Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lousy work -- if you can get it

In Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers, Dick J. Reavis gets nickeled and dimed

The following review was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network.

In the introductory chapter of Catching Out, Dick J. Reavis, a veteran Texas journalist who is currently assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University, tells his reader that he turned to day labor to supplement his looming retirement and Social Security income. Given the minimal wages such work generates -- and relatively higher returns that result from having a powerful agent (Esther Newberg) and editor (Alice Mayhew) to steer an account of his experience into print -- this seems like a somewhat disingenuous way to begin. But Reavis has a long track record of living and reporting on those at the margins of the U.S. labor market, and the first-hand experiences that he describes here are vivid and useful in capturing an often shadowy world.

The core of Catching Out consists of fifteen
chapters that chronicle the various jobs, which range from a few hours to a few days, that Reavis performed working as a contract laborer for a firm he calls "Labor-4-U" in the years just before the economic downturn of 2008. These tasks included construction, manufacturing, and demolition work, as well as setting up a retail operation and a complicated job assisting in sorting out the effects of a recently deceased man. Each day was, in its way, an adventure, both in never knowing just what would be involved until he arrived on the site, or who he would be working for -- and with. Each of these variables could independently determine whether he had a good or bad day, and Reavis introduces us to a gallery of characters, some recurring, who bring his working world to life. These include figures like "Real Deal," a charismatic felon who tends to capture most of the best jobs in between prison stints, "Carrie," a tiny, arthritic staple of the labor hall, and a pair of sisters who precipitate a series of complications for Reavis when they pay him and a partner in cash rather than working through Labor-4-U, which of course earns a hefty premium on top of what its workers are paid. The agency gets this premium to insulate companies from the wages, insurance, and benefits they would have to pay regular employees they hired themselves.

Reavis also explores the social dimensions of day labor. The term "catching out" refers to getting a ride out to a job, transportation being a crucial factor in landing one (and, for those with transportation, being able to charge other workers for privilege of getting them there). Very often it's in the beat-up cars in which he rides to and from work that he sees his co-workers in all their kindness, cruelty, or self-absorption. He notes that there is relatively little overt racial tension between workers or workers and bosses, except that which tends to be expressed by fellow whites who assume Reavis shares their prejudices. (A fluent speaker of Spanish, he was often adoptively embraced by Latino colleagues.) Nor does Reavis see much in the way of an explicit class consciousness. He encapsulates the view of this particular working class in the assertion that "Some men luck into positions where they can get rich by exploiting the labor of others, and some don't, but if given the chance, even the unlucky would do the same as their lords."

Perhaps surprisingly, physical strength counts for relatively little. Reavis is 63, with a bad knee and chronic pulmonary problems. These issues would occasionally complicate his work life, but more often than not he would resolve them with the help of co-workers or by minimizing his exertion (job security, after all, is a moot point). On the other hand, he was rarely given safety attire like shoes or goggles for protection at dangerous sites, and when backaches or breathing problems acquired on the job put him out of commission, the cost of lost wages was his alone. Naturally, none of the people he worked with received health insurance. In effect, the cost of medical care is borne by workers or paid by taxpayers. Nowhere is the sheer rapaciousness of American capitalism more evident.

The chief strength of Catching Out -- finely detailed reporting -- is also its chief weakness. After reading a few accounts of his various jobs, you get the idea; there's not much in the way of a larger argument or narrative arc. Reavis does conclude with a helpful final chapter that puts the work he describes in a broader statistical and sociological context, noting as he does so that documentation of the day labor scene is sparse both in its sources (workers are moving, taciturn targets) and resources (policymakers and politicians have turned a largely blind eye).

The book that most obviously approximates what Reavis is doing here is Barbara Ehrenreich's already classic Nickel and Dimed (2001), in which she performed stints as a waitress, cleaning lady, and Wal-Mart employee. The jobs Ehrenreich describes there are downright stable compared to those performed by Reavis, and she allowed herself the luxury of a car in getting to work, something Reavis did not. But Ehrenreich's immersion in her project seems more complete, even unsparing, than that of Reavis, and she seems to engage more deeply with her co-workers and the psychic dimensions of menial labor. Perhaps there is a gendered dimension to this observation, both in terms of the work described -- Reavis reports that the people who picked him for the jobs he did tended to discriminate against women -- as well as the way the respective authors reflect on their experiences. As a piece of writing, Nickel and Dimed is a better book. But Catching Out remains a significant, even essential, document of its subject, our time, and the cancer of inequality that is destroying the fabric of American life.