public to know what's going on behind the plant walls. I also was simply curious about how the work would affect my body and mind. I knew that I depended upon immigrant labor, but I had no idea what it would be like to switch positions, and I thought it would be an educational experience. And I figured that working alongside immigrants would allow me to get as close as possible to the story -- which is the reality of immigrant work and the lives of both low wage immigrants and US citizens. Although I'm a guide of sorts, at its heart this book is about immigrants and working.

BB: What were the jobs you held, where were they, how did you get them, how long did you work in each one, and why did you leave them? What was the most difficult work you did?

GT: I completed four jobs during the year. I cut lettuce in Yuma, Arizona and processed poultry in a small town called Russellville in Alabama. In Manhattan I worked briefly at a shop in the flower district and also delivered food for an upscale restaurant.

The goal I set for myself was to do each job for two months, which didn't always work out. In Alabama, for example, the company I was working for, Pilgrim's Pride, found out that I was a journalist. Through my own sloppiness, of course -- I had been trying to get a tour of a chicken farm and divulged too much information to a farmer. So I was out of there after about six weeks or so. That actually allowed me to do more reporting on how the town has changed as a result of the plant and the influx of thousands of immigrants. Quite apart from the working conditions of poultry plants, that's a fascinating theme that I was lucky to be in the perfect place to explore.

At the flower shop, I was fired after two days. It's a long story, but basically it boils down to a crazy boss and terrible work environment. With lettuce and the restaurant delivery work, I left because I had reached my two-month goal. In lettuce especially, that will remain one of my proudest lifetime achievements. Most folks have no idea how exhausting the work is that results in the salad you're eating.

There are different ways to define the most difficult work. Physically, the hardest job was cutting lettuce. Back, legs, feet, hands -- everything breaks down. I couldn't shake someone's hand for a month after, just because my fingers were so tender. There's simply no energy after a shift to do anything. I would come home, eat dinner, and fall asleep. That's all I could do after being under the hot sun for ten hours a day and cutting 3,000 heads of lettuce during a shift. It's no wonder I never saw another white person in the fields.

Mentally, the chicken plant was pretty depressing. One of my jobs was to tear apart chicken breasts by hand. It sounds pretty nasty, and it was: I would go through more than 7,000 breasts a shift. Chicken fat and blood is everywhere, and my coworkers would often have to point out pieces of chicken that were stuck to my face. Like how you would point out a piece of spinach lodged between a friend's teeth. I'd come home reeking each morning -- I worked the graveyard shift--and take a long shower to get the smell of chicken carcasses off me.

I've been a vegetarian for twenty years, so that was pretty gross. But the truth is that I got accustomed to it very quickly, because it is so monotonous and fast paced. That's what I learned by doing the work for a number of weeks -- the real difficulty isn't the grossness factor, but not going crazy due to boredom and pain. You're wearing earplugs to block out the noise, so you can't talk to people, and you're standing in place for hours making the same motion. Like one co-worker told me, "A trained monkey could do this work." After a week, half of the folks that went through orientation with me had quit.

The flower shop was difficult on another level. Lettuce and chicken were grueling, but at least the managers were more technocratic, making sure we kept up but not being especially abusive. At the flower shop, which was a mom-and-pop operation as opposed to a massive multinational corporation, the harassment from the two bosses was awful. I was working with immigrants from Mexico and Honduras, and all of us were yelled at -- all day. No breaks, no overtime, nothing. If they hadn't fired me after two days, I doubt I could have survived much longer. It's exhausting to have someone shouting at you all day and not being able to punch them in the face or at least talk some shit back. It also showed that sweatshops can be hidden in plain sight.

BB: What are you trying to convey with the book's title?

GT: I filled an entire notebook with titles ideas. In the end, I suppose I went with something pretty generic but that captures the role that immigrant workers play. We're deeply connected to their labor but still absolutely clueless about it. I hope to fill in the details of a back story -- to tell how the lettuce got into the grocery store, how the chicken ended up at KFC, how the meal arrived at your door.

I'm honestly not thrilled with the subtitle -- that was a publisher's decision -- and preferred something along the lines of "Adventures in Immigrant Work." I figure there is already enough pitting of immigrants against Americans. So while I think it's fair to say that most Americans wouldn't want to do the jobs I did, I don't think that's the point. The real point is: what are those jobs like? And how can we show solidarity with the workers -- immigrants and U.S. citizens -- by improving working conditions and pay? 

BB: Can you talk about some of the people you met along the way and the issues they're facing every day? 

GT: It was a surprise to find that the workers in the best situation were in the lettuce fields. We rightly think of farmworkers as being the most oppressed group, but in Yuma I was on a crew of primarily guest-workers. They lived in Mexico and commuted to the fields each day, so they were among the highest earners in their hometown. Folks in my crew felt lucky to have the work, and knew many other people who wanted their jobs. There also was a sense of pride in being a lechugero (lettuce worker). Although they didn't know I was writing a book, they repeatedly told me to tell my American friends just how hard the work is, so that people would better appreciate the salads they ate. 

There wasn't the same pride in being a poultry worker. I've worked as an organizer and witnessed many unpleasant realities -- families being evicted, children being lead poisoned -- but nothing prepared me for the poverty and desperation I found in Alabama. I arrived before the recession, and unemployment was already at 8 percent. Many of the locals spend years bouncing back and forth between the chicken plant and Wal-Mart. I knew a number of people who had never opened a bank account, simply because there was never anything they could have put in it.

The biggest issue was economic survival, plain and simple. One coworker was fired for falling asleep on the job, while standing up. That sounds crazy, but it happened all the time. We worked the night shift, and I learned that she only had enough money to pay for childcare at night. So when she arrived home, completely exhausted, her kid had just woken up and was ready to play. She would sleep, I don't know, maybe two or three hours. Not long after her firing, a friend of mine fell asleep while in his car and drove into a ditch. Luckily he was okay. The problem was that the AC in his trailer had gone out, and he had to wait until payday to have the funds to buy a wall unit. It's nearly impossible to get any daytime sleep during the summer without AC, as he discovered. Imagine: He almost died because he didn't have enough money to buy an air conditioner.

Those two individuals were U.S. citizens, which illustrates what I mentioned earlier about how the challenges faced by low-wage workers cuts across the board. The Guatemalans in Russellville had their own sets of challenges, but a different perspective. They were indigenous and had fled Guatemala during the war. They also knew extreme rural poverty, but they viewed the chicken plant work -- as terrible as it was -- as better paying than anything they could have found back home. Still, many suffered tremendous pain, especially in the hands. One person I knew had to have three different surgeries on her hands and wrist. The work is very repetitive and if you do it long enough, you'll likely cause permanent damage.

BB: What did your co-workers think about who you were and what you were doing?

GT: Many didn't know what to think. At the beginning of each job, some figured I was a little bit, you know, not right in the head. In the lettuce fields and poultry plant, there were definitely suspicions that I was an undercover immigration agent. For example, the woman I rented a trailer from in Alabama ended up convinced that I was with ICE and preparing to lead a large raid. For a few weeks she basically didn't talk to me, but at the time I had no idea what the issue was. Now we can both laugh about it, but she was pretty freaked out. Not for her own safety -- she's documented -- but because she is a local champion of immigrants, and she didn't want to be an accomplice in any way to the devastation that raids bring.

But after awhile, things would settle down. Just continuing to show up allowed me to develop relationships with people and alleviate some of their concerns. Though I never blended in, I was eventually accepted. In Arizona, our crew became known as the crew with the white guy. In Alabama, I was the Yankee who spoke Spanish and sat with the Guatemalans during breaks.

BB: Where did you live and what were living conditions like for your co-workers?

GT: In general, my hope was to live wherever my coworkers lived, but that only worked out in Alabama. In New York I stayed in my normal Brooklyn apartment, just because that was cheap and easy. In Arizona I had hoped to find farmworker housing, but didn't, so ended up renting a room I found on Craiglist. Everyone in my crew came from Mexico each morning -- they were all guest-workers -- and in a perfect world I would have lived closer to them. But one of the difficulties was logistics: I had to find a place quickly so as to not waste money on motels, and I needed to find work. The Mexican guest-workers who I worked with actually were doing pretty well. They commuted to the fields each day from a Mexican border city, and by earning dollars in the US they were making a lot more than most folks. My previous reporting took me to very poor and rural areas of southern Mexico, but the people I worked with were much better off.

In Alabama, I lived in a trailer with a view of the chicken plant from my living room window. That was ideal. I even biked to work a few times, which turned out to not be such a good idea. There are no streetlights out where I was living, and since I was working the night shift I would leave the trailer at 10:30 pm. On the first night I was almost killed by a passing truck full of chickens The last thing people expect to see on the road at night in rural Alabama is some guy on a bike pedaling like a madman. And the smell! I quickly learned to hold my breath when a chicken truck passed. Imagine soaking a rug in chicken urine and faces, then wrapping that rug tight around your face.

In general, each time I started in a new location was stressful, because there were so many loose ends and no guarantee that anyone would hire me. I had a gnawing fear, especially in Alabama, that I would arrive in what can fairly be called the middle of nowhere and not get hired. Since I only had my bike for transportation and a return ticket already purchased for two months in the future, that could have been pretty weird if I hadn't found work.

BB: You have written about the issue of immigration before. What makes Working in the Shadows unique?

GT: The major difference is the level of intimacy. One of my favorite lines is by photographer Robert Capa, who said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." I don't consider myself a great writer, but I do want to take the best pictures that I possibly can, and that means getting as close as possible. What better way to learn about farm work or poultry processing than to actually do the work? And doing the work week after week allowed me to get to know workers in a way that otherwise would have been very difficult. For example, I could have decided to write about the evolving relations between immigrants and US citizens in Alabama by conducting traditional, sit-down interviews with various people. Instead, I hung around the plant's break room and listened to and participated in conversations, which I found to be much more candid. 

BB: In one of your e-mails you mentioned that the battle over immigration reform was coming down the pike. How do you see that battle unfolding? 

GT: I just don't know. After watching the health care craziness, I can safely say that I am out of touch with much of what's going on in this country. That being said, I'm optimistic that the side in favor of comprehensive reform is quite savvy and has shown signs of being well organized. But I anticipate it getting very ugly. I mean, if people can find ways to link Hitler and Nazis with healthcare, than I think it's fair to say that there will be some serious nonsense flying around as the country debates immigration reform.

BB: What is the most important take home message for readers?

GT: The most important message is that we have a deep debt to repay to low-wage workers, both immigrants and Americans. We've relied upon them for years without realizing that their wages have been stagnating, their workplaces are becoming more dangerous, and their daily lives are so filled with stress that's it hard to fathom until one sees or experiences it firsthand.

But there's a corresponding message; these invisible workers have a lot to teach us about solidarity. It's not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn't have survived in the lettuce fields without a lot of early support from my crewmembers. Though a complete stranger, I was welcomed at the chicken plant by Guatemalans, Mexicans, and local Alabamans. In fact, at each job I was amazed by the amount of worker solidarity that I found, even among people doing the most punishing work.

I argue in the book that it's now time for the rest of us, who have benefited for so long from all this labor, to show our own solidarity. We should demand better working conditions, laws that protect the right to organize unions, and immigration reform that allows undocumented immigrants to become citizens. We had more workplace raids in 2008 than ever before, which led to the arrest of 6,000. That might seem impressive to anti-immigrant forces, but they need to remember that there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. They are not going to be deported en masse. But they can be moved out of the shadows en masse, where they are better able to join other workers in a movement to raise the standards for everyone.

For more on Working in the Shadows, including photo albums and a video titled "Salad Days: The Movie," visit its Facebook page.

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