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Catching Out

The Secret World of Day Laborers
By Dick J. Reavis

Read an Excerpt


I am sixty-three. For thirty years I was a carefree, adventuresome, and stubborn reporter. Seeing retirement on the horizon, I left journalism five years ago for an academic job that came with a defined-benefit retirement plan. But since Social Security and the retirement pension that I’ll receive won’t save me from want, two years ago, even before clouds appeared on the nation’s economic horizon, I began to look for ways to supplement my old-age income.

Working as a Walmart greeter is not for me. I am temperamentally and philosophically unfit for a role as Mr. Nice. But for a guy whose résumé admits to only journalistic and academic jobs, I’ve always known more than I should about blue-collar work because I grew up around it.

Fifty years ago, people applied for Social Security cards, not through their parents, as infants, but when they entered the labor market. I got my Social Security card at twelve when I became a part-time printer’s helper. From then until I graduated from high school, I worked twenty to thirty hours a week as a stereotyper, a “stuffer” and “swamper”— doing unskilled and semiskilled tasks in the letterpress trade. In college and for a couple of years afterward I skipped from job to job, sometimes finding work through day-labor halls—businesses that hire every morning and pay at the end of each workday.

I was briefly a “gum boy” in a San Francisco envelope factory and, for more than a year, the operator of a Ludlow machine—a piece of printing-industry equipment—in a New Orleans stamp and stencil shop. On sojourns at day labor, I helped install posts for electrical lines, spray-painted headboards in a furniture factory, and hung spun glass insulation—without a safety mask—in office buildings under construction.

Day-labor jobs and their ambience suited me. Conditions weren’t often onerous and labor-management relations were as they should be. I didn’t have to intone, “Good morning! How are your kids?” Nobody asked me to attend departmental picnics, go to lunch with a supervisor, or contribute to the United Way.

On day-labor jobs, my superiors expected me to despise, even ridicule, them and their superiors. Sometimes they browbeat me and other casuals, but they didn’t persist, probably because they didn’t have to put up with us for more than a couple of days, maybe because they believed that we were carrying switchblade knives.

But if day labor was usually a pleasure, it was a puzzlement too. One of the lingering, troubling impressions that I carried away from sampling the world of labor was that in nonunion shops, American workers and their employers rarely engage in frank or open talk about labor-management affairs. Instead, workers deceive, and employers abuse, in silent and faceless ways.

For example, while I was working on a swing or evening shift in a printing plant, a couple of regular employees telephoned me two or three nights a week, asking me to punch their time cards for them; they didn’t present themselves for work until an hour or even ninety minutes later. They expected me to help them cheat the company, and of course, I did.

In the envelope plant where I worked, the banging, roar, and groaning of cutters, punches, and presses was overwhelming. Foremen and the plant superintendent, despite having offices in a glassed-in second-story space, were aware of the racket and the irritation it caused. Veteran workers prescribed a remedy—at least one beer every hour. Earplugs were almost unknown in those days, but the beer prescription worked: It turned the din into white noise, like the sound of a waterfall. Our superiors knew that we were drinking, but looked the other way, because on accounting books, beer paid for by workers was cheaper than insulating the plant at company expense. Nobody was ever fired for drinking except a shipping clerk who one night put a case of beer on his desk and ceremoniously got bombed while refusing to ship a single box.

For more than a week in the mid-nineties I worked a day-labor job at a plant that recycled telephone cables. In a building that I never saw, machines ground the cables to a pulp, then augured them through basins of water: The copper from the lines dropped out, while bits of wet plastic sheathing were augured through a long steel box, through the room where I worked and to a collection point outdoors. The augur made a ninety-degree bend on its way outside, and at the turn, it sometimes jammed. Engineers or workers at the plant had removed the cover on its steel box, about three feet on each side of the turn. My job was to stand at the bend with a stick, poking the plastic particles to keep them moving through the augur.

On my first afternoon, I realized that a safety engineer would consider my job unsafe: If I slipped while standing over the augur box, to brace my fall I might stick my hand inside the box—and lose it. After a couple of days, I telephoned the regional office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to inquire about the legality of that jury-rig. The agent on the other end of the line told me that “an open augur is always illegal,” but that if I filed a complaint, it would be six weeks before his office could inspect the workplace. I quit the job the following morning, not because I was afraid of the augur, but because I was assigned to the job alone. One of the pleasures of labor is the companionship of the work gang, but the augur job gave me solitude instead.

I didn’t always know what to think of the sneaking, cheating, and abuses that I saw, except that it would have been better if all of us, workers and bosses, had hashed things out in open discussion. I am still perplexed by a scene I witnessed at a chemical plant where I worked as a day laborer. An older man among the regular employees had gone blind a month or two before he would have vested in the company’s retirement plan. He and his coworkers decided to keep his sightlessness secret. They brought him to the plant each morning and briskly ushered him to the shed where the maintenance crew gathered. They’d then walk him to task after task on the plant grounds, handing him a shovel or rake or pick or hose, and tell him where he was and what he should pretend to be doing. One of his comrades usually stood near, to warn him if higher-ups were coming. Two or three times, lookout duty fell to me, and I, of course, felt honored to be his watchman.

When I began to toy with the idea of returning to “casual” labor with retirement in view, like any American with a computer and a library card, I tried to see if I could update my savvy by reading. Mostly, I drew blanks. No popular works about day-labor agencies are in print except for two, both from academic presses—and both about day labor in Tokyo! Government reports weren’t much help either. The most recent was a 2002 review from the General Accounting Office, which found that “little is actually known about who these day laborers are, what their working conditions are, or the extent to which protections afforded under federal wage and safety laws are enforced.”

Sociologists have published more than a dozen studies, but the most thorough of them focus on casual laborers who are undocumented immigrants, the kind of workers who stand on street corners or outside home improvement stores, who negotiate wages while standing at the windows of pickup trucks—and who face dangers and deceptions that no citizen would endure. A few scholarly studies review day labor in the context of homelessness or parole from prisons, both overlapping but distinct problems. Perhaps more important, all of the sociologists I read gathered their information from surveys and interviews. What they report is only as reliable as its self-interested sources.

The chief thing that I learned from the literature was that as few as eight hundred thousand and as many as two million workers, mostly men, show up at labor halls every day. I figured that despite my age, I could still slip into a crowd that big. After all, day labor is a very American occupation. Its workers are relatively nameless and rootless, and my observation has been that day to day, nothing—not climate, nor family, nor place, nor religion, nor ideology, nor fealty of any kind— really identifies or unites the disparate strands of our nation, nothing except work, pop culture, and pay. And in labor halls, nobody talks of anything else.

The work-centeredness of American life, however, as sociologists have for decades reported, is as much a social as an economic bond. Workers on any job form friendships, even if they hate their jobs and on paydays, despair. The upshot of this, for me, was that like it or not, if I returned to day-labor chores, I had to expect that I’d long for acceptance among my peers, and be judged by them. I wasn’t sure that I could make the grade.

One specter that gnawed at me was my lack of fitness, largely because the unwritten rule of blue-collar workplaces is “Carry your end of the load.” I have a touch of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, my reward for thirty-five years of three-pack-a-day smoking as a younger man. Under exertion I sometimes get winded and have to stop moving to catch my breath.

One Monday halfway through the first of my two summers of day-labor reprise, to my surprise I awoke with severe pain in my right knee. I was unable to walk without a cane. Promptly I consulted a series of orthopedists and therapists, whose consistent advice to me was, “You are an old man. You have arthritis. Get used to it.” Ultimately my general practitioner prescribed a nonnarcotic painkiller that, when taken in conjunction with a medication to prevent the painkiller from giving me an ulcer, allowed me to return to my feet. But every day afterward I feared drawing work assignments that I couldn’t perform.

My experience told me that if I refused or walked off a job, I probably wouldn’t be fired by a day-labor agency, not because any law truly shields the infirm, but because even the youngest muscle-workers have a hidden disability: if not lungs, then backs or shoulders or knees—or homelessness, or drug or alcohol dependency. One of the reasons that people turn to day-labor halls is that, for one reason or another, they’ve become unable to keep grueling forty-hour schedules.

Whether or not my coworkers would accept me with my frailties, I could not foresee. In my prior jobs as a blue-collar man, I had always been an outlier, a passerby, not an accepted member of a group. On the one job where I had remained long enough to be judged—at the New Orleans stamp and stencil shop—I’d failed the test. On my last day, before departing, without saying so for a white-collar debut, my foreman, Pete, who had barked at, but never really spoken to me, took the opportunity to say something. He told me what he really thought:

“Boy, there’s something wrong with you,” he’d spat. “You sit there at lunch, just reading, reading. I can see reading if you’ve got to figure out how to do something. But reading just to read, that don’t make no sense.”

With my retirement in view, I signed on at a labor hall despite old anxieties about my chances of social integration. I did not warn my new employers or my coworkers about my infirmities, nor did I tell them that I owned a car. Fortunately, nobody asked about my employment background. I rode to work on a bicycle, which, because the hall provided no place for locking it, I parked in a rack a few blocks away.

On my first day, I was dispatched to a job.

This volume is an account of what I saw, heard, and thought during my months as a temporary working stiff in an economy headed for decline.

© 2010 Dick J. Reavis



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